When it comes to choosing a nutritious cooking oil, the body of evidence over the last 40 years has weighed heavily against saturated oils. Oils such those found in coconuts were set aside in favor of those high in unsaturated fats. But the early studies on coconut oil were done with heavily processed, partially hydrogenated oils, which scientists now know have dramatically different health profiles than the virgin product. The virgin varieties, which were not available 30-years ago, are widely available now, and studies on these naturally occurring oils are yielding much different results.
Coconut oil is one of the few plant based oils that is rich in saturated fats. With a fat profile that includes 92% long-chain saturated fats, the virgin product has a melt point of 76°F (24°C), and is therefore a solid near room temperature. This simple fact gives it a distinct advantage in many cooking applications, when compared against most other types of vegetable oil. It works well in some high heat applications, or those where the texture imparted by a solid fats are desirable, such as baked goods.
Commercial production is performed primarily by extraction. Coconuts are collected and the meat extracted from the coconut shell. The meat is collected and crushed to make coconut mash, known as copra. The copra is dried, and then extracted to removed the oil. Products made using this method must be purified, as the coconut copra can be exposed ot a variety of unsanitary conditions. As is the case with peanut cooking oil, producers favor the use hexane as an extraction solvent on crushed coconut to improve yields. The result is an product comprised of 92% saturated fats, 6% monounsaturated fat, and 2% polyunsaturated fats. Early processes usually included further refinement steps, which ultimately ended in hydrogenation of the unsaturated fats, to further raise the melting point and improved resistance to rancidity. Although desirable from a standpoint of producers, hydrogenation is now known to introduce trans fats, and all of the associated negative health effects. These late-stage processing steps were ultimately responsible for the negative perceptions associated with coconut oil.
Although coconut oil can still be found both partially, and fully hydrogenated, it is also available in more naturally occurring forms. The health conscious consumer should seek out products designated as either “RBD,” or “Virgin.” Products sold under either of these designations has not undergone the process of hydrogenation, thereby leaving the original mixture intact. RBD, which stands for Refined Bleached, and Deodorized, has had trace contaminants removed, leaving a colorless, odorless oil best suited for general use cooking. By contrast, cooking with fats from the virgin coconut imparts a mild coconut flavor to dishes.
With conventional wisdom so solidly against saturated fats, it is reasonable to wonder why, despite its high saturated fat content, researchers now recommend coconut oil for weight loss and fitness goals. Being a plant-based, coconuts yield an oil that has no cholesterol, but the real secret lies in its unique composition of saturated fats.
Generally speaking, fats can be divided up into short, medium, and long chain fatty acids. While most oils in the Western diet are comprised of long chain fatty acids, nearly half (47.4%) of the fat content in coconuts is lauric acid, a 12-carbon, medium chain fatty acid. Lauric acid, which actually has been shown to raise total cholesterol, is unique in that it causes high density lipoproteins (HDL) to rise at a rate faster than so-called “bad,” low density lipoproteins. Combined, the short and medium chain fatty acids in coconuts add up to over 60% of its total fat content. Proponents suggest that, by virtue of its tendency to increase HDL, coconut oil may actually reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Lauric acid can also be converted to monolaurin in vivo, which is suspected of being a strong antimicrobial and antioxidant. Coconuts are one of the few plant-based sources of these compounds.
Possible health benefits aside, a practical advantage to cooking with coconut oil is the fact that it’s a solid at room temperature. Working from the premise that totally forsaking fats is not a viable long-term strategy for maintaining weight loss, the next step is finding ways to sustain long-term, healthy weight loss, while satisfying cravings for small quantities of tasty food. Being a solid at room temperature, coconut oil is an an ideal substitute for butter or lard in baked goods, where it can be used to impart a similar texture, without added cholesterol. In fact, it has been used for years in movie theaters as a butter substitute for popcorn. Used judiciously, it can also be incorporated into a routine of intermittent fasting for weight loss, to help stave off food cravings.
While research has shown that naturally available forms of coconut oil may impart certain health benefits, there are downsides. Like all oils, those from coconuts are calorie-dense, so over-consumption can lead to weight gain. Furthermore, the ability of lauric acid to raise cholesterol makes it unsuitable for individuals with high cholesterol. Having said all that, its use as a substitute in place of other, less healthy fats, as part of an overall healthy eating plan, makes sense in many instances. It has several potential health benefits, and like other fats, it contributes to satiety which can help boost your metabolism, and speed you to your weight loss goals. So the next time you’re hard at work in the kitchen, think about working coconuts into your plan to lose weight, while still enjoying food.
Reviewed November 2011.