When I first started getting into traditional nutrition, I read about coconut oil. I was surprised how often I ran into it, and I didn’t even know what it was (was it liquid or solid???), but I was curious to see if I could figure out how to use it and if we would like it.
Refined vs. Unrefined Coconut Oil
There are two kinds of coconut oil: refined and unrefined. The refined has no flavor or smell of coconuts, and it’s less expensive, so I started with a 16-oz jar of it to see if some recipes calling for coconut oil were winners. I was amazed at how fast I was going through this “test” jar, so I tried the kind with the smell and flavor of coconut (“unrefined”). Again, for someone who doesn’t like coconuts, I was flying through the jar.
Now, so many years later, I can hardly imagine my kitchen withOUT coconut oil, and it’s been an interesting ride explaining our choices to others, especially in light of the media throwing bad press on it after a few negative pieces of research and one speaker at Harvard (who seems uninformed to me!).
Coconut oil is certainly a thing of controversy, in every way!
Here are some interesting facts about coconut oil:
- Coconuts aren’t nuts; they’re a fruit.
- Coconut milk isn’t milk; it’s juice.
- Coconut oil doesn’t act at all the way any self-respecting “oil” should; it doesn’t pour (at least in my cold Northern state much of the year!) but is solid at room temperature.
Can you say, “contradiction in terms?”
Coconut oil is perhaps one of the more divisive fats/oils out there, because the mainstream puts it at the very top of the “bad fats” list, while the traditional foodie folks seek it out as the healthiEST of fats (or so it feels at times, but maybe it’s because we’re engaging in an uphill battle).
I’ve never encountered a food more odd than coconut oil. It took me forever (it felt like) to figure out what the stuff even WAS as I was reading about in text form. How should I use coconut oil in the kitchen? Could I use it as a solid fat (shortening) substitute? Could I use it as a liquid oil (canola) substitute?
Let me clear up the “what the heck IS coconut oil?” questions for you after I convince you it’s actually healthy. 😉
Is Coconut Oil Bad for You?
Some sources say so. Mostly if you believe that saturated fats are bad for you, then coconut oil, being 90% saturated fat, must, therefore, be bad for you. But what if you believe the evidence that saturated fat is good for you? Coconut oil is a hands-down winner.
“Coconut oil is pure poison…more dangerous than lard,” said this Harvard speaker in late 2018, and in 2017, the American Heart Association made tidal waves in social media by saying that no one should consume coconut oil.
But…lard has over 50% monounsaturated fat, the same fat as in avocados! Since using it regularly (among other dietary changes), my husband’s triglycerides have gone way down, from dangerous levels to normal/near-normal, his cholesterol is in range, and I got the prize for the highest HDL (good cholesterol) my doc had ever seen! (and very low LDL)
The only thing worse than saying unequivocally that a food is a poison because it may be correlated with increased risk of heart disease – even though studies continue to come out to the contrary! – is that the decently balanced article in the Business Insider gets syndicated to this incredibly short, 110% negative article!
What’s real? Here are some who say it’s terrible for you in the media:
- I was sad to see tropical oils listed as the “most heart-unhealthy oils” at Ask Dr. Sears, a pediatrician whom I idolize on all other fronts. It was also listed on my mother-in-law’s heart literature from the hospital after her double bypass – under “Unhealthy Fats, Avoid” of course. All “tropical oils” meet this fate because of their saturated fat.
- Evitamins.com cites some research studies with coconut oil that have pretty negative results as far as LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol, but they list sources of coconut oil as “processed foods, including fried foods, crackers, desserts, candies, whipped topping, and non-dairy creamer.” Of course, those sources, probably hydrogenated, aren’t going to do anyone any good!
- A nicely balanced article at US News and World Report states that coconut oil has not been shown to promote weight loss in human studies, although it has in animals. It has had proven positive impact on HDL, your good cholesterol, and the article gives it a “needs more research” vote at the end. In that light, if you’re looking for a substitute for shortening or margarine or vegetable oil, what I would call, toxic, dangerous foods, coconut oil seems to be a great stand-in!
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
But here are a number of journal research articles that support coconut oil’s health benefits!
Remember that the naysayers all claim that coconut oil is bad for the heart, raises cholesterol and LDL especially. But does it?
