The profile of coconut oil as an alternative to butter and vegetable oils has been revamped in recent years, touted as a health-boosting ingredient. However, its alleged benefits, for which health-conscious consumers have been enthusiastic, appears to be a myth.

The food industry has Increasingly used coconut oil as a superfood in processed food products such as bakery and cereals, confectionary and snacks. This is despite being more expensive than palm oil and rapeseed oil, which have similar high oxidative stability properties (higher resistance to spoiling).

According to a GlobalData 2017 survey in 2017Q1, 53% of consumers worldwide cited coconut oil as an ingredient with a positive impact on their health. This is down from the 58% of consumers in a 2015 survey. As consumers become more informed about the real impact of coconut oil on their health, this number is expected to decline significantly.

Accordingly, recent studies and warnings from health organisations and experts, suggesting limited-intake or even avoiding that ingredient in food products, will have a significant impact on food product recipes as consumers have become worried.

The hype of coconut oil as a superfood

Coconut oil has been claimed to induce weight loss, boost your metabolism and provide energy, lower cholesterol, and even treat digestive system diseases.

However, there is a large disconnection between consumer opinion and that of nutritionists. A 2017 survey of the American Heart Association (AHA) found that 72% of the American consumers cited coconut oil as a ‘healthy food’, compared with 37% of nutritionists. This is indicative of a marketing effort that has separated public opinion with health expert’s view.

The rumour behind the health benefits of coconut oil revolves around a saturated fat called lauric acid. This fatty acid belongs to the category of medium-chain triglycerides, which according to studies are metabolized more quickly than other fats, boosting energy instead of being accumulated as fat, and also appearing to increase good cholesterol. However, evidence of this are robust only in-vitro and the impact on weight-loss and good cholesterol observed in people consuming coconut oil against other oils has not been assessed in the long-term.

Indeed, the processing or refinement of coconut oil by food processors can destroy these potentially beneficial elements.

High-saturated fat content raises concerns

It is fact that the coconut oil is comprised of 99.9% fatty-acids, of which 80% to 90% is saturated fat. According to a consensus of health organisations, saturated fat is responsible for bad cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. Notably, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains 11.2g of saturated fat and 120 calories, having even higher fat content than butter (approximately 64% saturated fat).

What is more, part of the myth of coconut oil is the low heart disease rates in India and South-East Asia – where coconut oil is mainly produced – in spite of its high consumption. However, the large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns of people in these countries, compared to Western patterns could explain this. In other words, the impact of coconut oil may vary across different diets, and especially when the diet of South-east Asian populations is richer in fish, fruits, vegetables, and lower in saturated fats compared with Western diets.

In 2017, the American Heart Association officially recommended consumers stop using coconut oil for cooking. The British Nutrition Foundation had earlier suggested a limited and infrequent intake. The next step could be regulatory restrictions on its use by the food industry.

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