I should begin by confessing that I love coconut oil, though it was a slow attraction. I had a jar in the pantry for months before I really started using it; I was encouraged by a visiting ladyfriend who used it for everything (cooking and topically). After tasting her coconut oil roasted veggies and seeing her beautiful skin I was totally convinced and began to use coconut oil much more frequently in my cooking and baking. There are two ways coconut oil is sold: refined or unrefined (also called virgin). The unrefined oil has a rich coconut aroma and is solid at cool temperatures. It will melt easily in some hot tap water or on a warm stove. It’s best at low and medium heat, or for baking. This is also the type of oil I use as a moisturizer on my skin and in my favorite homemade Cinnamon Face Scrub. Spectrum brand makes a refined oil is recommended for higher temperatures, but it lacks the coconut flavor of the virgin oil, and it will always be liquid (but please note that some brands of coconut oil are deodorized, bleached, and heavily refined. Avoid these type)
I prefer the slight sweet flavor that virgin coconut oil gives savory foods like tempeh, greens, rice, baked goods, bean dishes; it smells amazing when it is heating in the pan and every food cooks well in it. I also make a simple dressing with coconut oil, citrus juice, and tamari. Coconut oil also is great for baking; the coconut flavor is there, but it is subtle and soft- it is not overpowering. It pairs well with mango, chocolate, almond or banana baked goodies; I have used it in cookies, muffins, scones, and quickbreads with loveable results. Additionally, coconut oil gives baked goods richness that safflower and canola do not. Some people have said that it actually resembles dairy butter because of the depth of flavor and richness. Coconut oil is more expensive than other oils, but it is also more flavorful and healthier than other oils, and I think it is most definitely worth the cost. There has recently been a renewed interest in coconut oil and its health benefits, so there are many brands to choose from: Spectum, Dr. Bronners, Nutiva, Artisana, Whole Foods 365, and many others found in the supplement section of your health food store.
Though coconut oil has been used extensively throughout tropical regions (Indonesia, Philippines, Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere) it was maligned for many years here in the US because of the high saturated fat content. Many researchers note that tropical oils (including palm oil) were presented as ‘bad fats’ in order to boost sales of domestic (GMO) corn and soy oils, both which currently dominate American agriculture. In the early part of the century people across the world ate a diet based around whole, unprocessed foods- including animal fats and tropical fats. However, people began to shift their eating habits with the introduction of processed substitutes for these naturally fatty foods. Seed oils (predominantly corn, soy, and cottonseed) were altered at the molecular level make them solid; thus the era of hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation began. The hydrogenation process, which can be used for any oil, makes a liquid oil solid at room temperature and creates a longer shelf-life, but also creates dangerous trans-fats in the process. Much of the research that promoted coconut as unhealthy was undertaken using hydrogenated coconut oil, not virgin coconut oil.
Firstly, some information about components of fat: “Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the kind of fats found in large amounts in highly liquid vegetable oils made from corn, soybeans, safflower seeds and sunflower seeds. Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in large amounts in olive oil, palm oil and lard; saturated fatty acids are found in large amounts in fats and oils that are solid at room temperature, such as butter, tallow and coconut oil.” These types of fats are naturally occurring and our bodies can digest and process them better than processed fats. Hydrogenated seed oils- altered at the molecular level- are totally unnatural, which explains why our bodies do not digest them. According to Spectrum Organics, the hydrogenation process creates trans-fats that are, “virtually impossible for our bodies to break down.”
Another important distinction between types of fat is the physical structure or the fat molecule. According to the Coconut Research Center, most of the fats we consume (whether saturated or not) are long-chain fatty acids; coconut oil is a source of the less-common medium-chain fatty acids. Our bodies respond to and digest long-chain fatty acids and medium chain fatty acids differently, especially in relation to cholesterol. Nutiva claims that coconut oil contains a very beneficial medium-chain fatty acid known as lauric acid, nothing that, “[lauric acid] is found in mother’s milk [and] supports healthy metabolism and is now being studied for its anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial health-protecting properties”. The lauric acid circulates in our body differently and can actually promote weight loss because it is processed in the liver and converted to energy, similar to carbohydrates. Additionally, the medium-chain fatty acids are known to speed metabolism .
Despite what we have heard through the decades of food news, fats are indeed good for us. In addition to all the other good stuff that coconut oil does, many studies have found coconut oil actually assists with lowering cholesterol because fatty acids in the coconut oil prevent the oxidation of cholesterol that begins atherosclerosis (clogging of arteries); coconut oil is also purported to reduce the risk of heart disease. Some studies even suggest taking coconut oil as a supplement can help with candidia and other conditions.
Though some of the health-promoting factors I wrote about were taken from those interested in promoting coconut oil, they seem to check out with some quick cross-referencing. Even if you are dubious about health benefits of coconut oil, the taste alone should make you check it out; and it is most definitely better for you than any processed or GMO vegetable oils. Check out the list of references, do some research, and get your hands on some high-quality, virgin coconut oil. Check out the recipe her on Vibrant Wellness Journal- most of the baking recipes call for coconut oil as do many of the savory foods, too.