Saturated fats have been villainized in as the definitive root of heart disease and the many other degenerative ailments so common in our culture. Yet, cultures throughout the world have eaten saturated fats throughout their histories. Coconut oil has been a victim of this treatment, being composed of nearly 90% saturated fats. Has it received an unfair treatment?
The coconut hails from the Pacific Islands, where it has been a food staple for thousands of years among the islands’ inhabitants. Coconut oil is the product of pressing the meat of the coconut to extract the pure fat. Similar methods are used to produce coconut cream (a pressing of the meat, but keeping a whole product and not merely extracting the oil) and coconut milk (a pressing/pureeing of the meat with a liquid, frequently the coconut’s own water). Various cultures throughout the Pacific Islands, such as the Trobriand Islanders, derive a large percentage of the calories from the coconut, from which nearly all their fat calories derive. And yet, these people have a near absence of heart disease or other degenerative diseases as our culture.
Research into the benefits and structure of coconut oil have produced surprising results. Such benefits include: improved immune system, boosted thyroid, more efficient digestion and metabolism, and increased weightloss. Additionally, coconut oil has been used in the tropics for skin conditions, and simply as a beauty aid for skin and hair. Coconut sports a unique profile of fat molecules, unique in almost all the plant kingdom. It is from its unique molecular structure that its benefits can be attributed.
Other than mothers milk, coconut oil the most dense source of lauric acid known. Lauric acid is an important fat molecule for our bodies, especially as infants, as it helps to build our immune systems. Lauric acid converts in our bodies into monolaurin, a substance known to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral. This fact alone has led coconut oil to be proscribed to individuals with severely compromised immune systems, such as HIV patients.
Coconut oil’s other unique attribute is that is composed of mostly mono-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are a saturated fat, and compose about 50% of the fat found in coconut oil. MCTs vary significantly from other fats in how our bodies metabolize them, whether this be saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or polyunsaturated fats. Commonly, other fatty acids are considered to be long-chain fatty acids, which are large molecules that take a significant amount of energy for our bodies to break down. As such, they are much more likely to be stored as fat within our bodies. MCTs on the other hand, are efficiently broken down by our liver, and almost immediately utilized for energy. Benefits attributed to coconut oil such as increased metabolism, energy, and athletic stamina can be traced back to this fact. Additionally, coconut oil is now frequently recommended for Alzheimer and dementia patients because of its potential ability to help with cognitive function – a fact that can also be traced back to how it is metabolized.
Another benefit of coconut oil is simply that it is composed primarily of saturated fats. This in beneficial when it comes to cooking, as many commonly used oils for cooking are polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats break down quickly when exposed to heat, and thus become rancid. This can occur even at seemingly light heat. Saturated fats break down much more slowly when exposed to heat, especially the more saturated they are by nature. Coconut oil’s 90% saturated nature makes it ideal for cooking, even at heats high enough for frying. Additionally, coconut oil is ideal for baking, as its highly saturated structure makes it ideal for prolonged exposure to heat. You may even want to consider using coconut oil exclusively for your cooking needs!
Coconut oil is again becoming a mainstream oil, and is now relatively easy to find. While you can find it numerous health food stores, it is now being offered at many more ‘conventional’ locales. When buying coconut oil, look for virgin cold-pressed unrefined oil. While other varieties can also be beneficial to your health, cold-pressed and unrefined oils are extracted at lower temperatures to maintain the integrity of the fat’s molecular structure, and unrefined to not contain chemical agents to help the extraction (which can be harmful to your health). Coconut oil is typically hard a room temperature because of its saturated nature, but can also be a clear liquid at above 70°F.
Give coconut oil a try, you’ll be wonderfully surprised, even if only for its flavor!