Marketing Junk Food: Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil

Marketing Junk Food: Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil

Greetings Everyone!

 

In the last newsletter, we looked at a food that, in spite of being fairly nutrient dense, is regarded by many as a “junk food” of little (if any) value. This food is iceberg lettuce.

 

This week, we are going to look at a food that, in spite of having no nutritional value, is regarded by many as a health food. This food is coconut oil.

 

It seems as if everywhere I go, everyone I talk to is either already consuming coconut oil, or intending to because they have heard about the remarkable health benefits of coconut oil. It is also the topic of many questions I get both from clients and audiences. A quick Google search for “health benefits” and “coconut oil” returns over 100K hits.

 

Is all of this really true? Is coconut oil a health food? Is it a highly nutritious food?

 

This week, let’s take a closer look at these claims and see if any of them are actually true.

 

Marketing Junk Food: Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil

 

As we learned last week, the best way to analyze a food is by nutrient density.

 

(As a reminder before we go any further, and because this is so key to understanding these issues, let us first review the basic principles of nutrient density).

 

Nutrient density is defined as a ratio of nutrient content (in grams) to the total energy content (in calories). According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, nutrient-dense foods are those foods that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories.

 

The formula would look like this: ND = N/C

 

ND= Nutrient Density

N= Nutrient Content

C-=Calories

 

The nutrient density of any food can be calculated for a single nutrient (i.e., calcium) or for the overall nutrient density. I prefer to look at the overall nutrient density of a food as this gives us a better picture of how well a foods overall nutrient composition meets the nutrient requirements of the human body. By defining nutrient density this way, a nutrient-dense food is a food that delivers a complete nutritional package.

 

Lets look at the nutrient density of coconut oil and compare it to a food that is well known and accepted to be a junk food, sugar. In fact, when I ask audiences to name a junk food, sugar is almost always the most common answer. We could even say that sugar is the epitome of a junk food and the reason is because sugar supplies nothing but empty calories, which are calories without any nutrients (essential amino acids, essential fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.).

 

So, when we look at coconut oil, regardless of the marketing of coconut oil and the claims made for it, if the nutrient numbers in coconut oil are worse then sugar, then clearly, coconut oil is nothing more than a cleverly marketed junk food. The numbers don’t lie.

 

To make the comparison easy and equal, I will compare the nutrients in terms of 100 calories of each. I will list each of the common nutrients and below it, will record the value for sugar (SUGR) and then the value for coconut oil (COCO), respectively. For the record, 100 calories of coconut oil is 2.58 tsps. and 100 calories of sugar is 6.15 tsps.

 

In addition, I will list what percentage of the Dietary Reference Intakes/Recommended Dietary Allowance (DRI/RDA) that equals. For some nutrients the DRI/RDA varies depending on gender and age. When this is the case, I will just use the higher value to make things easier on me (and tougher on the comparison.)

 

Here is an example of the model we will use.

 

Nutrient (DRI/RDA)

SUGR = Nutrient Amount In Sugar (% DRI/RDA)

COCO = Nutrient Amount in Coconut Oil (% DRI/RDA)

 

Let’s begin! 🙂

 

Protein (56 grams)

SUGR: 0 grams (0%)

COCO: 0 grams (0%)

 

Carbohydrate (130 grams**)

SUGR: 26 grams (0%)

COCO: 0 grams (0%)

 

(** NOTE: The 130 grams has been recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies, in their Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Macronutrients, 2004, as the minimum amount of carbohydrate needed for proper brain function.)

