15 April 2013

Coconut oil - are you nuts?

Is coconut oil safe? What if something you believed to be true was incorrect? I love being constructively challenged, and recently have had a series of passionate people object to me stating in workshops that coconut oil is best avoided.

So I thought it best to go to the Oracle, the best informed expert on things fatty I know, my old friend and colleague Professor George Jelinek, author of Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis and Recovering from Multiple Sclerosis. George also has a terrific website: overcomingmultiplesclerosis.org

Also this week, more important meat research, along with news of the coming Melbourne workshops and an important message for those already booked for Meditation in the Desert, but first

Thought for the day
The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe.
We are like a little child entering a huge library  .....
The child knows that someone must have written those books.
It does not know who or how
                                        Albert Einstein: cited in The Next Thousand Years by A Berry

So here is George’s guest blog answering the question: Is coconut oil safe?

Bhoy oh Bhoy! Is coconut oil the next big thing?

I love Danny Bhoy. I saw his ‘Dear Epson...’ comedy show in Melbourne on Thursday. Danny Bhoy is endearing and very funny. But he is also perceptive. His show is about letters he has written to companies that have misled him with their claims.

Like Clinique with its ‘Aging Reversal Cream’ that he smothered on from head to toe trying to get back from his 39 years to being a teenager. The packet did say ‘clinically proven’ after all, and he was as excited as a puppy about being young again.

This led him to the story of one drunken night as a young man when he fell asleep (read lost consciousness) and woke to find his cat had peed on his head. Realising many years later that he had retained a full head of hair, he felt that is was evidently clinically proven that cat pee prevents baldness!

This started an old scientist in the audience, namely me, thinking about the latest claims for coconut oil, after reading a recent testimonial that said ‘Coconut oil assists with a whole host of ailments from parasites, atherosclerosis, cholesterol, HIV, digestive and nutrient absorption disorders to heart disease; you name it, it helps.’

I have to say when reading this I could not help but think of the cat pee. In medicine, we use a hierarchy of evidence to determine whether something works or not in disease in humans. Suffice to say, the reason there is a lot of debate about coconut oil is that there is not a lot of evidence; if there was, there would be no need for debate.

In the absence of high quality evidence from clinical trials, it is wise to look at the chemistry of what is going on when eating various fatty foods to see if there is a problem with coconut oil. Not widely known or acknowledged is that the major issue with dietary fats is their melting points.

Fatty acids are the building blocks of the membranes, or outer envelopes, of our bodily cells. The composition of our membranes mirrors exactly our dietary patterns of fatty acid intake. Saturated fats, mostly found in meat, typically have high melting points; this is easy to see when you put a chop on the barbecue and the fat only melts when the temperature is really high. When it cools down again, the fat is solid, white and sticky.

So if we eat principally saturated fats, our cell membranes end up hard and sticky. This is a real problem. Most common Western diseases reflect these hard, sticky, brittle properties of cell membranes; think clots in the heart, high blood pressure from hard arteries, strokes and deep venous thrombosis.

Unsaturated fats, including the monounsaturated fats like olive oil, and the polyunsaturated fats like fish and vegetable oils, have lower melting points. You can see that they are liquid at room temperature. Membranes containing these fats are soft, pliable and non-sticky; we know that populations where these fats predominate in the diet have low rates of the common Western diseases.

So the key issue is whether the melting point (MP) of the fat we eat is below that of body temperature (37C); if the MP is below 37C, the fatty acid will be liquid and behave that way in cell membranes. We also know that with saturated fats, the shorter the fatty acid chain, the lower the melting point.

Many who promote coconut oil say that it is composed primarily of medium-short-chain fatty acids, and thus has a totally different effect on the body from typical long chain fatty acids.

So what fats are in coconut oil? Well, we know that one third of raw coconut flesh is made of fat. That fat is 88.7% saturated fat. What are the components of that saturated fat? Well, lauric acid (12 carbon chain) makes up exactly 50%: it has a MP of 44.2C; myristic acid (14 carbon chain) makes up 20%: it has a MP of 53.9C; palmitic acid (16 carbon chain) makes up 10%: it has a MP of 63.1C (see www.netrition.com). Hmmm....

