Tag Archives: coconut oil

Coconut oil actually threatens more species than palm oil, study shows

Coconut oil production could be more damaging for the environment than previously thought, worsening already-high extinction rates in tropical forests. According to a new study, coconut oil may actually be worse than palm oil, whose production is widely regarded as extremely harmful to the environment.

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Researchers from the University of Exeter found that coconuts affect 20 threatened species per million liters of oil produced, while palm oil only affects 3.8 species per million liters. Globally, coconut farms occupy 12.3 million hectares (30.4 million acres) of land, about two-thirds the area of oil palm plantations.

A growing number of consumers have put the spotlight on the environmental impact of vegetable oils, with palm oil being particularly damaging due to the amount of land needed to be cleared to make way for the crop. But consumers are less aware of the impact of farming coconuts, the study argued.

“The outcome of our study came as a surprise,” said lead author Erik Meijaard, of Borneo Futures in Brunei Darussalam. “Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment. As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut.”

Coconut is mainly grown by smallholder farmers on tropical islands in Indonesia and the Philippines, which have rich biodiversity and unique species, the study showed. On a global scale, coconut farms take much less space than other oil crops but affect more than 60 species in IUCN’s Red List.

Scientists believe coconut crops have driven many island species to extinction, including the Marianne white-eye in the Seychelles (Zosterops semiflavus) and the Ontong Java flying fox (Pteropus howensis) in the Solomon Islands, which hasn’t been seen for the last 42 years and is considered extinct.

While the study focuses on coconut, it highlights that other oil crops, such as olive, soy, and rapeseed, can also have serious environmental issues attached to them. For example, it references a piece in Nature that says high-powered machines used to harvest olives kill 2.6 million birds each year in Spanish Andalucía.

“The production of olive oil, however, rarely raises concerns among consumers and environmentalists,” the researchers wrote. “There are various perceptions at play — the olive oil industry benefits from the belief that it represents a sustainable practice with an extensive heritage and mythology, claims of health benefits and being locally based.”

The findings show how hard it can be for consumers to make environmentally conscientious spending choices. Many turn to dairy-free substitutes, such as coconut milk, with a greener environmental image. But without real guidance on the environmental impact of crops, it’s quite difficult to make an informed decision.

The palm oil industry is dealing with its environmental impacts with the help of initiatives, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. But there aren’t any similar initiatives for coconut oil production. The study focused on the biodiversity impact of vegetable oils and did not address the impact on greenhouse gases, which could be quite different for each source.

Coconut is a popular product on a global scale, mostly used for oil but also for copra, milk, and water. Its production affects a high number of species but the authors emphasize that the objective of the study is not to add coconut to the growing list of products that consumers should avoid.

“Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts,” said in a statement co-author Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.”

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

What are the healthiest oils to cook with? An explainer

The shelf of the cooking-oil section of supermarkets has recently become a crowded spot, with an abundance of options to choose from. But this means it can be tricky to know which is the healthiest one, starting from the healthful olive oil to the more controversial palm and grapeseed oils.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

To help select some of the healthiest, here’s a rundown of the most used ones across the world. Some oils have been well studied for their health benefits, while others have too little research from which to draw firm conclusions about their effects on heart health.

Since there are so many cooking oils across the world, it would be impossible to look at all of them, so we will only look at some of the most popular ones, seeing which are healthy and which not.

Olive oil

Used for cooking but also for soaps and fuel, olive oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Olive tree, a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. It is regarded as a healthful dietary oil because of its high content of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols.

Buying the right kind of olive oil is very important. Extra virgin olive oil retains some of the antioxidants and bioactive compounds from olives. For this reason, it’s considered healthier than the more refined variety of olive oil. Even so, there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market.

About 14% of the oil is saturated fat, whereas 11% is polyunsaturated, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.  But the predominant fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, making up 73% of the total oil content. Studies suggest that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.

Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K. But olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants are biologically active and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. They also fight inflammation and help protect blood cholesterol from oxidation — two benefits that may lower your risk of heart disease.

Extra-virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. The main anti-inflammatory effects are mediated by the antioxidants. Key among them is oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. Olive oil has also been found to be slightly better for the liver, in a recent study.

Sunflower oil 

Sunflower oil is a non-volatile oil that can be easily extracted from sunflowers. Although most people are already familiar with sunflowers, they don’t immediately think of sunflowers as sources of extremely healthy vegetable oil that can replace some of the less healthy cooking oils available on the market.

Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K, phytosterols, and monosaturated fatty acids. One of the primary reasons for its growing popularity is its impressive fatty acid content, which includes palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, lecithin, carotenoids, selenium, and linoleic acid. The combination of fatty acids in the body is extremely important to maintain various elements of human health.

At the same time, some of those fatty acids, as well as vitamin E and other organic compounds, act as antioxidants in sunflower oil, which means that they can positively affect a huge range of conditions that people regularly suffer from. It also has more polyunsaturated fats than any other commonly used vegetable oil.

