Niki Bezzant: The good oil on coconuttiness

Coconut products aren't bad for you - but that doesn't make it a wonder food.
Coconut products aren't bad for you - but that doesn't make it a wonder food.

There has been an explosion of coconut products in the past couple of years: coconut water, coconut yoghurt, coconut sugar, coconut ice cream and coconut oil.

Coconut flavour is popping up in cereals, snack bars and cakes. It's a global trend. In the UK, coconut oil sales have increased by 112 per cent in the past year.

We only need to look at the supermarket shelves here to find a similar trend.

Many coconut-lovers choose coconut products for their purported health benefits. But it seems much of this is hype rather than substance.

The evidence for any benefit from coconut products is slim - far less than you might think from looking at the marketing messages.

Coconut sugar, for example, is promoted as containing more minerals and vitamins than other sugar. But you'd have to eat an awful lot - remember it's still sugar - to get worthwhile amounts of any mineral from it.

The fruit's water is a refreshing drink - especially sipped from the coconut on a tropical island - and some research suggests it may be useful as a sports drink alternative after exercise.

But it pays to check the labels for sugar content, which can vary widely.

The use of coconut oil is trendy and, based on social media alone, you might think it an elixir that can do everything from promoting weight loss to curing cancer.

But the marketing spin seems to be far in excess of the facts.

Nutritionist Tim Crowe wrote: "Coconut oil is a pin-up food to showcase the power of the internet to propagate any food to 'superfood' status." Coconut oil is around 90 per cent saturated fat.

Promoters say this is a type of saturated fat that doesn't have adverse effects, some even say it's beneficial.

A review published earlier this year looked at 21 studies on coconut oil and heart disease risk factors.

Researchers found, basically, that coconut oil is worse for heart health than other types of plant oils, but not as bad as butter.

But "less bad" does not equal "health food".

The researchers also made an important point about context.

In the traditional diets of populations who eat coconut flesh or squeezed coconut, coconut doesn't appear to have negative heart-health effects.

But because we don't live like those populations, we can't assume this is the same for us with our typical Western diets.

Just switching to coconut oil for cooking is unlikely to do your health any favours.

I like the taste of some products. A little coconut oil in Thai dishes is tasty and it's useful in raw sweets as a "binder" - it becomes solid at room temperature.

If you enjoy the taste the best idea is probably to use it moderately in the context of your healthy, plant-based diet - as you would with with butter.

And when you've had enough coconut, you heard it here first: food industry pundits are predicting the Next Big Thing will be cactus water.

- Herald on Sunday

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