- Extra Virgin coconut oil reduced nearly all bodily measurements in patients who already had coronary artery disease (such as waist circumference) and increased HDL, without causing any negative effects on other numbers or risk factors. Cardoso DA et al, 2015
- Compared to soybean oil, which increased cholesterol in overweight women, coconut oil as a dietary addition reduced waist circumference and increased HDL while lowering LDL. Assuncao ML 2009
- Virgin coconut oil had an antistress effect in mice, including lowering cholesterol and triglycerides. Yeap SK et al, 2015
- Virgin coconut oil in rats’ diets led to significant reduction in total cholesterol (TC), triglyceride (TG), and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) level increased significantly. Famurewa AC et al, 2018
- Antioxidant and hepatoprotective effects of virgin coconut oil supplementation against hepatotoxicity and oxidative damage induced by anticancer drug methotrexate (MTX) Famurewa AC et al, 2017
- Virgin coconut oil supplementation demonstrated nephroprotective activity and results of this study suggested that coconut oil may benefit cancer patients on MTX chemotherapy against kidney injury. Famurewa AC et al, 2017
- This study examined the comparative effect of virgin coconut oil (VCO) with copra oil (CO), olive oil (OO) and sunflower oil (SFO) and esults revealed that dietary VCO improved the antioxidant status compared to other three oils. Arunima S et al, 2013
- Dietary lipids have been recognized as contributory factors in the development and the prevention of cardiovascular risk clustering, specifically medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Additionally, several reports suggest that MCFAs/MCTs offer the therapeutic advantage of preserving insulin sensitivity in animal models and patients with type 2 diabetes. Nagao K et al, 2010
I was glad to see the New York Times post a sort-of rebuttal about the Harvard professor’s viral comment, but even they didn’t seem to believe that all of the above research could be true – that far from being BAD for you, coconut oil might actually be GOOD for you.
This YouTube video about the coconut oil controversy and the American Heart Association is delightfully sarcastic, and this is a nicely balanced article about the health pros and cons of coconut oil (I like what he has to say about MCTs).
Why I Use Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is, in my opinion, the most unique “oil” I’ve ever encountered. Solid or liquid at room temperature depending on your climate, it can take the place of almost any fat or oil in your kitchen (but don’t worry about a monopoly or overthrow, coconut oil is very humble).
Here’s a short list of why I’m using coconut oil in MY kitchen:
- very heat stable for frying and sauteeing – refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400ºF (also nice bonus of a 2-year shelf life)
- antiviral, antibacterial, antimicrobial properties (like garlic!). Evidence that it can kill cold and flu viruses.
- fights yeast infections/Candida
- lauric acid – a component of breastmilk, so rare that almost all formula has to use coconut oil just to get it in there! (You can also get it in quality whole milk/cream.)
- Lauric acid builds immunities and promotes heart health and brain development.
- Inhibits cancer growth
- Great for mother’s milk supply
- medium-chain triglycerides are absorbed directly from the small intestine for quick energy.
- promotes strong bones
For more on how to cook traditional foods and use traditional fats, see Traditional Cooking School Fundamentals.
Is Coconut Oil a Miracle Food?
A lot of people seem to swear by coconut oil for everything and rely on it as a miracle food. I’ve relied on it for many purposes over the years and really do love coconut products, but when I think about it as a staple food and a “does-everything” gem, I always remember this: coconuts are not grown in every part of the world.
If God intended us to subsist on coconuts, He wouldn’t have made them so temperature-exclusive.
I don’t think coconut oil should be your exclusive fat, but there are diets that instruct the users to take a Tbs of coconut oil before every meal and have you cooking everything with coconuts. I’m happy to order my coconut oil with the help of UPS, but traditional societies wouldn’t always have had access to coconut oil.
That being said, when Dr. Weston A. Price studied traditional cultures and their diets, he found that some tribes traveled far and wide to obtain fish. Not everyone has fish, not everyone has coconut oil. Did traditional Europeans and early Americans have access to coconut oil via trading?
Now we can dive into HOW you might use coconut oil in your kitchen, in case you’re not already a good friend of this fun fat. 😉
Coconut Oil FAQs
Coconut oil has a melting point of 76 degrees (so unique!)
