By Jacky Miller
Coconut oil is the extracted oil from coconut, the fruit of the coconut tree that’s well-known for growing in tropical areas. It’s also an outrageously popular topic among social media and health outlets in recent years.
Typically coconut oil is refined, bleached and deodorized using high heat. The bleach filters the oil to eliminate any impurities and sodium hydroxide is used as a preservative and to get rid of excess fatty acids. Coconut oil typically has a long shelf life because its high saturated fat content prevents oxidation.
Coconut oil is the topic of hot debate, typically known for being fairly high in saturated fats. This can put it off-limits for some people trying to consume a low-fat diet plan. However, the benefits of coconut oil span much further than the detrimental effects of its saturated fat content and not just in the digestive tract. It can be used in lots of different ways.
In addition to being consumed as part of the diet, coconut oil can also be applied for health benefits in a lot of different ways. It can be used topically, as a lotion, melted and inhaled as a vapor solution or used as shampoo.
Coconut oil is made by compressing the fats out of the white part of coconut flesh. Its reputation for being high in saturated fat is not unjustified—around 84 percent of the calories in coconut oil are from saturated fat. This is incredibly high when compared to another organic oil like olive oil, which only contains 14 percent saturated fat. Even butter contains just more than 60 percent saturated fat.
How Can a Food High in Saturated Fat Be Healthy?
Coconut oil has been studied for its effects on preventing Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cholesterol buildup and blood pressure. It’s been studied for its ability to prevent kidney disease and inflammation and for its defensive capabilities at fighting the development of cancer. How can one food—a food high in saturated fat, no less—be responsible for so many amazing health benefits?
First, coconut oil’s saturated fats are mostly composed of medium-chain fatty acids. The most dangerous fatty acids are long-chain fatty acids. Certain types of long-chain fatty acids are known for contributing to heart disease, though some can be neutral. Most people consume far too many of the unhealthy long-chain fats and this is largely what leads to heart disease.
There are three main long-chain fatty acids: Myristic acid (coconut oil contains between 16 and 21 percent), palmitic acid and stearic acid. Myristic and palmitic acid have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is short for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is highly reactive and can oxidize easily, leading to heart disease, strokes and an increased chance of cancer.
Myristic acid was more potent in this regard and has a higher chance of increasing LDL cholesterol. Myristic acid is also rarely found in natural foods and is more likely to be obtained in junk food.
Stearic acid has been shown to actually help balance cholesterol levels and is the healthiest of the three long-chain fatty acids.
In comparison, coconut oil’s primary fat constituents are medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid (45 to 52 percent), caprylic acid (5 to 10 percent) and capric acid (4 to 8 percent).
The most common medium-chain fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, making up almost 75 percent of coconut oil’s fait content. Medium chain fatty acids are connected with a higher rate of weight loss; in fact, subjects in a study who replaced olive oil with coconut oil or palm oil were shown to lose weight at a much quicker rate. These medium-chain fatty acids have also been studied for their efficacy at treating Alzheimer’s and helping the body absorb nutrients more efficiently.
The rest of coconut oil’s fat composition is made up of a mixture of caproic acid, oleic acid, palmitoleic acid and linoleic acid. Most of these are short-chain fatty acids.
How Does Coconut Oil Improve My Diet?
Residents of the South Pacific, who get up to 60 percent of their total calories—not just their total fat—from the highly saturated fat that is coconut oil, are shown to have virtually non-existent rates of heart disease.
The particular types of saturated fats in coconut oil are proven to not only not damage your cardiovascular system but are proven to improve it. Regular intake of coconut oil can improve heart health, help you lose weight, boost your metabolism, give you short and long-lasting energy. Most of these benefits are due to lauric acid, one of the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil. Lauric acid is the fat that composes the most significant percentage of coconut oil’s profile.
The body converts lauric acid into a new substance, known as monolaurin. This particular compound is an antiviral, anti-bacterial and immune-boosting substance. Being a fat itself, it can also attack lipid-coated bacteria and pathogens such as herpes and HIV, the flu (caused by the influenza virus), measles and lipid-based protozoa and bacteria.
Lauric acid is extremely effective at battling viruses and bacteria and coconut oil has more of it, gram for gram, than any other substance.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil’s benefits can be experienced by using coconut oil as a topical lotion, a food additive or even a vapor rub. Here are the top health benefits and the best ways to receive them.
