I’ll never forget my first taste of “real” coconut, plucked from a Jamaican coconut tree and cut in half with a machete. First I sipped its clear, refreshing nectar, then munched on the chewy, sweet flesh. It tasted better than a candy bar.
Now the tropical seed with such a distinct sweetness is gaining wider appeal because of its health benefits. The specific standout is coconut oil.
Benefits of the big seed
From its flesh to its milk, the coconut has been a staple in the tropics for centuries. Now, a wave of cooking with coconut oil has hit North America’s shores. The reason it took so long might be because of coconut oil’s saturated fat numbers.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat—one tablespoon contains more than 13 grams—nearly seven times more saturated fat than olive oil. Yet when it’s unrefined, virgin coconut oil (which contains zero trans fat), can be absorbed easily into the bloodstream.
That’s because coconut oil’s saturated fat is made up of MCTs—medium chain triglycerides—that are quickly converted by the body into energy instead of being stored as fat.
The added bonus? MCTs may kick-start your metabolism, enabling you to shed a few extra pounds or stabilize weight.
But perhaps the coconut’s biggest nutritional trump cards are its immune-supporting properties and heart-healthy benefits.
The fat in coconut oil is nearly 50 percent lauric acid (the only other way to get this rare, beneficial compound is through breast milk). The body converts lauric acid into monolaurin, an immune fighter that staves off viruses and bacterial infections.
Cooking with coconut oil
Recent studies suggest that cooking with unrefined coconut oil may also protect against heart disease.
That’s a practice that Mary Enig, PhD, a biochemist and nutritionist, has been championing for most of her career. Dr. Enig is coauthor of the popular book Eat Fat Lose Fat. She has been an advocate of unrefined coconut oil since back in the 1980s, when studies using hydrogenated (refined) coconut oil showed that it spiked unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels.
Andrew Weil, MD, isn’t as completely convinced as Dr. Enig that a daily dose of coconut oil is optimal, but he says he is “increasingly persuaded that consuming modest amounts of natural saturated fats such as virgin coconut oil is not hazardous, though some controversy still persists.”
Using cosmetic products that contain coconut oil—from soap to sunscreen—is another matter. Dr. Weil agrees that these products are safe and effective, and he adds, “Clinical research supports the safety of these products in general and the utility of coconut oil to help moisturize skin in particular.”
Back in the kitchen, Kepalo Coconut Oil founder Erin Meagher says it’s not necessary for coconut oil to be refined in the first place, since it doesn’t need refrigeration like some vegetable oils.
“Coconut oil has a naturally long shelf life—two years,” she says, “and a higher than average smoke point, so there is no need to refine the oil.”
When oils are heated beyond their smoke points, their molecular structure changes, potentially eliminating their healthful benefits and causing toxicity.
Coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees, compared to olive oil’s 320 degrees. But that’s not the reason popular gourmet and vegan bakeries like BabyCakes in New York City bake with coconut oil. They say it’s because the oil is a healthier and dairy-free alternative to vegetable oils, spreads, and butter.