How do you use coconut oil? Refined or unrefined? Substitute with coconut oil for baking and cooking? Coconut oil is used for personal care like lotion, eye makeup remover, eczema treatment, oil pulling, and more. I could go on about the usefulness of coconut oil.
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. There is a difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil.
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!).
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 coconut oil is bad for you but the tides are changing. 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 a Harvard professor in late 2018, and in 2017.1 The American Heart Association made tidal waves on social media by saying that no one should consume coconut oil.2
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!
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
These 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.3
- 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.4
- Virgin coconut oil had an antistress effect in mice, including lowering cholesterol and triglycerides.5
- 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.6
- Antioxidant and hepatoprotective effects of virgin coconut oil supplementation against hepatotoxicity and oxidative damage induced by anticancer drug methotrexate (MTX).7
- 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.8
- 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.9
- 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.10
I was glad to see the New York Times post a sort-of rebuttal after a Harvard professor went for claiming coconut oil is poison.11 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 delightfully sarcastic YouTube video about the coconut oil controversy and the American Heart Association cracked me up!
Why You Should 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)12
- antiviral, antifungal properties (like garlic!) with evidence that it can kill cold and flu viruses.13
- antibacterial, antimicrobial properties14
- 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.)15
- Lauric acid builds immunity and promotes heart health and brain development.
- Inhibits cancer growth
- Great for mother’s milk supply
- promotes strong bones with it’s antioxidants16
Suggested Reading: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, Real Food by Nina Planck, Virgin Coconut Oil by Brian & Marianita Jader Shilhavy
For more on how to cook traditional foods and use traditional fats, see Traditional Cooking School Fundamentals.
What Coconut Oil is Good For
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 tablespoon 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 cream
- 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 & eats coconut oil
- 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 (I like what he has to say about MCTs).
- 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 where I buy 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. 🙂
- Resetarits, V. (2018, August 20). A Harvard professor said coconut oil isn’t a superfood, calling it ‘pure poison’. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/harvard-speaker-busts-coconut-oil-health-myth-calling-it-pure-poison-2018-8
- Sacks, F. M., Lichtenstein, A. H., Wu, J. H., Appel, L. J., Creager, M. A., Kris-Etherton, P. M., . . . Horn, L. V. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 136(3). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000510
- Cardoso, D. A., Moreira, A. S., De Oliveira, G. M., Luiz, R. R., & Rosa, G. (2015). A COCONUT EXTRA VIRGIN OIL-RICH DIET INCREASES HDL CHOLESTEROL AND DECREASES WAIST CIRCUMFERENCE AND BODY MASS IN CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE PATIENTS. Nutr Hosp, 32(5), 2144-2152. doi:10.3305/nh.2015.32.5.9642
- Assunção, M. L., Ferreira, H. S., Santos, A. F., Cabral, C. R., & Florêncio, T. M. (2009). Effects of Dietary Coconut Oil on the Biochemical and Anthropometric Profiles of Women Presenting Abdominal Obesity. Lipids, 44(7), 593-601. doi:10.1007/s11745-009-3306-6
- Yeap, S. K., Beh, B. K., Ali, N. M., Yusof, H. M., Ho, W. Y., Koh, S. P., . . . Long, K. (2014). Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine, 9(1), 39-42. doi:10.3892/etm.2014.2045
- Famurewa, A. C., Ekeleme-Egedigwe, C. A., Nwali, S. C., Agbo, N. N., Obi, J. N., & Ezechukwu, G. C. (2017). Dietary Supplementation with Virgin Coconut Oil Improves Lipid Profile and Hepatic Antioxidant Status and Has Potential Benefits on Cardiovascular Risk Indices in Normal Rats. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 15(3), 330-342. doi:10.1080/19390211.2017.1346031
- Famurewa, A. C., Ufebe, O. G., Egedigwe, C. A., Nwankwo, O. E., & Obaje, G. S. (2017). Virgin coconut oil supplementation attenuates acute chemotherapy hepatotoxicity induced by anticancer drug methotrexate via inhibition of oxidative stress in rats. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 87, 437-442. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2016.12.123
- Famurewa, A. C., Aja, P. M., Maduagwuna, E. K., Ekeleme-Egedigwe, C. A., Ufebe, O. G., & Azubuike-Osu, S. O. (2017). Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of virgin coconut oil supplementation abrogate acute chemotherapy oxidative nephrotoxicity induced by anticancer drug methotrexate in rats. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 96, 905-911. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2017.12.008
- Arunima, S., & Rajamohan, T. (2013). Effect of virgin coconut oil enriched diet on the antioxidant status and paraoxonase 1 activity in ameliorating the oxidative stress in rats – a comparative study. Food & Function, 4(9), 1402. doi:10.1039/c3fo60085h
- Nagao, K., & Yanagita, T. (2010). Medium-chain fatty acids: Functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Pharmacological Research, 61(3), 208-212. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2009.11.007
- Rabin, R., & Egan, S. (2018, August 21). Is Coconut Oil Good or Bad for You? Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/well/eat/coconut-oil-good-bad-health.html
- Corleone, J. (2020). Is Coconut Oil Good for Frying in High-Temperature Cooking? Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/446041-is-coconut-oil-good-for-frying-on-high-temperature-cooking/
- Joshi, S., Kaushik, V., Gode, V., & Mhaskar, S. (2020). Coconut Oil and Immunity: What do we really know about it so far? Journal of the Association of Physicians of India, 68(7), 67-72.
- Shilling, M., Matt, L., Rubin, E., Visitacion, M. P., Haller, N. A., Grey, S. F., & Woolverton, C. J. (2013). Antimicrobial Effects of Virgin Coconut Oil and Its Medium-Chain Fatty Acids onClostridium difficile. Journal of Medicinal Food, 16(12), 1079-1085. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.0303
- Monolaurin: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1149/monolaurin
- Hayatullina, Z., Muhammad, N., Mohamed, N., & Soelaiman, I. (2012). Virgin Coconut Oil Supplementation Prevents Bone Loss in Osteoporosis Rat Model. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012, 1-8. doi:10.1155/2012/237236