The Sunday Leader

Coconut Oil Vs. Olive Oil

By Dr. Harold Gunatillake, FRCS - Health Writer

When you consider the healthiest cooking oils for human consumption there are only four popular oils that come into one’s mind; olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil and peanut oil. The other oils are as important and have a place in the armamentarium on the shelves of the kitchen, or to be precise in the refrigerator where all oils should be stored. (If there is insufficient space in your fridge, store them in a cool, dark kitchen cupboard).
Olive oil is produced for local consumption and export more in the affluent countries where the greatest exponents of monounsaturated fat-olive oil is used as in the Mediterranean Diet, and the popularity is over-blown compared with the much maligned coconut oil that has not been  popularised or promoted in Sri Lanka, or in Western countries, having taken a lazy stance due to a lack of promotional guidance. Olive oil is a natural juice like coconut oil which preserves the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit. The oil is freshly pressed from the fruit unlike coconut oil obtained mostly from the dried meat (copra) except virgin coconut oil from the fresh kernel (meat).

Today, those Mediterranean countries cannot cope with the world demand for olive oil, while in Sri Lanka production is so low that the nuts are being imported from neighboring countries. Our coconuts are also getting smaller in size compared to those produced in countries like India and Philippines, may be, presently due to improper fertilizing knowledge.

Why do the What’s For Dinner? recipes use olive oil almost exclusively in the culinary world? Well there are several reasons. Substituting olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, for saturated fats or polyunsaturated fats can:

•         Reduce blood pressure
•         Inhibit the growth of some cancers
•         Benefit people at risk for or with diabetes
•         Lessen the severity of asthma and arthritis
•         Actually help your body maintain a lower weight (not true)

Olive oil is rich in heart friendly monounsaturated fat and antioxidants like chlorophyll, carotenoids and vitamin E. Scientists have identified a compound in olive oil called oleuropein which prevents the LDL cholesterol from oxidizing. It is the oxidized LDL cholesterol that sticks to the walls of the arteries and form plaque. This plaque narrows the blood vessels (coronary) and increase the work load of the heart in an effort to get oxygenated blood to the entire body.

Emphasis being a Monounsaturated Fat

When you consider heart healthy monounsaturated fat you would place olive oil on top of the ladder. Being mainly a monounsaturated oil (fatty acids), its high content of anti-oxidative substances, and the low incidence of chronic diseases including heart disease among the people in the Mediterranean belt, this oil is boasted as the best ‘health oil.’ Coconut oil being a saturated oil has been condemned as unhealthy for human consumption (except usage in cosmetics and soap), since the early 1950s due to bad publicity it received in U.S. where coconut is not grown. Furthermore, olive oil is very well tolerated by the stomach. In fact, olive oil’s protective function has a beneficial effect on ulcers and gastritis. Olive oil activates the secretion of bile and pancreatic hormones much more naturally than prescribed drugs.  Consequently, it lowers the incidence of gallstone formation.

Health benefits of coconut oil

The health benefits of coconut oil are far more in helping keep a healthier gut, including prevention of gallstone formation, pancreatic disease and liver disease than olive oil, due to the antimicrobial benefits in the oil.
Olive oil does give protection against heart disease by controlling LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while raising the HDL ( the “good”) cholesterol levels. This is attributed to the large concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids. Coconut oil is saturated oil and the fatty acids are short and medium chained and the liver seems to utilise for energy without converting to good or bad cholesterol. So, it is to be assumed that coconut oil is as good or even better as it does not contribute to heart disease at all.

Short and medium chain fatty acids in coconut

Though  mono-unsaturated oil in olive oil is popularly considered as the healthiest oil, there is no emphasis made on the more important rich in medium and short chain fatty acids contained in coconut oil which have many more properties more than health alone. Further, these fatty acids contain more than 50 percent of Lauric acid, which is a monoglyceride (fats stored in the body as triglycerides). Lauric acid has been recognised for its unique properties in foods which are related to its antibacterial, antiviral and anti-protozoal functions.

Mary G. Enig Ph.D, President of the Asian Pacific Coconut Community, states that coconut plays a unique role in the diets of mankind because they are the source of important physiologically functional components. These physiologically functional components are found in the fat part of whole coconut, in the fat part of desiccated coconut, and in the extracted coconut oil. Lauric acid, the major fatty acid from the fat of the coconut, has long been recognised for the unique properties that it lends to non food uses in the soap and cosmetics industries. More recently, lauric acid has been recognised for its unique properties in food use, which are related to its antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal functions. Now, capric acid, another of coconut’s fatty acids has been added to the list of coconut’s antimicrobial components. These fatty acids are found in the largest amounts only in traditional lauric fats, especially from coconut.

Also, recently published research has shown that natural coconut fat in the diet leads to a normalisation of body lipids, protects against alcohol damage to the liver, and improves the immune system’s anti-inflammatory response. Clearly, there has been increasing recognition of health- supporting functions of the fatty acids found in coconut. Recent reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about required labeling of the trans fatty acids will put coconut oil in a more competitive position and may help return to its use by the baking and snack food industry where it has continued to be recognised for its functionality. Now it can be recognised for another kind of functionality: the improvement of the health of mankind.

So now it is fairly clear that coconut is a far more  beneficial fruit for the health of mankind than olive fruit, when the oils are compared. There are thoughts among researchers who now consider coconut oil be used to both prevent and treat coronary heart disease. These thoughts are based on several reviews of the scientific literature concerning the feeding of coconut oil to humans. Blackburn et al (1988) have reviewed the published literature of “coconut oil’s effect on serum cholesterol and atherogenesis” and have concluded that when “…(coconut oil is) fed physiologically with other fats or adequately supplemented with linoleic acid, coconut oil is a neutral fat in terms of atherogenicity (hardening of arteries with plaque formation).”

Benefits of lauric acid and capric acid

Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat, as mentioned earlier are lauric acid. It is converted into monolaurin in the liver. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human to destroy lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes and helcobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia.
Also, approximately 6-7% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are capric acid. It is also another monoglyceride having short and medium chained fatty acids having similar properties like lauric acid.

Conversion into trans fat

All unsaturated fats are unstable, and when used in cooking for long periods get hydrogenated and turns into transfat. They should never be repeatedly used as the amount of trans fat conversion increases with repeated heating. Beware of the smoking point of these oils when the conversion to trans fat is expedited.
On the other hand coconut oil being a stable saturated fat with a very high smoking point cannot be converted into a trans fat on prolong heating even at high oven temperatures used in the biscuit industry. Coconut oil, furthermore, can be repeatedly utilised in cooking with no trans fat conversions. So it is considered as the safest and healthiest oil for mankind.


Comparative health benefits of coconut oil and olive oil are discussed and we in the tropics are blessed beyond doubt with the best oil for cooking, health and longevity, i.e. coconut oil.

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