Is coconut oil all it's cracked up to be?
Consumer NZ is muscling in on the coconut oil debate, saying some of the claims made for it don't stack up.
When it comes to 'it' foods, coconut oil is the hippest thing on the block at the moment, with converts touting its heart benefits, weight loss benefits and even its dental health benefits.
But in a recently published article, Consumer takes a closer look, concluding that coconut oil's high saturated-fat content should preclude it from making health claims.
"We think some claims being made for coconut oil don't stack up. If companies can't provide evidence for their claims, these should be removed from packaging and from all marketing material," says the article.
The consumer watchdog says it has passed its concerns on to the Ministry for Primary Industries, responsible for enforcing new food standards under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code in New Zealand.
Consumer added in its report, "It's fine to use coconut oil occasionally, especially if you like the flavour. But evidence suggests it's better to stick with healthier fats from plants, seafood, nuts and seeds."
This advice follows a similar call from the New Zealand Heart Foundation who last October advised Kiwis to continue using unsaturated plant oils rather than switching to coconut oil as their main cooking oil.
It made its recommendation after Dr Laurence Eyres, a New Zealand specialist in oils and fats, examined the existing literature and found "nothing which disputes the fact that coconut oil raises cholesterol".
"Traditionally, coconut oil hasn't been recommended because it is extremely high in saturated fat. This advice remains, despite the large number of marketing claims to the contrary," he said.
At the time, the Heart Foundation's national nutrition advisor Delvina Gorton added that the limited evidence was not sufficient to change advice and that in relation to risk factors for heart disease, plant oils higher in unsaturated fatty acids remained preferable.
But one Hawke's Bay-based nutritionist isn't buying the standard advice and stands by the benefits of coconut oil and saturated fats.
Ben Warren conducted his own research with 28 Maori in the Hawke's Bay in 2010, where he had participants revert to a high-fat diet.
"The results were outstanding, reversing the parameters of type 2 diabetes and statistically significantly reducing triglycerides, one of the measures of cholesterol in the blood," he says.
Incensed by recent comments on Breakfast TV by Consumer NZ's chief executive Sue Chetwin, he said Consumer was being irresponsible and "speaking on areas outside of its expertise".
Sue Chetwin told TV ONE's Breakfast that coconut oil was very high in saturated fat that contains lots of bad cholesterol which can lead to heart conditions and strokes.
Warren refutes that entirely, saying coconut oil contains zero (dietary) cholesterol and that studies using coconut oil have shown improvement in the body's cholesterol profile.
A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 involving more than 347,000 subjects found "there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease," says Warren.
"We owe it to the public to be responsible with the way information is released with accurate factual information. I'd be happy to speak with them (Consumer NZ) any time to ensure consumers get the right information," he says.