Coconut Oil 101: Your Guide to Health Benefits & Uses
We’ve all read articles and heard on the news about this exotic oil. There is a lot of conflicting information surrounding coconut oil over the past few decades - it seems like one day it will kill you and the next day it’s a fat-burning superfood! We’re here to break down what it is, how it’s made, how to use it, and hopefully dispel some myths and outdated science surrounding it’s true health benefits.
What is Coconut Oil And How Is It Made
The humble coconut is actually a pretty impressive nut. What we recognize as coconuts from the grocery store or beach-side bodega with a tiny umbrella sticking out of it is actually the seed of the coconut palm fruit. Known to be one of the oldest plants to be eaten by humans, coconut trees can be found all around the tropical regions of the planet. Due to its robust husk and buoyancy, coconuts can float across large spans of ocean and create new trees almost anywhere they wash up! Fun fact - coconut palms can grow up to 100 feet tall, and can produce an average of fifty coconuts per year. Humans have long used this versatile nut for the: high-fat meat, electrolyte-rich water (technically, you could call it juice), husks burnt as fuel, and topically for all sorts of skin ailments.
Countries that are major producers of commercially available coconuts include: Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Coconut oil is made by pressing the fresh coconut meat to create virgin coconut oil. Dried coconut meat, called copra, is pressed to make refined oil (more on the difference later). Most commercially produced coconut oil is made with large machines and presses, but it is actually possible to make your own at home if you have the patience for it!
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut is referenced in Ancient Hindu scripture for its many health benefits, including nourishing the body, increasing strength, and promoting beautiful skin. It has been used in traditional medicine and cuisine for generations in many Equatorial countries. Some countries that use coconut as a staple food, like French Polynesia and Thailand, have some of the lowest cancer rates in the world, according to annual surveys by the National Cancer Institute.
Like most other nuts, coconuts contain a significant amount of fats. What differentiates coconut fat is that it’s almost entirely medium-chain saturated fats, or otherwise known as medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs). You may have seen MCT oils promoted in supplements as a fat-burning, energy-boosting superfood! While much of that can be boiled down to good marketing and hype, MCTs from coconut oil do in fact have a positive effect on metabolism. MCTs are easily absorbed and broken down for energy, which can have a thermogenic (fat burning) effect in combination with a whole-foods, balanced diet. By choosing to cook with coconut oil versus a highly processed canola oil, you are much more likely to achieve your weight loss goals.
MCTs can also help with sustained energy, due to helping balance blood sugar and insulin levels. This can also help with insulin resistance and be a helpful food for those with diabetes.
Coconut oil can contribute to heart and vascular health by improving cholesterol levels. Unrefined coconut oil has been shown in studies to increase “good” HDL cholesterol. It also lowers the total cholesterol to HDL ratio, which has been shown to be a far better predictor of heart disease than LDL alone. Interestingly, cultures that use coconut and coconut oil as a staple have very low instances of heart disease. This may also be due to the fact that these cultures eat mostly unprocessed and traditional foods that are also rich in fiber and other nutrients, unlike the standard American diet.
Coconut oil is also great for the immune system. It is one of the only foods found in nature that is a significant source of lauric acid, which is a fatty acid that has strong anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties. Interestingly, the only other food source rich in lauric acid is human breast milk! Another fatty acid in coconut oil is capric acid,which also shows strong antimicrobial benefits.
Controversy Around Saturated Fats
Up until the 1950s, coconut oil was commonly used in the United States food industry. Being a saturated fat, it is naturally incredibly shelf-stable and was used in many processed foods. Things changed when coconut oil was implicated in a study on rats that showed it increased cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Turns out, the researchers were using a highly processed hydrogenated coconut oil, which is completely devoid of any beneficial fatty acids. More recent studies using raw, virgin coconut oil show the opposite effects with an increase in good HDL cholesterol and lower risk of heart disease than other common cooking oils.