Three common grades of sunflower oil are available, and each varies in its nutritional content. High-oleic oil is from sunflowers bred to have a high concentration of oleic acid in their seeds. Mid-oleic is the oil that’s used for stir-frying and in salad dressings, while linoleic is formed by more polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but is lacking in healthy omega-3s.

Coconut oil

Unlike other plant-based oils, coconut oil is primarily saturated fat. Not everyone agrees that such a concentrated source of saturated fat is a no-go for health, but some experts, including the American Heart Association, argue that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels and improve lipid profiles.

Made from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil has been promoted as a better alternative to butter. Nevertheless, there’s little scientific evidence of that. It is a white solid at room temperature with a consistency resembling that of butter or shortening rather than liquid oil.

Interestingly, however, a study comparing the use of coconut oil vs sunflower oil found no difference in the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors between the two oils.

Palm oil

Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. The main source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Its use in this region dates back more than 5,000 years. In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production. It is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health. It also has been linked to protection against heart disease, but with mixed results so far. Furthermore, although it is high in saturated fats, a Harvard study found that “Palm oil has been scientifically shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from plaques and ischemic injuries” and that “Palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as a part of a healthy balanced diet does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.” 

However, while palm oil doesn’t really deserve all the negative reputation it gets (here’s why), it shouldn’t really be your first choice against other vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature. Furthermore, because it is so cheap and robust, palm oil is used extensively in many processed foods, which should absolutely be avoided. The “healthy balanced diet” part in the above-mentioned study is a crucial aspect.

Furthermore, there are also several ethical issues regarding palm oil production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and communities. The increase in production due to the growing demand has led to the destruction of tropical forests and peatland in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. A recent study has also likened the palm oil industry lobby to that of the alcohol and tobacco industry due to its negative impact

Grapeseed oil

Grapeseed oil comes from the pressed seeds of grapes, making it a by-product of wine manufacturing. The health claims around it are based on its supposedly high amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats.

It’s very high in polyunsaturated fats, mainly omega-6. Scientists have speculated that a high intake of omega-6 fats, relative to omega-3s, may increase inflammation in the body. It also contains a significant amount of Vitamin E. However, calorie for calorie, it is not an impressive source of Vitamin E.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of grapeseed oil on human health. It is usually advertised as a good choice for high-heat cooking like frying. However, this may be bad advice, as grapeseed oil is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats tend to react with oxygen at high heat, forming harmful compounds.

Canola oil

Canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a flowering plant, and contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats and a decent amount of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be helpful for high-heat cooking.

That being said, in the United States, canola oil tends to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed canola oil is available, but it can be difficult to find. It is a versatile and practical cooking oil that’s not very expensive and can be used in a variety of ways.

Avocado oil

More expensive than other oils and harder to find, avocado oil has a mild flavor similar to avocado, and the oil can withstand high cooking temperatures, making it suitable for sautéing, grilling, roasting or using in salad dressings.

It is rich in monounsaturated fat and it has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils, second only to olive oil. Like olive oil, avocado oil is also low in polyunsaturated fats. Compared with other vegetable oils, avocado oil has a higher saturated fat content (20 percent), but this percentage is much smaller than the percentage of saturated fat in butter.

So, which should I use?

Sadly, this is not a straight forward answer. Each of the cooking oils has different characteristics, which will help decide which one to buy based on what and how you are cooking.

Overall, it is safe to say that olive and sunflower oil have science-proven benefits and perform somewhat better healthwise than most alternatives — but both have shortcomings. That can also apply to canola oil, but only the unprocessed one. Meanwhile, doubts remain regarding grapeseed, avocado and palm oils, with further research needed.

It’s important to note that the cooking method can also drastically influence the behavior of oils. Olive oil seems to be best-suited for uncooked foods (such as salads), closely followed by sunflower oil. Oils with high smoke points may be more stable than those with low smoke points, and one study found that again olive oil is possibly one of the most stable ones. However, olive oil does lose some of its edge when cooked at high temperatures.

At any rate, cooking oil should only be consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet, low in processed foods. Avoid deep frying whenever possible. Bon appétit!

 

Coconut oil may be a dangerous health fad, Harvard professor calls it ‘pure poison’

Credit: Pixabay.

During a 50-minute lecture held in Germany last month, which has since gone viral on YouTube, a Harvard professor bashed one of millennials’ favorite superfoods — coconut oil. The scientist argued that coconut oil, which is chock-full of saturated fats, is “one of the worst foods you can eat” and even went as far as calling it “pure poison”.

Karin Michels is the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg and a professor of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. For her lecture, the researcher spoke at length about the many health myths surrounding coconut oil and while it’s basically not healthy at all.