1. Coconut Oil Helps Fight Diabetes
The human body typically makes use of medium-chain fatty acids, like the ones in coconut oil, by sending them to your liver for energy production. Since coconut oil is extremely high in medium-chain fat content, it’s a great source of energy.
The energy coconut oil provides is instant due to the quick metabolization of fats, which is usually only provided by carbohydrates. The most important difference between the fats in coconut oil and carbs? Coconut oil doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike or tax your body of insulin. You get all the energy from a burst of carbohydrates, but don’t have to deal with the dangerous after-effects that come alongside excessive carbohydrate or sugar consumption.
Diabetes is caused, among other things, by the body developing insulin sensitivity. This comes by frequent and repeated blood sugar spikes. Insulin is the body’s hormone that regulates the production of glucose (sugar) and the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar and energy. With a high carbohydrate diet comes an excessive release of insulin and with that, the body develops a sensitivity. People develop insulin sensitivity when they become dependent on large doses of carbohydrates for energy.
A quick-acting, long-lasting energy source that doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike is extremely useful for diabetics and health-conscious individuals who want to avoid diabetes. Coconut oil has been shown to minimize weight gain in people with diabetes and pre-diabetics. This is very helpful at preventing diabetes from reaching type-2 stage.
2. Coconut Oil is a Great Fighter Against Cardiovascular Disease
Diabetes isn’t the only blood-related illness that coconut oil fights. It has been shown in multiple clinical trials to combat a number of cardiovascular diseases, to limit heart attacks and strokes and help manage cholesterol.
Managing cholesterol is, alone, a huge improvement towards preventing heart disease. Coconut oil has a few other tricks up its sleeve though.
The nutritional profile of coconut oil helps the body form fewer blood clots, lowers the risk of developing free radicals and keeps higher reserves of antioxidants in cells. Free radicals are “rogue” atoms that are missing an electron in their outermost shell. These electrons compensate by stealing an electron from a neighboring atom and when uncontrolled, create a chain reaction of electron-theft. Each stolen electron creates an unstable atom which can spread and lead to cancer.
Many heart diseases are caused by atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. This is caused by excess of plaque in the arteries, which can be caused by a variety of things: toxins, viral or bacterial infections, free radicals.
Much like blood will clot to heal wounds on the outer layer of skin, it sends platelets to heal wounds affecting the cardiovascular system itself. Platelets are proteins that stick together and stick to damaged tissue. They act similar to a bandaid for the cardiac system. The combination of platelets, minerals, cholesterol and scarred tissue build up in the body and can eventually harden, leading to potentially deadly disease.
Having effective systems to produce enough platelets is important. If your body cannot properly bandage an internal injury, your veins will produce too much scar tissue.
3. Coconut Oil is Great at Lowering Cholesterol
In one study on coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol, 40 subjects were given either two tablespoons of coconut oil or two tablespoons of soybean oil daily for 12 weeks. The group taking soybean oil saw an increase in LDL cholesterol (not the kind you want) and a decrease in HDL cholesterol, whereas the coconut oil group saw only an increase in HDL.
HDL cholesterol can help the body wipe out LDL cholesterol. Since HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, as its name indicates, is dense, it can sweep LDL cholesterol off the walls of veins and arteries. This prevents excess cholesterol from building up, which is one of the biggest causes of cardiovascular disease.
4. Coconut Oil Can Help You Lose Weight
A lot of people would shun coconut oil as a weight loss aid. After all, oils are fat, right?
Coconut oil has a few interesting techniques for fighting fat and helping people be more efficient at fighting body fat development. This idea first came under speculation when farmers in the early half of the century, using coconut oil which was inexpensive at the time, attempted to fatten their livestock. Instead, they found the coconut oil actually made the animals appear healthier and more active. It had sped up their metabolisms!
While it took years to finally study the effects of this peculiarity, it is now known why coconut oil boosts metabolism in many people. A lot of Americans are overweight and much of this obesity is caused by unhealthy overconsumption of fats, particularly LCFAs (long-chain fatty acids). If you’ll remember, coconut oil contains mostly MCFAs (medium-chain fatty acids), which are much better for you.
Replacing LCFAs with MCFAs typically decreases body weight, limits fat deposition and boosts metabolism. MCFAs are much easier digested and leave extra energy in your metabolic process for digestion and absorption of other nutrients.
An increased metabolism also tends to heighten the thyroid’s activity. Obesity can be caused by an underactive thyroid gland, so stimulation of it may offer even more assistance losing weight. An enhanced metabolism also bolsters your immune system.