Over the years, we have received conflicting health information, like is saturated fat from butter or coconut oil bad for your health? The answer is no, so long as you are choosing minimally processed, high quality fats and avoiding hydrogenated oils. Minimally processed saturated fats like virgin coconut oil provide a lot of necessary nutrients, like fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids that we need to survive and thrive.
Of course, the key to a healthy diet is variety! Don’t rely on coconut oil as your only fat source when cooking or baking. Mix it up with different fats like avocado and olive oils, organic butter from pasture-raised cows, and ghee to get a wide range of tastes, nutrients, and health benefits!
Virgin Vs. Refined What is The Better Choice?
Virgin (other terms include “raw” and “unrefined”) coconut oil is made by pressing fresh coconut meat to get coconut milk and some oil. The milk is then either fermented or put through an enzymatic process to separate more of the oil. This process uses little to no heat to extract the oils, which helps the oil to retain more of its delicate, health-promoting nutrients. Labels like “cold-pressed” will confirm that no heat was used in the extraction process, and terms like “raw” and “unrefined” mean the oil is unfiltered. Virgin coconut oil will have a slight coconut taste and smell to it. The smoke point is 350 degrees fahrenheit, making virgin coconut oil a great option for baking and sauteing.
Refined coconut oil may have gone through a variety of processes before being bottled. Dried coconut meat (known as copra) is machine-pressed to remove the oils. The oil is then heated or steamed to produce a product with neutral taste and smell, which is then filtered to remove any bits of coconut meat, impurities, and bacteria. Some manufacturers will use a chemical agent, like hexane, to produce a highly refined neutral oil. While there are no studies to confirm if hexane-traced oils are indeed harmful for human health (it is, however, very toxic to the people working with the chemical), it is probably best to avoid it when you can. When shopping for a refined coconut oil, look for terms like “hexane-free” and “expeller pressed”. Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of up to 450 degrees, which makes it a great option for high-heat cooking like deep frying.
Avoid hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated coconut oil. This is generally not sold on its own in grocery stores, but can be found as an ingredient in certain processed foods. These oils are highly processed at an atomic level to increase the products shelf-life, and can be found in many processed and packaged foods. Hydrogenated oils are closely linked to negative health effects like obesity and heart disease.
How To Use In Cooking
As mentioned, virgin coconut oil is a great choice for lower heat cooking, like sauteing and baking. You can use it in any recipe that calls for butter to make a recipe vegan, or replace highly-refined oils like canola or safflower. You can also use it raw in smoothies as your fat source, no-bake desserts, and blended into warm beverages (like “bulletproof coffee”) for a frothy, creamy texture.
Try some of these Wellory-inspired recipes to add coconut oil to your day!
For higher heat cooking, like deep frying, use refined coconut oil. If you dislike the subtle coconut-y taste of virgin coconut oil, you can use refined in any recipe calling for coconut oil.
Coconut Oil Beyond Cooking And Eating: Topical Usage
When used topically, coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and can help reduce skin conditions like rashes, acne, and sunburn. It is also very helpful for wound healing, due to its antibacterial properties. Coconut oil can be used for a luscious body moisturizer. Don’t want to smell like coconuts? Use refined, hexane-free coconut oil for a neutral scent. You can also mix in a few drops of essential oils, like lavender or sandalwood, to create your own natural fragrance. Coconut oil has been used to moisturize hair and scalps for centuries. It has been shown to protect hair follicles from damage, and can be used as a hydrating mask for itchy, dry scalp. Coconut oil is also great for oral hygiene! Rubbing coconut oil on your teeth, or swishing it around in your mouth (known as “oil pulling”) has shown in studies to reduce plaque buildup and gingivitis.
Coconut can be a healthy addition to a balanced way of eating (or to your skincare routine!). Just because it has been hailed as a “superfood” does not mean you need to use it in every meal or go crazy with MCT oils. Enjoy it with a variety of quality cooking fats like olive oil, avocado oil, organic butter, and ghee to get the nutrient benefits from each. Variety is the spice of life, and key to a healthy, vibrant body!
The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods - Michale Murray N.D. “Eat Fat Get Thin” Dr. Mark Hyman