Last year, the American Heart Association (AHA) updated its dietary guidelines, recommending people that they stay away from saturated fats, such as those found abundantly in coconut oil.

It is true that coconut oil has some intriguing qualities that, at first glance, make it seem like it’s a healthy food. The oil is rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid that the body processes slightly differently than it does other saturated fats. Lauric acid is what helps coconut oil raise beneficial HDL cholesterol more than other fats do. However, there’s no evidence suggesting coconut oil lowers the risk of heart disease — on the contrary, it may contribute to heart disease given its saturated fat content.

In a 2016 review of 21 studies, most of which examined the effects of coconut oil or coconut products on cholesterol levels, the authors concluded that coconut oil raised total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated fats (i.e. olive oil), although not as much as butter did.

According to Michels, coconut oil is more dangerous than lard because it almost exclusively contains saturated fatty acids, the kind that can clog the coronary arteries.

The proponents of coconut oil often point to the healthy lifestyles of indigenous populations in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Polynesia, whose diets include large amounts of coconut. Their diet, however, also contains more fish, fruits, and vegetables than the typical American diet, which would make any direct comparison unfair.

It’s true that coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are the most healthy type of saturated fat. However, most of the commercially available oil has a 13 to 14 percent MCT content, which means you’d have to eat 150 grams, or 10 tablespoons, of coconut oil a day to reap the benefits. At this portion, any benefits could easily be negated by the adverse effects of ingesting so much saturated fat. Each tablespoon of coconut oil provides 130 calories.

In contrast, there are many studies showing that unsaturated fat, especially olive oil, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Indulging in a bit of coconut oil, of course, won’t kill you. It’s just that you have to be aware that most health claims about this food have been greatly exaggerated.

EDIT: The assertion that coconut oil can be likened to ‘poison’ or that it represents ‘one of the worst foods you can eat’ belongs to Karin Michels. ZME Science presented this as an individual opinion. We recommend following the scientific consensus and the recommendation of national and international public health organizations.

Simple way of cooking rice could halve its calories

I know, the title sounds like one of those scams that promise you’ll lose weight – but this is all science all the way. Researchers in Sri Lanka have found a simple way of cooking the rice that not only reduces calories by half, but also provides other health benefits. The key addition is coconut oil.

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Image via MorgueFile.

 

 

Rice is not only the fuel that powers millions of students around the world (alongside instant noodles), it’s a staple in numerous cuisines around the world. But as cheap and delicious as it is, there’s one major problem associated with rice – it’s not good for you. It’s not that it’s necessarily bad for you, but rice has many calories – according to Science Alert, one cup of cooked rice contains around 240 starchy calories – nasty carbohydrates that can quickly turn to fat if you don’t burn them off.

According to the researchers, all you need to do is add some coconut oil in the water you boil the rice in – some 3% of the rice quantity. So if you want to boil half a kg of rice (about 1 pound), all you need to do is add 15 grams of coconut oil (about one teaspoon).

Undergrad student Sudhair James conducted the research with his supervisor and presented the results at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society on Monday.

“After it was ready, we let it cool in the refrigerator for about 12 hours. That’s it,” James told Roberto A. Ferdman from The Washington Post. To eat it, you simply pop it in the microwave and, voila, you have a “fluffy white rice” that’s significantly better for you.

The process is extremely simply to make, but it actually involves some pretty interesting biochemistry. Rice contains a lot of starch; there are actually two main starches (polysaccharides): amylose and amylopectin. Amylose has a branched out structure and therefore has more surface area, which makes it easily digestible. But on the other hand, amylopectin is harder to digest; it passes through the large intestine, where they act like a fiber and provide numerous benefits. Most of the starchy foods contain these hard to digest starch, but when you cook them, they usually turn into more digestible versions of starch.

Image via Imgur.com

 

Sudhair wanted to investigate this issue and see how rice can be cooked so that it maintains the more healthy starch; he and his supervisor cooked it in 38 different ways, and they obtained the best results with coconut oil. A previous study also showed that letting pasta cool down before reheating it increased the content of resistant starch content, so they also tried that.

“Cooling for 12 hours will lead to formation of hydrogen bonds between the amylose molecules outside the rice grains which also turns it into a resistant starch,” explained James in a press release. And he notes that heating the rice back up afterwards doesn’t change the resistant starch levels.

If their results are confirmed by other studies, this might lead to a new generation of packaged rice – pre-cooked in coconut oil and then cooled down. But this might have even bigger implications – could this technique be applied to other foods? Could all our favorite starchy foods (like french fries or bread) become healthier? Could other substances (potentially cheaper and more accessible) be used instead of coconut oil? Those are the hot questions right now.

“It’s about more than rice,” Thavarajah said. “I mean, can we do the same thing for bread? That’s the real question here.”

As a rice fan, this is extremely exciting – and it could bring with it a major health and dietary revolution. I’m really looking forward to it.