Coconut oil does some impressive work on your body’s fat-fighting ability and can be extremely beneficial for those looking to lose weight.
5. Coconut Oil Helps Skin Look Young and Fresh
Coconut oil is a popular ingredient in many massage rooms and spas. You can reap the same benefits at home with ordinary coconut oil. It does a few different things for skin.
- Coconut oil can heal skin conditions like eczema, dandruff and psoriasis. Its effects as a moisturizer are what make it so commonly used in shampoos that prevent dandruff. Eczema and psoriasis can be caused by infectious fungi and coconut oil is an effective anti-fungal. When used against these skin conditions, it will ward them off and can prevent them from developing at all.
- Coconut oil protects your skin from free radicals and is actually considered by some biochemists to be an antioxidant for this reason. Free radicals cause severe oxidation in the cells of the body and are responsible for what gives skin the look of aging. So strong is its ability to prevent the skin’s oxidation that this doctor believes that it limits our need for the potent antioxidant, vitamin E.
- Coconut oil slows the growth of wrinkles. This keeps your skin looking younger. Coconut oil is a very good moisturizer and effectively absorbs into the skin. Upon absorption, it sinks into connective tissues and helps strengthen them by improving their elasticity. It also cleans the epidermis (the top layer of skin) of dead cells. This exfoliation and strengthening thin the lines of wrinkles.
6. Coconut Oil Can Eliminate Dangerous Microorganisms, Both Internally and Externally
Coconut oil is also an antimicrobial that can fight infections caused by microorganisms. Lauric acid is metabolized into a compound known as monolaurin. Both of these compounds are known to kill microorganisms that can harm you and cause bacterial, viral or fungal infections.
Of particular note, these compounds are effective at destroying Candida, a common yeast that leads to the most common fungal infections in the world. Candida is a part of our intestinal flora and is typically harmless, but can attack and cause disease if our immune system is weakened. Candida flourishes when a diet high in sugar is consumed, like those eaten by diabetics. If someone can’t cut sugar and carbohydrates out of their diet, they might consider adding an antimicrobial like coconut oil to their diet.
Supplementing as much as one tablespoon of coconut oil, three times daily has been shown to be effective at fighting candida and other yeast infections.
Coconut oil, unlike many other healthy foods that share antimicrobial properties, is just as effective externally. Coconut oil doesn’t need to be digested to release its antioxidants; it simply acts as one itself. This means it can directly attack skin conditions caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. This makes it a good weapon against psoriasis, staph infection and any other dermal viral or fungal infections.
7. Coconut Oil Can Fight Against Neurodegenerative Disease
A new branch of studying has proved that the brain has a backup source of energy that’s entirely different than the backup energy the rest of the body uses.
The body stores excess carbohydrates and sugars that we do not ise after eating. Glucose that is not burned is stored for later use as fat and acts as a reserve storage—this energy is only burned during strenuous, drawn-out exercise. It’s meant to be stored for when we really need it, which is why it’s so difficult to burn fat. The body makes great use of this stored fat, but the brain can’t use fatty acids when it’s running low on energy.
When the body starts running low on blood sugar, the brain falls back on another source for its backup reserves. Its alternative energy is stored in what is known as a ketone body or a ketone for short. Ketones are produced from fat that’s stored in the liver and are made with a single purpose—to deliver energy to the brain in times of need. When blood sugar levels go down, the body amps up its production of ketones so the brain has a constant supply of energy.
If someone has Alzheimer’s or another neurodegenerative disease (Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, to name a couple) the brain doesn’t absorb or process glucose properly, despite it being the main source of energy for the brain. The body produces ketones, which are used up quickly, leaving the brain with nothing. Ketones are only produced when the body is running low on blood sugar. They’re being used since the brain can’t process the sugar it is getting, but the host is likely eating properly and giving the liver no signal to produce extra ketones.
Studies have shown that a high ketone diet can improve symptoms of these diseases. Fortunately, coconut oil is known to produce ketones. In subjects suffering from Alzheimer’s, memory responses were shown to dramatically improve after supplementing with coconut oil—an impressive feat, since Alzheimer’s is degenerative and doesn’t often see symptoms get better. Most often, their development can just be slowed.
How to Select and Store Coconut Oil
You’ll probably want to know what to look for in terms of selection and what to do with your coconut oil once you’ve purchased it. Improper storage can damage coconut oil and certain types should be bought for certain circumstances.