So is coconut oil safe? I guess I could use the logic of Danny Bhoy’s cat, and say that, having not eaten coconut products at all in the 14 years since my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), and having had no relapses or deterioration of any sort since, not eating coconut products is clinically proven to protect you from the effects of MS; or I could say that my reading of the scientific literature, which kept me away from these products, as well as other saturated fats, in the absence of better evidence provides enough rationale for me to avoid coconut and its oil. That, among many other health decisions I took, have combined to keep me well. Decide for yourself if you think taking coconut oil is worth the risk.

Many thanks George, I think I will stick to the flax seed oil along with some olive oil,; and I will continue to suggest avoiding coconut oil.

1. Meditation in the Desert – Who are you?
A couple of people have recently paid to attend this retreat by Bank transfer without leaving any details of who they are! If you have paid and received a receipt, no problem. If you have paid and not heard from us, we do not know who you are!! So please email Angela at info@insighthealth.com.au and make contact.

2. Melbourne Workshops approaching rapidly, booking soon recommended.

Saturday May 11th : Meditation and the Power of the Mind
Sunday May 12th : Living Well, Being Well

Bring the family, invite a friend or two, inform your colleagues!
Also, maybe you know someone living in Melbourne who would benefit/like to attend.
For full details and to book, LINK HERE

3. Interview with Verity James
Recently In Perth, I was interviewed as part of a fundraising event for the Cancer Support WA group and the WA launch of my new edition of You Can Conquer Cancer. Verity James is a well-known and much loved WA identity, having been a long-term presenter for ABC radio and contributing to many community events. I very much enjoyed interviews with her in days gone by, and for this event she conducted a lengthy interview/ conversation with me that some may find worth a listen. Click here.

4. Eating meat - more than a mouthful.
In the new edition of You Can Conquer Cancer, I point out that one reason meat consumption is not so healthy as plant based proteins is due to the metabolic products contained in meat and produced by the digestion of meat.

According to a recent study, people who eat meat produce more artery-clogging  by-products than people who follow vegan and vegetarian diets. Researchers followed 2,595 heart patients and categorized them as omnivores, vegans, or vegetarians and found that those who consumed the most carnitine, present in animal products, increased their risk for heart disease by producing more artery-clogging metabolites.

This study lends insight into other components of meat products, besides saturated fat and cholesterol, that may elevate the risk of heart disease.

Koeth RA, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. Published online April 7, 2013.


  1. I am interested in George's comment about melting opoint of coconut oil - I could not find a reference on netrition.com to 63.1C - all resources I have looked at say it is between 23-26c which is well below 37c. My experience with it in the house sees it become liquid at around 25c - thoughts?

    1. Yes the melting point of unrefined coconut oil is 24C.
      The explanation for this melting point of the oil is pretty simple. Coconut oil is a complex mixture of fats; while 88.7% is saturated fat, there are also mono- and poly-unsaturated fats in the oil, as with other oils. So the melting point of the oil depends on the relative proportions of the various fats making up the oil, and is lower than the individual melting points of the saturated fats referred to in the blog because of the lower melting points of some of the other shorter chain saturated fats, mono-unsaturated fats, and poly-unsaturated fats. However, coconut oil does not get absorbed whole, but rather as the individual fatty acids, and it is the melting point of each of those individual fatty acids that is the important factor when they are incorporated into cell membranes. By way of example, butter melts at 32-35C despite being composed of 63% saturated fats, most of them with melting points higher than body temperature, yet no-one would recommend it for good health.

    2. I always knew BUTTER was better than margarine.

  2. Sometimes we don't know what we don't know
    I think Mercola.com has alot of evidence for coconut oil
    worth looking at.

  3. And you can buy it off his website if you are impressed

  4. http://www.thewellnesswarrior.com.au/2012/06/why-coconut-oil-is-amazing/
    i guess Jessica isn't selling coconut oil :)

  5. ...find well researched information on the internet from David Wolfe about coconut oil.