 

Fat

SUGAR: 0 grams

COCO: 11.6 grams

 

Fiber (38 grams)

SUGR: 0 grams (0%)

COCO: 0 grams (0%)

 

Vitamin A (3000 IU)

SUGR: 0 IU (0%)

COCO: 0 IU (0%)

 

Folate (400 mcg)

SUGR: 0 mcg (0%)

COCO: 0 mcg (0%)

 

Vitamin B1 (1.2 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin B2 (1.3 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin B3 (16 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin B5 (5 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin B6 (1.7 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin C (90 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin E (15 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Vitamin K (120 mcg)

SUGR: 0 mcg (0%)

COCO: .1mcg (< .1%)

 

Calcium (1200 mgs)

SUGR: .3 mg (< .03 %)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Copper (.9 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Iron (18)

SUGR: 0 mgs (0%)

COCO: 0 mgs (0%)

 

Magnesium (420)

SUGR: 0 mgs (0%)

COCO: 0 mgs (0%)

 

Manganese (2.3 mgs)

SUGR: 0 mgs (0%)

COCO: 0 mgs (0%)

 

Phosphorus (700 mg)

SUGR: 0 mgs (0%)

COCO: 0 mgs (0%)

 

Potassium (4700 mg)

SUGR: .5 mgs (< .01%)

COCO: 0 mgs (0%)

 

Selenium (55 mcg)

SUGR: .2 mcg (.4%)

COCO: 0 mcg (0%)

 

Zinc (11 mg)

SUGR: 0 mg (0%)

COCO: 0 mg (0%)

 

Saurated Fat (< 5 – 7% of Calories***)

SUGR: 0 gm (0%)

COCO: 10 gm (0%)

 

(***NOTE: The American Heart Association recommends we limit the amount of saturated fat in our diets to less than 7% of calories. I believe, based on long-lived populations and other published data, that less than 5% is a better goal. On a 2000 calorie diet, 7% is equal to 15.5 grams and 5% is equal to 11.1 grams. Just three tsps of coconut oil contain 11.8 grams of saturated fat which exceeds the 5% goal, and just 4 tsps of coconut oil contain 15.6 grams of saturated fat which exceeds the more liberal 7% goal).

 

Omega 3 (1.6 mg)

SUGR: 0 gm (0%)

COCO: 0 gm (0%)

 

Omega 6

SUGR: 0 gm

COCO: .2 gm

 

There are the numbers. Not only are they numbers eye-opening and enlightening, we can learn several things from them.

 

First, as we can see, sugar is truly a junk food. Outside of the calories, sugar contains virtually no protein, vitamins or minerals, fiber, or essential fats. It does however, supply some carbohydrates, which are needed for energy and brain functioning.

 

Second, for the same calories as sugar, coconut oil supplies as little or less than most every vitamin and mineral, basically making no nutritional contribution to your health.

 

Third, just 100 calories (3 tsps.) of coconut oil has enough saturated fat (basically the only nutrient in it), by itself, to surpass the limit recommended by my guidelines and just 4 tsps. (which is 155 calories) surpasses the limit recommended by the American Heart Association.

 

So, if coconut oil supplies no protein, no carbohydrates, no vitamins, no minerals, no essential fats, and no fiber, then what exactly makes it a health food? What exactly is it contributing to your health?

 

Nothing.

 

Well, nothing but saturated fat, that is. And that, as we will now see, is not a good thing.

 

A study in 2001 compared death rates between Hong Kong and Singapore (1). The reason is, while the majority of inhabitants in Hong Kong and Singapore are both ethnic Chinese, the all-cause and cardiovascular death rates in these two regions are very different. The study looked at the differences in these death rates and the role nutrition plays in explaining these differences. They found:

 

“The most pronounced finding was that ischemic heart disease mortality in 1993-1995 was 2.98 and 3.14 times higher in Singapore than in Hong Kong in men and women, respectively.”

 

“These differences can be most reasonably and plausibly explained by their differences in dietary habits, for example, a higher consumption of coconut and palm oil, mainly containing saturated fat, in Singapore.”

 

In addition, another recent study looked at the effects of even just one high fat meal, where the fat came from coconut oil, on HDL, inflammation, and blood flow (2). Subjects were fed a meal high in fat from coconut oil and the effects were evaluated at 3 and 6 hours after the meal. The meal containing coconut oil impaired the anti-inflammatory action of HDL at both 3 and 6 hours. In addition, blood flow was significantly reduced 3 hours after the meal containing coconut oil and remained slightly reduced at 6 hours.