Refined coconut oil often lacks the flavor and smell of the unrefined counterpart. Being refined allows for some culinary benefits; it can be cooked at slightly higher temperatures before smoking and you can use huge amounts of it without overpowering your food with the flavor of coconut.
Of course, they also lack some of health benefits virgin, unrefined coconut oils offer. Their MCFA profile is quite similar, so they are still far healthier than other saturated alternatives. The typical supermarket coconut oil is refined. Look for the term refined or unrefined on the label.
Be careful, as some coconut oils are refined through processes that use harsh chemicals that can severely damage the end product. Some are even hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
Unrefined coconut oil is also called virgin and extra-virgin, much like unrefined olive oil. These oils are typically made from the first pressing of coconut, prior to adding any chemicals or preservatives. They are often way more flavorful, though the purest, most unprocessed oils that aren’t exposed to any heat (heat makes the flavor more intense) will have a fairly light flavor.
Coconut oil, fortunately, is easy to store. You can leave it in a cupboard at room temperature for up to two years. It’s actually preferable to store in a cupboard or on the counter, because refrigerated coconut oil gets very hard and is hard to use.
Glass is the preferred storage material for coconut oil, since plastic carries a risk of leaching into the oil which can be very unhealthy.
How to Use Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has many effective uses for personal hygiene. It’s an effective moisturizer that can fight against skin conditions with its anti-fungal properties. It’s used in the production of soap, since coconut oil is typically hard at room temperature and it can add a nice scent and lubrication without compromising the soap itself.
Aside from personal use and culinary use, coconut oil has interesting traditional applications. It was used in India as a lamp lighting oil and kept large areas of the country lit. It’s also a popular material in commercial industries for a number of applications.
- Coconut oil can be used to fuel a diesel engine as biodiesel. Applied this way, coconut oil can power generators and transport food and large amounts of product.
- Coconut oil has been tested as a lubricant for engines and has been used as oil on electrical transformers.
- Coconut oil and fatty acids derived from it can be used in the production of surfactants (compounds that reduce surface tension between liquids and solids; these include detergents, moisteners, etc).
Coconut oil’s most common use is in the kitchen, as an additive for salad dressings, as a spread, but most often for frying and sautéing. It adds a nutty, rich flavor to any meal that is cooked with it and is regularly used in tropical areas. Southern Asia uses coconut oil frequently in curries. It also adds a delicious depth to pastries and other baked goods, pairing nicely with sweet goods.
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How to Properly Use Coconut Oil for Cooking
Coconut oil, both in its refined and unrefined states, is a healthier alternative to any processed oil like margarine. Unrefined coconut oil is healthier than butter and in certain senses, olive oil or other raw vegetable oils.
While olive oil is a delectable treat on its own, many recipes can be modified to include coconut oil as well as other vegetable oils.
Coconut oil is pretty potent and some people find that it’s easy to use less than the equivalent amount of whatever fat you’re replacing. This rings true for baking, frying, roasting; anything aside from when the oil is used unheated, like in salad dressings.
Organic ingredients are recommended above all others. Use your organic oil with fresh, organic produce and grass-fed meats.
Here are a few recipes to get you experimenting. I’ve included an appetizer, an entree, a salad and a dessert and a drink made with coconut oil—enough variation to make a full coconut meal if you so desire.
1. Southwest Loaded Sweet Potato Fries
This meal’s a bit of a comfort snack. It is loaded with lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but it also packs quite a bit of empty calories. However, the balance tips in the favor of the nutrients. It takes an hour from start to finish and makes enough crispy, loaded goodness for yourself or to share.
You will need:
For the fries:
- A big sweet potato
- A tablespoon of coconut oil
- Two tablespoons of cornmeal
- A tablespoon of adobo seasoning
For the toppings:
- Two ounces of cheese
- Half a cup of black beans
- A cup of spinach
- An avocado
- A quarter cup’s worth of onion (diced)
- A tablespoon of lime juice
- Two tablespoons of cilantro (finely chopped)
- A teaspoon of honey
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash and slice your potato into slices of about a quarter inch, then cut each of these slices into fries of even thickness. Rinse them again and put them on a paper towel and pat try.
Toss the fries in a bowl with your melted coconut oil, then sprinkle the cornmeal and adobo on top. Keep on tossing them until they’re sufficiently coated.
Spread the fries on a baking tray that’s either foiled or set with parchment. Bake them for around 40 minutes; they will be starting to brown and should be crispy when done. While they’re baking, make your topping. Once it’s all ready, move all the fries toward the center of the pan and grate your cheese on top. Bake for another few minutes until the cheese is melted, then move the fries onto a plate or a bowl.