    1. Apart from George, the other "Oracle" is Wiki. Now I know it varies in quality but it does gather lots of good stuff. It comments, I believe accurately in this case "Many health organizations advise against the consumption of high amounts of coconut oil due to its high levels of saturated fat."
      I have not eaten coconut oil for the past 30 years or more, and feel happy to continue to avoid it

  6. Thanks once again for the interesting article Ian. My partner and I had all but cut out red meat in our diet and followed a largely vegetarian diet, however my partner (male) became anaemic. He is also a regular blood donor. Any suggestions on maintaining his iron levels without resorting to meat? Warm regards, Lesley

    1. Low iron intake on a purely vegetarian diet is something to be on guard against. Obviously many vegetarians sort it out, but in the transition, even long term, an occasional iron supplement is a good idea. The best of these in my experience is Floradix - available from most Health Food stores and better chemists, and a combination of easily absorbed iron rich herbal extracts. Keep it in the fridge once opened.

  7. Not sure if this is the right place to ask you a question, Ian, but why flax seed oil and not fish oil? My understanding is that fish oil delivers Omega-3, DHA, EHA, etc., straight to the cells whereas plant based oils have to go through an extra step in order to be absorbed by the body.

    1. The extra metabolic step is true with flaxseed oil compared to fish oil, and it may be significant if you are in the process of changing over from a mostly saturated fat diet to a mostly unsaturated fat diet. Once that change over is complete, eg your body is mostly containing unsaturated fats, there is no longer an issue. In the change over process, eating lots of fish oil reduces the time form somewhere between 6-10 months , down to just a few.

    2. I am presently taking hemp oil as I understand it is helpful for stiff joints (I can't take fish oils). What do you think?

  8. Hello Ian, I am not understanding your info about flaxseed oil. Once you are on a vegan diet is flaxseed the oil to take all the time? Is it okay to eat soy products? Thanks Dy

    1. Yes, flaxseed is the best oil to use most of the time; olive is OK as well. Soy is OK for most people and there is more on this in You Can Conquer Cancer and other blog posts - use the search function and happy, healthy eating!

  9. Hello,
    I am reading the book 'Toxic Oil' by David Gillespie which I think must have created a lot of confusion as he basically is turning current recommendations on their head, and strongly advising against poly-unsaturated fats and claiming that in fact these fats are more dangerous than saturated fats.
    In addition, I have also observed this trend for coconut oil now being considered 'healthy' in some circles. Therefore, I was very interested to read Professor Jelinek's comments above regarding this oil. But, I'm also interested to hear any thoughts on David Gillespie's book and/or current thinking on the subject of his claims?

    1. Gillespie's suggestions fly in the face of all current reputable research as i read it, so i have to say I disagree with his point of view strongly. The evidence for saturated fats being harmful is more than compelling.

    2. Thank you for you comments. It does get confusing when you read conflicting claims/interpretations of the evidence.

  10. With blogs like this around I don't even need website anymore.
    I can just visit here and see all the latest happenings in the world.

  11. I appreciate the information regarding flaxseed and olive oils as preferred options to coconut oil - what is a recommended flaxseed oil and is this oil recommended for heating (ie cooking) in lieu of coconut oil

    Thank you


    1. Stoney Creek make excellent Flaxseed oil and it is not recommended to cook with any flaxseed oil - add it after the cooking
      happy days :)

  12. There is a lot of conflicting info. re coconut oil. I use a tablespoon in oat porridge in the morning and like it. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/defense-coconut-oil-rebuttal-usa-today

    1. Best to look at all the evidence objectively, then it is clear - better to avoid it...

    2. What is your take on coconut oil and its positive effects on Alzheimer´s?

  13. Skinny and Company also sent me a jar of the Oil Pulling Coconut Oil now our family uses it. Challenging to get onto the yanking bandwagon, it had been Skinny's oil enriched with peppermint that changed their heads. CBD Water

  14. The coconut palm tree is a remarkable and valuable plant. The coconut palm tree has probably a thousand uses. The nut of the coconut palm plant is used as a source of food to sustain life.coconut oil malaysia