There seems to be universal confusion when it comes to Coconut Oil. It’s extremely high in saturated fats, yet is promoted as a miracle health cure. This can only lead us to wonder…
Why is this so?
Coconut oil is derived from the flesh of coconuts. Two methods can be utilised for this; the flesh can be dried (to form a substance called ‘copra’) and mixed with liquids to extract the oil, or simply broken down from the fresh flesh, with the oil being extracted . Coconut is one of the few plants to provide saturated fat (one that is usually obtained from animal sources), therefore the oil has an extended shelf life and similar properties to that of butter. Taste can vary depending on the type you buy, with some people finding a distinct “coconutty taste”, while others think it does not have a taste. Personally, I find it to have minimal, but slightly “fatty” taste and an butter/oily mouth feel . Hydrogenation of coconut oil can also occur, whereby the unsaturated fatty acids are combined with hydrogen to resemble the more appealing properties of saturated fats , including an increased melting point and rich flavour. It has typically been used in many Asian cuisines, particularly in Kerala, India, whereby its addition as a fat in cooking adds a distinct flavour commonly found in Asian dishes.
The secret behind coconut oils success? Well it all lies in its composition…
Saturated fats can be long-chain fatty acids, as with both mono and polyunsaturated fats, the latter of which are the healthier fats and are broken down differently in the body than saturated fats are, as well as providing a number of beneficial results in the body. Coconut oil however, is composed of medium chain fatty acids , making it more easily broken down and utilised by the body than other saturated fats. Long-chain fatty acids take longer to metabolise in the body and are therefore more likely to be stored as fat rather than utilised as energy, whereas coconut oil is said to not put strain on the digestive system, whilst giving an instant source of energy and providing healing effects in the body. This difference in length has provided coconut oil with its claim to fame, suggesting it as an aid in regulation of blood sugar levels, detoxifying the body and being an effective weight loss tool by boosting metabolism. Even a look at a website devoted solely to coconut oil goes as far as to say it can apparently reverse Alzheimer’s disease, prevent Heart disease and dissolve kidney stones! Hmmm.. A little biased I think, and I’m sure my skepticism of those last few “facts” is warranted. I certainly don’t believe in claims for a particular food or ingredient being the one stop shop to fix all ails but, I’ll provide the details and let you decide.
Everyone’s likely heard that saturated fats are the “bad” type of fat, leading to a number of health issues, including increased cholesterol levels and as a contributing factor to Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), among others. Coconut Oil contains around 90% saturated fat, even more than the “sat-fat” loaded butter, 6 times more than the commonly used olive oil and 9 times more than regular sunflower oil! Supposedly, coconut oil only increases HDL (good) cholesterol levels; however this is still heavily debated as the tons of research carried out has not yet conclusively proven that coconut oil does not contribute to raised cholesterol levels or contribute to various cardiovascular diseases.
The picture below depicts the difference in saturated fat content between coconut oil (top) and extra virgin olive oil (below)
The aforementioned hydrogenation process can also produce trans-fatty acids, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol, therefore contributing to an increased risk in a number of Cardiovascular diseases, including CHD. This type of coconut oil is used abundantly in many processed snacks, cakes, pastries, biscuits, confectionery and other baked goods. Furthermore, the much loved chocolate crackle that uses “copha” as one of its main ingredients is simply a brand name given to a block of hydrogenated coconut oil. It is therefore best to steer clear of these foods, as they can have adverse health effects. Coconut oil is also touted as an “unhealthy fat” by the Heart Foundation due to its saturated fat content, in favour of the healthier, unsaturated fats including olive oil, sunflower oil and nut oils, including peanut, macadamia and sesame.
So why is coconut oil raved about amongst consumers? Why would you want to use it if it contains so much saturated fat?
Well, it all comes down to the type of coconut oil you choose.
An organic, unrefined extra virgin coconut oil is the best choice if you want to use it. Comparable to olive oil, this type is the first, cold pressed batch, without any chemicals added to release more oils, therefore is the least processed and has higher levels of nutrients than other types. It should have a mild aroma and taste of coconuts.
While celebrities such as Miranda Kerr may have endorsed coconut oil as the key to beautiful skin, hair and a trim figure when consumed daily, this is not necessarily a healthy choice. I mean, sure, we’d all love to look like Miranda Kerr, but the high saturated fat content and limited nutrients in coconut oil suggest otherwise. Furthermore, let’s take into account that Miranda Kerr’s diet unlikely consists of any other saturated fats that could contribute to weight gain and poor health.
Coconut oil has many additional uses, particularly in beauty, where it may be used as a moisturiser, eye makeup remover, sunscreen and hair conditioner, among other things. From some of the information I’ve read it seems like there are a lot of things to be done with it and can have a positive result in many ways, so feel free to find out more. While its high smoke point and characteristic coconut flavour undeniably make it an appealing ingredient to use by those of us who love cooking, I believe its use should be limited and definitely not consumed as an every day food. I have used it minimally and sparingly in cooking, and as an occasional treat I like to use it in making the famous “Bliss Balls”. Much like the beloved rum ball, bliss balls contain some healthier variations of the ingredients , and as the name suggests, they taste great and I find them to be a great sweet treat with a slightly richer flavour from the coconut oil.
1 cup of dates
1 cup of walnuts or almonds (soaked for 1 hour)
¼ cup of raw cacao powder
1 dessert spoon of coconut oil
Pinch of chilli powder (optional)
Simply blend in a food processor and roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture into balls, then roll in dessicated coconut or cacao powder, or leave as is if you prefer.
Although coconut oil may seem like a healthier choice over other hydrogenated fats, or even butter, I certainly wouldn’t advocate it for regular consumption. It’s certainly not cheap to buy either, setting you back a whopping $10-12 for around 300g depending on the type and brand. Compare this to $8 for 500mL of good old olive oil, and you’ll be saving yourself around $2.20 per 100g/mL, but the choice is yours. The phrase “everything in moderation” seems entirely appropriate here. There is no need to cut out foods we love, simply be careful about when we use it and how much we use.
My advice – if you want to use coconut oil (and it is ok to use sometimes), buy a good quality organic, unrefined coconut oil, use sparingly and occasionally in your cooking and enjoy.