This article was first published in the May 8, 2012 issue of Health Post, a weekly health section in the South China Morning Post published every Tuesday.


Coconut water and oil are the new health food darlings. But with little research to back up their claimed benefits, consume with caution, writes Jeanette Wang

Call it the Swiss Army knife of the plant kingdom. The coconut is a good source of calories and potable fluid, has fibre that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that fuels fires. The whole nut can even act as a floatation device.

A favourite among seafarers since ancient times, the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera is being embraced by the health-conscious for two reasons: virgin coconut oil and coconut water. The former is said to do many things from boosting immunity to balancing hormones, while the latter is touted as a low-calorie beverage that hydrates better than sports drinks.

In Hong Kong, these products are appearing on supermarket shelves along with foods that were previously perceived to be healthier, such as extra virgin olive oil and Gatorade.

“We were the first to bring virgin coconut oil into the Hong Kong market in 2006,” says Denise Tam, product specialist at Jireh International Health, a health food importer in Aberdeen.

“It was not only unknown, but frowned upon at that time. But with education, Hong Kong finally caught on to the wonder of the coconut. We have seen a great increase in demand and awareness of this oil, especially in the past two years.”

Coconut oil had been demonised in the past by nutrition experts for its mega-dose of saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol, clogs arteries and causes heart attacks. After a study in 1994, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in the US warned consumers to avoid cinema popcorn – which, because it’s popped in coconut oil, contains as much saturated fat as six Big Macs.

So, what has sparked the oil’s transformation from nutritional pariah to health food darling?

Most studies involving coconut oil have been done with the partially hydrogenated version, according to Tom Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is different.

“Not all coconut oil is created equal,” says Benita Perch, a naturopathic physician with the Integrated Medicine Institute in Central. The most prevalent coconut oil is produced from dried coconut meat, says Perch, who has a degree in nutrition.

It’s refined, bleached and deodorised make it suitable for use. Sometimes, the coconut oil is hydrogenated, a process that keeps vegetable oil from rapidly going rancid, making it easier and more profitable to store and sell.

But hydrogenation creates the trans fats that are linked with heart disease. It also destroys many good essential fatty acids and other positive components in the oil.

“[Virgin coconut oil is produced] with the least amount of processing, so that the natural vitamin E, antioxidants and fresh coconut ‘essence’ are retained,” says Perch. “Fresh coconut meat is grated and expeller pressed to produce coconut milk. The coconut milk is then centrifuged using a proprietary process to separate the oil from the other components. This oil has a very light texture, and since no heat is applied, it retains all the flavour and scent of fresh coconut.”

Virgin coconut oil still contains naturally saturated fats – about 92 per cent compared with 64 per cent in butter. But recent studies question whether these fats are as bad as previously thought.

A series of articles published in the October 2010 issue of Lipids revealed recent advances in saturated fat and health research.

“Although diets inordinately high in fat and saturated fat are associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk in some individuals, assuming that saturated fat at any intake level is harmful is an oversimplification and not supported by scientific evidence,” says researcher J. Bruce German, professor and chemist in the department of food science and technology, University of California at Davis.

The main saturated fat in virgin coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid. According to Dr Melina Jampolis, a physician who specialises in nutrition, medium-chain fatty acids are quickly metabolised by the liver, so are less likely to be stored as body fat.

Perch says virgin coconut oil can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and other ageing-related conditions. It helps prevent bacterial, viral and fungal infections due to its lauric and capric acid content; it boosts the immune system; helps with weight loss; and improves digestion and absorption of nutrients from food.

Virgin coconut oil can replace butter and any type of vegetable oil in cooking. “There’s a distinct coconut fragrance when you pour the oil into the pan, but the smell doesn’t stay on the food, so the food still tastes the way it should,” says Esther Tan, 30, a copywriter who cooks with the oil. “It’s a safer oil for high-temperature cooking.”

Vegans, particularly, appreciate the oil as it’s a vegetable fat that solidifies at about 25 degrees Celsius – and so can create flaky or crumbly pastry and fluffy icing. It’s also ideal as a spread, mixing into rice, or simply eating straight off a spoon.

Used topically, the oil is said to keep skin smooth and soft, help prevent acne, ageing and wrinkles, and treat damaged hair.

“I’ve been using virgin coconut oil for my cooking, baking, hair treatment, massage, mosquito bite relief, and the list goes on,” says Jireh’s Tam. “It’s a miracle oil.”

But while research is still scant, it’s perhaps prudent to stick to what dietitians recommend. Limit daily saturated fat intake to 10 per cent of total calories. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 20 grams (each gram of fat has nine calories).

The same goes for coconut water. Despite the marketing and hype, there is no evidence to support claims that it rehydrates better than sports drinks, says Dr Jason Lee Kai-wei, defence scientist at Singapore’s DSO National Laboratories and an adjunct assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Medicine. ” Coconut water has a huge amount of potassium but lower sodium content than typical sports drinks. Evidence suggests its efficacy in rehydration is similar.”

University of Memphis researchers put 12 exercise-trained men through 60 minutes of treadmill exercise on four occasions, each workout separated by at least five days. After each session, the men randomly received either bottled water, pure coconut water, coconut water from concentrate, or a sports drink.

All tested beverages were found capable of promoting rehydration and supporting subsequent exercise. Little difference was noted between the four tested conditions with regard to markers of hydration or exercise performance in the men.

Still, coconut water is a booming business. According to research group New Nutrition Business, the market for the beverage grew 100 per cent last year, taking the combined retail sales value of the US and European markets to more than US$265 million. It is expected to grow about 50 per cent this year.

The advantage of coconut water, according to the group’s research report, is that it connects to consumers’ desire for naturalness – the biggest trend in the food and beverage business worldwide.

“It’s also been successful because it’s been marketed successfully,” says Jason Ing, co-founder of Hong Kong-based Jax Coco. Its coconut water will hit stores in a few months’ time – in special glass bottles.

Morton Satin, who invented the coconut water bottling process that was patented in 2000 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, calls the drink “the fluid of life”. Because coconut water contains the same five electrolytes found in human blood, it was used – siphoned directly from the nut – to give emergency plasma transfusions to wounded soldiers in the Pacific during the second world war.

Two of the electrolytes, potassium and sodium, are the key ones lost through sweat during exercise, which is why coconut water is a hit with fitness buffs. Coconut water contains up to 15 times more potassium, but much less sodium, than the average sports drink. For example, a 250ml serving of Vita Coco coconut water – the brand used in the University of Memphis study – contains 515mg of potassium and 30mg of sodium; 250ml of Gatorade has 31mg of potassium and 115mg sodium.

“It’s the perfect sports drink,” says former world champion triathlete Peter Robertson, 36, who’s been using coconut water for years.

A 2009 study by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found the water contains cytokinins, which have shown effects against ageing and cancer.

So coconut water and virgin coconut oil do seem to have a lot going for them – but so did other health food trends that have come and gone. Consume in moderation and with caution.