By Ruth Ann Clayton, RD
Everyone who appreciates the flavor of coconut would agree that pure virgin unrefined coconut oil is something to be enjoyed. Yet recent data regarding coconut oil and health bring this tasty treat to a new level. To understand what coconut oil may or may not do for you, a few coconut oil facts can be of value.
The history of coconut oil is a bit confusing. In many tropical countries this product of the coconut palm fruit has been a diet staple for some 4000 years. In its natural unaltered form this staple has been used as medicine and food by diverse groups around the globe.
After World War II coconut oil was sold as margarine in England and coconut butter in the United States. The change in product use began in the mid 1950’s when research found the use of saturated fats and cholesterol from animal fats contributed to heart disease. This research led to the widespread use of polyunsaturated fats so vegetable oils like soy, corn and safflower oil gained favor. Vegetable oil margarines and other products were produced. Companies even began to substitute dangerous trans fats into their lines. Due to flawed perception that its saturated fat content was “bad for the body” coconut oil fell out of favor from the 1970s and because refined coconut oils were partially hydrogenated they were shunned.
The flaw was in thinking that the saturated fat in coconut oil was the same as animal saturated fats. Animal saturated fats and those found in coconut oil do differ. Pure unrefined virgin coconut oil is not hydrogenated and does not contain cholesterol. It contains approximately 92% saturated fat, 6% monounsaturated fat, and 2% polyunsaturated fat. The coconut fat occurs naturally and is not manipulated through chemistry.
Coconut oil is one of the highest sources of a unique combination of plant saturated fatty acids known as medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs, unlike other saturated fats, are diffused or absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Their metabolism is different and quicker with the fats going straight to the liver thereby providing a quick source of energy. The long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) found in oils such as canola, soy and safflower need more digestion and take longer to breakdown.
This unusual fatty acid makeup may offer the benefits attributed to coconut oil. The main MCFAs found in coconut oil are lauric, caprylic and capric fatty acids. Lauric acid is extracted from coconut oil for medical purposes. It makes up approximately 45% of the fatty acid component of coconut oil. Some research points to it increasing HDL cholesterol thus creating improved blood cholesterol. It is thought to have some negative effects on bacteria, viruses and fungi. Lauric acid actually converts to monolaurin in the body and is found in breast milk. Interestingly caprylic fatty acid is used in medical applications and is also used naturally as an antifungal.
Coconut oil contains 9 calories per gram which is the same as all fats. One (1) tablespoon is equal to 125 calories, 14 gm total fat and 12-13 gm of saturated fat and .5–1 gm monounsaturated fat. Remember the fat is mostly MCFA saturated fat. Coconut oil is solid below 76 degrees Fahrenheit. Above this temperature it will become liquid. It does not become oxidized easily thus has a shelf life of about two years.
Research is beginning to show unrefined virgin coconut oil may support metabolism and weight loss, healthy cholesterol levels, thyroid function and immune function. Although some claims you may see are testimonial and not clinical, the fact is that it has been used in many tropical cultures for centuries. You should leave your mind open to future research on the health benefits of this delicious oil.
The list of other uses for coconut oil is endless. Coconut oil is moisturizing and conditioning for skin and hair. It is fantastic for food preparation due to its smoking point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit which lessens the oxidation of the oil. It is good oil for vegan cooking, baked goods, and goes great in a smoothie. Keep a container in your kitchen and another in your bathroom. If very high heat is needed refined oil has a smoke point around 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Non-GMO labeling is very important and is assured in an organic product. Organic will also guarantee it to be free of solvents and chemicals found in some conventional coconut oils. Buy coconut oil that is labeled unrefined and cold pressed. “Unrefined” means it has not been hydrogenated, bleached or deodorized. Refined will leave you with little coconut taste or aroma. Extra virgin organic oil is the best choice.
Substitute coconut oil for other saturated fats, animal fats and trans fats with about 1-2 Tbsp. per day. Remember, it is a fat so the calories can add up and you can get too much of a good thing. But research continues and the fact is this: Coconut oil may not yet be designated as a super-food or wonder-food, but you may consider it as part of a healthy diet.
Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.
As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.