Dice your onion and finely chop your spinach. Add those to a bowl with your avocado. Mix to mush the avocado, then add the beans. In a separate bowl, mix your lime juice, your cilantro, honey and olive oil. Pour that on top of the avocado mixture and mix it all together. It’s now ready to go on top of your fries or you can use it as dip. If you choose to put it on top, you can heat it up again for a few minutes if you desire.
2. Cacao and Oat Breakfast Beverage
This is a quick, rich and healthy drink that only takes the time involved in collecting the ingredients and blending. This recipe is for a single serve.
You will need:
- 200 ml of vegetarian milk: almond, soy, etc.
- 20 grams of oats
- A tablespoon of cacao powder
- Sweetener to taste: a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup, coconut sugar or cane sugar work well. 20 grams of pitted dates added to the recipe adds a great flavor and improves on the consistency.
- Blend everything.
- If preferred, heat on the stove over medium-low heat until you reach a preferred temperature.
3. Roasted cauliflower & lentil salad, with red pepper sauce
This recipe has an Eastern flair. It’s rich, tangy and packed with nutrients, antioxidants and a healthy dose of protein. This recipe must be prepared overnight and takes an additional hour of preparation. It makes enough to serve four.
Note: If you’re impatient like me, you can simply cook your lentils out of the bag/jar without soaking them beforehand. A little bit of quality is compromised, but at the barely noticeable cost of a bit of texture, you’re able to cook this recipe on demand within an hour. Simply mix them with twice as much water per volume as lentils and simmer with a lid on like rice.
You will need:
For the cauliflower + lentil salad
- A large cauliflower, minus leaves and stem
- Two teaspoons of coconut oil
- A teaspoon of cumin
- 350 grams of lentils, soaked
- A bay leaf
- A tablespoon of olive oil
- A handful of parsley
For the red pepper sauce:
- A large red pepper
- 70 grams of cashews, pre-roasted or soaked for 5 hours
- A clove of garlic
- Three tablespoons olive oil
- Two tablespoons lemon juice
- Salt & pepper
Preheat your oven 200 degrees celsius.
Cut the cauliflower into florets and arrange them on a baking tray. Rub them individually with coconut oil, then liberally spice with cumin and salt. Roast for close to half an hour, turning once. Once they’ve begun browning on all sides, they should be tender. Pierce with a toothpick to find out.
While the cauliflower’s roasting, prepare your sauce. Take the seeds out of the peppers and cut the pepper into quarters. Put them on the baking tray and salt them, then bake for 15 minutes or until the skins begin to grow loose and black.
Drain your lentils and rinse them to get rid of any excess. Put these in a saucepan with 700 ml of water and bay leaf. Bring the lentils to a boil before lowering the heat to a simmer. Leave simmering for 15 minutes, or as long as it takes for them to be tender. Drain and put in a bowl, then salt them and add enough olive oil to coat completely when mixed. Put aside for now.
Put your peppers in a blender or food processor. If you’ve been soaking your cashews, drain and rinse them now. If they were purchased pre-roasted, you can add them immediately. Put in the rest of the ingredients for the sauce, then blend or pulse until the sauce becomes nice and thick. Salt and pepper to your taste. If you must dilute the sauce, add more water or oil; if you must thicken it, add more cashews.
Prior to serving, mix the cauliflower and parsley in with the lentils. This mixture can be served on to plates and topped with the pepper sauce individually.
4. Vanilla and Toasted Cashew Mix
This is a quick snacky dessert mix that only takes 25 minutes to make. It makes a fairly big jar, which you could gorge on yourself entirely if you wanted. Or, you could share it with up to 14 people.
You will need:
- 12 ounces of flaked coconut (unsweetened for salty snack, sweetened for dessert snack)
- 12 ounces of raw cashews
- Two tablespoons of coconut oil
- A tablespoon of vanilla extract
- Half a teaspoon of salt
- Sweetener: maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, for dessert snack
- Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- Add the coconut and cashews on the baking sheet and try to evenly drip coconut oil and vanilla on top. Mix with spoons or chopsticks. Once they’re fairly evenly coated with the wet ingredients, add salt and/or sugar.
- Ensure the mixture is spread evenly, then bake until the scent begins to rise and the mixture is golden-brown. This shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. Ensure you toss the mixture every few minutes.
- Remove and cool. Put in a jar and snack at will.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.