- Is coconut oil a solid fat? Yes. (I’d describe it as harder than Crisco but softer than cold butter.)
- Is coconut oil a liquid oil? Yes. (Looks and pours like vegetable oil, less yellow for refined, white if it’s virgin.)
Does coconut oil taste like coconuts? Depends
- Virgin or unrefined coconut oil both smells and tastes like coconuts, albeit mildly.
- I have found that even this form of coconut oil rarely imparts the flavor of coconuts when used in bread products, baked oatmeal, pancakes, etc. As long as the oil isn’t a major component of the recipe, the flavor seems to disappear. It adds a lovely sweetness when added by the spoonful to a morning bowl of oatmeal and is great in smoothies.
- Refined coconut oil (or probably any oil that doesn’t specifically splash the words “virgin” or “unrefined” on itself!) has no smell or flavor of coconuts.
- It is a less healthy version because it has been refined, bleached and deodorized, which sounds gross, but that’s the norm for all the oils you buy in the store for cooking, anyway. It’s also considerably less expensive. Use this when sauteeing veggies or meat where coconut flavor doesn’t belong or anything at high heat, or in baked goods if you just can’t handle any coconut flavor.
How to Use Coconut Oil
I use unrefined coconut oil “raw” in my smoothies and oatmeal. (Tip for smoothies: it must be liquid, poured in quickly and blended in immediately and thoroughly, or it will solidify again because of your other cold ingredients. Little balls of coconut oil in the smoothie is pretty gross!) It makes the oatmeal sweet enough that I almost don’t need any other sweetener.
You can use coconut oil as a substitute in many/most recipes that call for butter, margarine or shortening, and also (melted) in any recipe that calls for “oil”, at least all those that I’ve encountered thus far. This is a straight substitution, 1 cup for 1 cup, etc.
It made the BEST healthy chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made, even 100% whole wheat (and this is saying something because I’ve had the worst luck with chocolate chip cookies. They have been either burned on the bottom or spread out like a floppy Frisbee since we moved into this house. I thought I was cursed until this recipe!)
- Whole Grain Cornbread
- Homemade Granola (for the oil)
- Our favorite pancakes
- Cherry Almond Coconut Crepes
- Sourdough crackers and Wheat Thin Style Crackers
- Homemade Frosting
- Apple Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal and Pumpkin Pie Baked Oatmeal
- Apple Squares
- Homemade Chocolate Bars
- Grain Free Coconut Muffins and Grain Free Apple Flax Muffins
- Gluten Free Pumpkin Muffins and Gluten Free Savory Bacon Muffins
- Seriously, I use it in just about anything that calls for butter if I don’t have butter available or soft enough. Breads, quick breads, cookies, pancakes, you name it.
Because coconut oil has a lovely stability on account of its saturated fat, it is considered safe for frying. You can:
Coconut oil is relatively easy to melt, compared to butter. If you store it in a glass jar, you can set it at the back of your stovetop while your oven is on, and it will be liquid in no time. I’ll do this when I know I’m baking later in the day and need “oil”, because it does take a while for it to solidify again.
You can also set it in warm water, even *old* dishwater after doing dishes (just make sure the lid of your container is on tightly!). If you’re in a rush, you can melt it on the stovetop in a pan, or even in the dish you’re going to bake in inside the oven as it preheats. It melts faster than butter.
Use it on your skin!
Here are some other ways I use coconut oil (the unrefined version) in my green and crunchy home:
- on baby’s bottom instead of diaper creme
- for cradle cap
- face and homemade hand lotion – coconut oil is one of the main ingredients in my favorite moisturizing lotion (although, you might want to read more about its properties before using coconut oil for skin so you know if it’s the right choice for your skin type)
- on eczema spots
- in homemade sunscreen – it has an SPF of about 4-6! (check out my natural sunscreen reviews if you don’t feel like DIYing it)
- in homemade deodorant
- as eye makeup remover (amazing!)