 

Now, you may have heard that coconut oil has a “special” type of fat that is not harmful. However, once again, we will see that while this has some basis in truth, these claims are not only false, but the opposite of the truth.

 

It is true that a small portion of the fatty acids in coconut oil are what are called “medium chain triglycerides” (MCT) and these fats do get oxidized more quickly and appear slightly less fattening than other longer chain fatty acids. They also appear to have less impact on LDL levels.

 

However, while this is all true, it is basically IRRELEVANT to you and your health. These medium chain triglycerides only make up a small part of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil. And, because these MCTs are used in the medical and cosmetic industry, they are often removed from coconut oil which leaves an even higher concentration of the other harmful fatty acids that do raise LDL. The reason these MCTs are used in the medical and cosmetic industry because at least one of them (lauric acid) is known to have anti-microbial properties (3).

 

In addition, you may have read on the internet that the traditional Polynesian diet contained lots of coconut, and that they had low rates of heart disease. It is true that some studies of people on traditional Polynesian diets have found that they have relatively low rates from heart disease in spite of their high intake of coconut and their higher levels of blood cholesterol (4).

 

But, once again, that is only part of the picture as there are many other aspects of the native Polynesian diet and lifestyle that were very healthy and helped counteract the negative effects of the coconut. The traditional Polynesian diet is very high in fiber from locally grown fresh fruits, veggies and root vegetables, high in the protective plant sterols, high in the protective omega 3 fats, and very low in sodium. In addition, since their main source of calories and fat was coconut, in spite of the coconuts high saturated fat intake, they also had a very low intake of dietary cholesterol as coconuts are devoid of dietary cholesterol.

 

They were also very physically active and tended to not smoke. Few, if any, were overweight or obese, or had diabetes or high blood pressure. So, in the big picture, they may have had fewer deaths from heart disease but this was mainly because they had only one risk factor, a higher blood cholesterol level which was likely a result of their higher intake of saturated fat from coconuts.

 

Well, here you have it:

 

1) Coconut oil has virtually NO nutritional value. It has not protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, or fiber.

 

2) Like all oils, coconut oil is pure fat. Of the fat in coconut oil, over 90% is saturated fat.

 

3) All oils, including coconut oil, are the most calorie dense food on the planet.

 

4) While there may be a rare example of some healthy and fit native population that managed to be healthy in spite of their consumption of coconut, this does not make coconut oil into a health food, or a food that Americans should consume with complete abandon as part of their already unhealthy American lifestyles. The coconuts may have been the only risk factor in the otherwise healthy lifestyle of these native populations. However, recent studies have shown the harmful effects of even one high fat meal when the fat comes from coconut oil.

 

5) While it is true that coconut oil may have some antimicrobial properties, this is not why we consume food, especially one that has so many other negative aspects to it. Remember, our main nutritional and health problems are not bacteria, microbes and infections, but being overfed and undernourished with too many calories and too few nutrients and the resulting weight and lifestyle related diseases. Coconut oil, which is extremely high in calories and void of any nutrients, only makes this already unhealthy situation worse.

 

6) You are welcome to add all the coconut and/or coconut oil you would like to you diet, on one condition; you keep the total amount of saturated fat in your diet below 7% of your total calories (with below 5% being optimal). 🙂

 

Bottom line?

 

Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil!

 

Have another great week, and remember…

 

Your Health Is Still Your Greatest Wealth!

 

In Health,

Jeff

 

1) Differences in all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality between Hong Kong and Singapore: role of nutrition. Eur J Epidemiol. 2001;17(5):469-77

 

2) Consumption of Saturated Fat Impairs the Anti-Inflammatory Properties of High-Density Lipoproteins and Endothelial Function J Am Coll Cardiol, 2006; 48:715-720.

 

3) Pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses of palm and lauric products. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. Volume 62, Number 2 / February, 1985

 

4) Cholesterol, coconuts, and diet on Polynesian atolls: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau Island studies. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 34: 1552-1561, 1981.

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