Know thy opposition: Virgin Coconut Oil vs Extra Virgin Olive Oiladmin | March 20, 2010
The last time I visited California I stopped by a Malibu supermarket. I was surprised to find a large number of coconut products prominently placed for sale. Coconut milk, cream and oil. But it was the way in which some were packaged that really got me thinking. Clearly Gen Y. But why would an oil that contains over 90% saturated fat be attractive to the health conscious gym junkie? A few weeks after returning to Australia, I received an email from Deborah Rogers of the Olive Press in Sonoma asking me if I knew anything about coconut oil. I think that all the hype surrounding VCO was getting to her as well. Well I have to admit that apart from knowing that coconut oil is a major and traditional source of energy for our South Pacific neighbors, I didn’t know that much about it, or indeed why it should be prominently placed in a Malibu deli.
I promised Deborah that I would look into it – in particular why, something that on face value looked as healthy as a double B full of gamma irradiated lard should be even remotely popular. But I felt it would best to share.
The Two Faces of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil comes in two types. Refined and unrefined the former is marketed as ‘coconut oil’ while the latter virgin coconut oil or VCO.
VCO is obtained from the fresh kernel of the coconut by mechanical or natural means and without undergoing chemical refining. The oil is obtained by a method called wet processing whereby coconut milk is pressed from fresh coconut. A component of the milk is called coconut cream then separates under the action of gravity and the oil is extracted from the cream by breaking the emulsion. Typically the emulsion is destabilised by either heating, chilling and thawing, fermentation using Lactobacillus sp. or enzymatic processes. VCO are typified by being almost colourless with some having a roasted, cooked, smoky or nutty aroma, sweet taste and nutty flavour.
However by volume, most coconut oil is refined. Refined coconut oil is typically made from the dried ‘meat of the coconut (called copra). The copra is ground and steamed, and then pressed either using a wedge, screw or hydraulic press to obtain a crude coconut oil. The crude oil is then bleached and deodorised. As with refined olive oil, refined coconut oil has no discernable aroma or flavour.
Virgin Coconut Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Compared – Antioxidants
Compared with extra virgin olive oil, VCO is relatively low in antioxidants. Tocopherol is only found in the thin brown layer that clings to the white coconut meat, called the testa. There isn’t much of it and it is removed before the oil is extracted, so only trace amounts of tocopherol is found in virgin coconut oil.
The total polyphenols level of virgin coconut oil is a meagre 20-25 mg/kg (Marina et al. 2008). Compare that with EVOO which has a basement level 4 times that, and peaking at over 50 times the level of VCO (Gawel and Rogers 2009). In addition, the polyphenols reported in VCO are your common garden variety type. protocatechuic, vanillic, caffeic, syringic, ferulic and p-coumaric acids. Ok they sound impressive, but there’s nothing there that your average glass of red or white wine wouldn’t give you times 10. I’m sure there are very small amounts of other polyphenols in VCO which haven’t been reported yet, but to date it really looks like a pretty plain sort of oil, at least polyphenols wise.
Virgin Coconut Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Compared – Saturated fat content
All of the common edible fats contain some saturated fat. EVOO contains around 10% saturated fat (the major fat being the monounsaturated oleic acid), while coconut oil contains a massive 90%. The figure below gives the average fatty acid profile of both oils.
So what is the big deal? Why does an oil with enormous amounts of saturated fats and hardly any polyphenols or vitamin E like tocopherol get so much recent attention?
There are a number of different types of saturated fatty acids. Most of them are pretty big molecules, consisting of chains of carbon atoms typically 16 to 18 long. These are called long chain fatty acids and are known to contribute significantly to coronary heart disease. The major ones are palmitic acid (16 long) which dominates that fat profile of palm oil (and fast food joints), and stearic acid (18 long) which dominates animal fats.
On the other hand, VCO is dominated by smaller saturated fats called lauric and myristic acid. At 12 and 14 carbons long (respectively) they make up around 45-55% and 16-21% of its total fat content (respectively). What oleic acid is to EVOO, lauric and myristic acid is to VCO. Some people have conveniently classed lauric and myristic acids as medium chain fatty acids (MCFA), but to be realistic, as far as MCFA’s go they’re a bit on the chunky side. MCFA’s are officially defined as having chain lengths of 6-10, so lauric and myristic acid sit a bit in no mans land, a bit long chain, a bit short chain….
Short Chain Saturated Fatty Acids – Reported Health Benefits
The classic MCFA’s are absorbed into the human body via a different mechanism than the longer chain saturated fats. They don’t need to hitch rides onto proteins like the long chain mob before they can be absorbed. They are transported directly to the liver while their longer chain counterparts are absorbed through the lymphatic system. This short-cut means that they get to where they need to go – express.
MCFA’s became uber-famous when it was reported that you could eat them and you could lose weight doing so! Yes, eat fat and lose weight. The perfect solution to the obesity problem in the developed world – including, no doubt, Malibu! The reason for this rather counter-intuitive situation has a lot to do with the fact that MCFA’s are absorbed in very different ways than conventional long chain fats. But as often is the case, the devil is the detail. Medium chain fatty acids DO increase fasting cholesterol and triglyceride levels when consumed in moderate to high amounts – just t like their long chain counterparts.
In their excellent but ‘not for the faint hearted’ technical review of MCFA’s Marten et al. (2010) stated that “the amount of MCFAs that can be tolerated within one meal is limited to 25–30 g. Ingestion of larger amounts of MCFAs causes adverse gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, bloating, gastrointestinal discomfort, abdominal cramps, and osmotic diarrhoea.” OK, they were referring to the 6-10 chain length group of MCFA’s. Whether the dominant saturated 14C fatty acid in coconut oil has the same effect is unknown. Maybe, lauric acid doesn’t upset your tummy, but then again maybe it doesn’t confer the same health benefits either.
At 175-180C, VCO has a lower smoke point than good extra virgin olive oil. The lower smoke point of VCO results from the dominance of short chained fatty acids. When oils smoke, it’s not the intact fats that are doing the smoking. They’re relatively heat stable. It’s the free fatty acids which are found in all virgin oils that smoke first. As a general rule, free fatty acids with a shorter chain length start to smoke at a lower temperature. Refined coconut oil on the other hand has a higher smoke point which is comparable to that of other refined oils (as all the free fatty acids are removed by refining).
I’m going with the flow
Personally speaking I’d prefer a bit of traditional mono stuff that you find in EVOO. No subtle coconut flavour, or bugger all polyphenols. And no guess work on whether or how good it is for you. I’d prefer the gorgeous olive flavour that lifts food to new heights- and the simpler the food, the greater the lift. (But you can stick the zillion mg/kg polyphenol EVOO into a Suisse horse tablet for the stressed exec. It tastes better that way anyway).