- for oil pulling
Other Coconut Oil Resources
- See how Katie from Wellness Mama uses coconut oil for home and beauty
- Lots of ways Kimi from the Nourishing Gourmet incorporates coconut oil into daily life
- Kelly the Kitchen Kop pops popcorn with coconut oil
- Many Eats outlines the health benefits of coconut oil in depth
- The Huffington Post has a delicious looking list of baked goods and meals you can use coconut oil in
Where to Buy Coconut Oil
Another option for buying coconut oil online is Soaper’s Choice – they sell oils for soap and lotion makers, but they are food-grade, and can be consumed by the tongue just as well as the skin! Don’t be thrown off by that part. 🙂
If you want to know even more about the science side of oils, virgin vs. refined, read on for the Soaper’s Choice chemist, Rick Cummisford’s, intel. But be warned: this is not something you should bother skimming. Put your thinking caps on! I’m just going to copy our conversation verbatim, so you can help me figure out everything he says!
Me and the Chemist: Discussion about Refined vs. Extra Virgin Oils
This is from a discussion I had in 2009. We talked about both olive oil and coconut oil, and I’m including some answers from the olive oil portion of our chat because it may apply also to refining coconut oil. Learn more about how to buy olive oil here…
1. Me: Regarding the olive oil refined – A: how do the nutrients remaining after refining compare to virgin olive oil? My research tells me that extra virgin has the most vitamin E, for example, but virgin has the greatest impact on heart health (and is safer to cook with because of its higher smoke point). What is the refining process – any chemicals? Would the oil be oxidized/damaged in any way? Feel free to get technical, I’d like to think of myself as an academe.
Rick: As an oil is processed such as refining you will lose some of the natural nutrients, such as Vitamin E, which does not hold up well when heated. But other nutrients do remain, such as the natural sterols that exist in the Olive oil do remain after processing.
The refining process removes particulates and other unwanted by-products in the oils. Also during this process, the extra virgin and virgin oils are often treated with a small concentration of caustic which neutralizes the free fatty acids that occur naturally. Filtration, centrifuging and other separation techniques.
No, during the processing of the oil, other than the loss of some of the natural antioxidants, the oil quality improves, by removing the the natural undesirable by-products in the oil. During refining the Free Fatty Acids, Peroxide values, color, odor, and flavor are reduced dramatically, yielding a consistent high quality product.
2. Me: I’d love to understand the chemistry behind what happens to damage oils under heat and pressure. Would I be correct in saying that if I’m going to saute something in olive oil, the heat I apply at home would ultimately reduce the nutrients/damage the oil just like the refining process would? (So it would make more sense to buy refined for cooking…)
Rick: Keep in mind the refining process is under a controlled environment, whereby the oil is not exposed to air and the temperatures are controlled. The refining process does not damage the oil, but the nutrient level when an oil is heated will be reduced. Sautéing is a very tough environment to apply to an oil, meaning you have high heat, in excess of 400ºF, a very high concentration of air and moisture and other conditions, all of these play a role in breaking the oil and desirable components down rapidly.
3. Me: Regarding the RBD coconut oil (organic), what is the process for taking the smell and flavor out?
Rick: After the initial refining step, the oil will still have compounds present that can cause the oil to have dark color, and strong odor and flavor. Those two particular steps are called the Bleaching and Deodorization steps.
Bleaching step – the refined oil is mixed with a absorbent material, such as diatomaceous earth, which is a porous solid material that has the unique properties to attract and absorb many of these compounds that cause color and even flavor and odor. Then this material is removed by filtration.
Deodorization Step – still after the bleaching step some of the compounds that cause odor and flavor issues remain. Now the oil is heated up, put under a vacuum and steam is sparged through. this steam is immediately removed taking with it many of these undesirable compounds, resulting in fresh light colored, flavorless and odorless product.
My note: the coconut oil is organic, so it can’t have any chemicals added to it. Always a good thing.
Rick: I think once you get down to it, any olive oil you sauté with will under similar degradation and break down, so it wouldn’t matter which you would use for sautéing. I personally like the flavor that Extra Virgin adds to our dishes.
The only difference you may see is a little less smoke from the Refined A Olive oil, but probably not a significant amount unless you’re going to deep fry with it.
My thoughts on that: Again, I’m not looking at flavor alone, but health. So if there’s any smoke from the EVOO, I know there’s a problem with oxidation. I think. Then again, Rick is the chemist, and I’m the former-teacher-stay-at-home-mom.