In 1985, Sean Penn was known primarily for two distinctions. One was for being a man who had greatly overachieved in the martial department. The other was for being the impetuous type, a borderline lunatic who attacked photographers with rocks, fired at helicopters which transported them, and who dangled another from a ninth story balcony.
Penn hasn’t completely abandoned his Paparazzi pummeling, but he has four Academy Award nominations, one Oscar victory, and is solidly on the A list, up several letters from where he was 30 years ago. He has branched into directing well-received movies, scored an exclusive interview with the world’s most wanted man, and helped rescue Hurricane Katrina victims. He has achieved a level and breadth of success few would have predicted in the mid-80s.
Also greatly ascending in public image over this time has been coconut oil, which has undergone a transformation from culinary super villain to the latest alleged superfood. But whereas Penn improved his image by being a more willing interview, turning in a captivating performance in Mystic River, and spearheading Haiti earthquake relief, coconut oil is the same substance it was in 1987 when Penn spent a month in jail for punching an extra on set.
For years its bad reputation was because of its astronomical amount of saturated fat. The oil’s concentration of it is the highest of any food source. In the 1980s, this high content led some to blame coconut oil for heart attacks, so food companies replaced it with partially hydrogenated oils. But it turned out those oils contained trans fat, which became the next demonized food item people clamored to get rid of. So out went the hydrogenated oils, which were replaced, rather uncreatively, by coconut oil. Sort of like when 1962 New York Mets catcher Harry Chiti was traded for himself.
When this switch was made, coconut oil was just considered less awful that hydrogenated oil. But this morphed into it being healthy, which became medicinal, and today is considered a panacea in alternative medicine and anti-Big Pharma circles.
Different proponents credit it with promoting weight loss, preventing heart disease, and arresting diabetes, autism, and herpes. Further, it rejuvenates the skin, promotes oral health, and cures acne. Even this handful of miracles is paltry compared to the list of 101 super amazing stupendous wonderful functions it can serve, according to Joseph Mercola, Dr. Oz, and Wellness Mama.
In this blog’s tradition of soberness and stodginess, let’s take a more measured look at coconut oil. As to what it is, coconut oil is extracted from the edible white inside the fruit’s shell. With regard to its impact on health, saturated fats raise bad cholesterol levels, but depending on the food source, will have different cardiovascular effects. One of the benefits trumpeted by proponents is that coconut oil will reduce the risk of heart disease. But this is iffy at best. Coconut oil’s main saturated fatty acid is lauric acid and some research suggests this substance can raise both good and bad cholesterol. If that’s true, the net heart health benefit is no better than neutral.
Proponents point to populations in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Polynesia, all of whom consume copious coconut and who have relatively low incidences of heart conditions. But their diets also include more fish, fruits, and vegetables than most Americans, and genetics could be a factor. An analysis of 21 studies by Nutrition Reviews found no evidence that coconut oil reduces the risk of heart disease.
But even if that’s the case, proponents insist there would still be ample reason to keep consuming the oil. They describe it as a wonder substance that possesses antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties, and which can combat HIV, heartburn, and hemorrhoids. Mercola calls it the best cooking choice, compares it to a mother’s milk, and says it boosts immunity. We’ve been through this one before: It is not only impossible to boost a healthy person’s immunity, it is undesirable. An overactive immune system results in autoimmune disorders like lupus and arthritis. The latter is another of the ailments coconut oil allegedly alleviates, so this reminds me of comedian Steven Wright’s fantasy of putting a humidifier and dehumidifier in the same room and letting them fight it out.
Mercola’s partner in slime, Dr. Oz, credits coconut oil with vanquishing viruses, battling bacteria, boosting thyroid function, and writing your résumé. Not wanting to be left out of this hyperbole hoedown, Wellness Mama claims it treats sunburns, athlete’s foot, nasal allergies, insomnia, depression, cellulite, mosquito bites, and lice. To hear this trio tell it, we should all tear out our medicine cabinets and replace them with coconut stands.
Probably the most presumptuous claim is that massive doses of the oil can stop Alzheimer’s disease. This is based mostly on a writer’s anecdote that her afflicted husband could draw a clock better after ingesting large amounts of the super substance. She takes a swing at sounding science-y by proposing that medium-chain triglycerides in the oil boost the liver’s production of ketones, which are the byproducts of fat breakdown, and that this provides an energy source for brain cells to rejuvenate.
However, there are no published human studies to back such claims. It is unknown whether medium-chain triglycerides reduce Alzheimer’s effects. Even if they did, the component responsible for this would need to be isolated, extracted, tested in clinical trials, and dispensed in medicine form. The notion of getting this benefit through continual slurping of coconut oil seems very unlikely and certainly isn’t supported by research.
Harriett Hall, the SkepDoc, did a PubMed search for an Alzheimer’s-coconut oil connection, and found zero results. Meanwhile, Snopes reports there are no published studies confirming the oil has medicinal value.
There are a few studies that suggest coconut oil fats might lower blood glucose levels in some patients. Unfortunately, the more unscrupulous proponents will take this possible, limited benefit and turn it into a blaring headline about coconut oil curing diabetes and encourage readers to toss their insulin. I’m no Sean Penn, but that makes me want to punch somebody.