On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

COCONUT OIL: VILLAIN OR HERO?

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have seen numerous sources recently, including TV's Dr. Oz, attributing all varieties of miraculous properties to coconut oil. One went so far as to imply that saturated fats from vegetable sources, particularly coconut oil, were better for your body than unsaturated fats. I have been under the assumption that saturated fats of any kind have no nutritional value and should be restricted to a minimal intake due to their effect on triglycerides and arterial plaque. While I have no doubt that there are compounds in coconut oil that are good for the body, don't the drawbacks outweigh the benefits? Any clarification would be appreciated. -- DR. M.L., via email

DEAR DR. M.L.: Unlike what you've been hearing lately, coconut oil had previously been portrayed as the consummate dietary villain. Coconut oil is a concentrated source of saturated fat, but it's important to note that not all saturated fats behave in the same way.

Food fats and oils tend to be long chains of carbon atoms, and they are packaged in groups of three known as triglycerides. About half the fats in coconut oil are shorter in chain length than many other vegetable fats, and these compounds are known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These MCTs can be digested and processed differently in the body, and even though they are saturated, the medium-chain fats are often burned as fuel rather than handled in a way that contributes to the risk of heart disease. It all depends on the context in which the MCTs are consumed. If they're part of an otherwise healthful diet, great, but there is no evidence that adding MCTs to an unbalanced diet is going to make things any better.

Coconut can add wonderful flavors and textures to many dishes, but there is nothing miraculous here. Coconut oil does not provide essential nutrients, and there is no scientific basis for any general statement that saturated fats from vegetable sources are better for the body than unsaturated fats. As is always the case, the overall quality of your diet -- and lifestyle -- holds more sway over your health and longevity than any particular ingredient.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I typically add milk to my tea and coffee, adding enough to represent one serving of dairy during the day. Does heating milk destroy the calcium or protein content? Is there any way in which the milk is otherwise affected as regards nutrition? -- S.T., Tempe, Ariz.

DEAR S.T.: The heating of milk will not affect its calcium content, and unless it has been boiled for extended periods, there will only be a negligible effect on its protein content. Flavor, however, would likely suffer, but this will be disguised by the beverage to which it was added. There would be an effect on some of its vitamins, most notably riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin and niacin.

Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.