A healthy staple in the traditional diets of tropical islanders for thousands of years, coconut oil has previously been discredited as good cooking oil in North American kitchens.
That’s because 50 years ago coconut oil was sold in solid form, in bars like bakers’ chocolate wrapped in paper. The oil had to be hydrogenated to keep it hard (coconut oil is liquid at room temperature). The processes of hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation added hydrogen to the edible oil to not only raise its melting point (so that the oil is solid at room temperature) but also to increase its shelf life.
Unfortunately, hydrogenation created the dreaded trans fatty acids, which have unnatural configurations and are as bad, if not worse, for the heart and arteries than saturated fats. Trans fats increase total cholesterol, raise levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, and lower levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL or “good”) cholesterol.
A Confusion of Oils
Another reason coconut oil was discredited is that hydrogenated coconut oil was considered a tropical oil, with health effects similar to palm oil and palm kernel oil. In 1984 the US National Cholesterol Education Program recommended that coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil should be avoided in order to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Hydrogenated palm oil and palm kernel oil are widely used in processed foods such as cookies, crackers, spreads, and bars because they are semi-solid at room temperature. However, they contribute to heart disease and are associated with rainforest deforestation to make way for oil palm plantations.
Today, we have a healthy tropical oil alternative. Health food stores now offer natural, cold-pressed coconut oils.
Cold-pressed coconut oil contains no fatty acids and consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which, recent research shows, provide energy but don’t deposit fat in the body. Scientists in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at McGill University have done extensive research with MCTs. One of their recent studies, published in the journal Obesity Research in 2003, observed 24 healthy but overweight men and found that coconut oil used in combination with other medium-chain triglyceride oils increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation. Researchers found that medium-chain fatty acids travel directly to the liver where they are oxidized, whereas long-chain fatty acids are transported to peripheral tissues where they are mostly deposited into adipose tissue.
Natural, unhydrogenated coconut oil is beneficial in the whole foods kitchen when cooking, baking, and frying. Several quality grades are available in health food stores, ranging from the best-tasting, raw extra-virgin coconut oil, which is the preferred choice for raw food preparations, to virgin coconut oil. Use it with fresh greens in salads. It can also be heated in stir-fries and is easily used in piecrusts, muffins, cookies, breads, or cakes. Coconut oil is heat stable, with a smoke point of 450°F (230°C), the highest of any vegetable fat, compared to olive oil 375°F (190°C) and flax oil 225°F (112°C).
Forget your preconceptions about coconut oil. It’s time to give natural, unhydrogenated coconut oil a try.