Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Ongoing Coconut Oil Controversy

Coconut oil is an edible oil extracted from the meat or kernel of the mature fruit of the coconut tree. It plays an important role in Brazilian cuisine, particularly as a component of the coconut milk called for in a huge number of traditional dishes in Brazil. The oil is particularly associated with the Afro-Brazilian cuisine of the north-eastern state of Bahia, where it is an essential ingredient in the seafood stews called moquecas, in vatapá, and in many sweets and desserts.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of coconut oil is that it is highly saturated (meaning that the oil is solid rather than liquid at room temperature). Consumption of saturated fats in general is known to contribute to high levels of cholesterol and because of health concerns, such well-respected authorities as the US FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Heart Association, and the British National Health Service recommend against the consumption of significant amounts of coconut oil due to its high levels of saturated fats.

Coconut oil and palm oil has been vilified for years as dietary time-bombs in the popular press. There are significant concerns about the consumption of coconut oil, particularly unknown coconut oil in processed foods. For example, many movie theatres use coconut oil to pop the popcorn they sell in immense quantities. Because it is highly saturated coconut oil is exceptionally stable, meaning that it can be used to fry foods a high temperatures and that is has an extremely long shelf-life, up to two years. These properties are often increased by the process of hydrogenation, and much of the coconut oil used in processed foods is hydrogenated. Hydrogenizing coconut oil raises the temperature at which it melts, an important characteristic in warm climates. Unprocessed coconut oil melts at well below body temperature (about 24C or 76F) but processed oil remains solid up to 36-40C or 97-104F. Some of the fat in coconut oil is converted into unhealthy trans fats during the hydrogenation process as well.

Recent research in Brazil and elsewhere indicates that unprocessed coconut oil (called virgin oil, like olive oil) might not actually be so dangerous as previously thought, and perhaps it's only hydrogenated coconut oil that should be avoided. Unhydrogenated coconut oil contains a large proportion of lauric acid, a saturated fat that increases the level of HDL cholesterol (the "good cholesterol) in the blood. Human breast milk also contains significant amounts of lauric acid. Because much of coconut oil's saturated fat is in this form of lauric acid, it might be a better alternative than hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils when solid fats are required. Because much of the early research on coconut oil was done on hydrogenated oils and not on virgin oil the levels of risk associated with coconut milk in those studies might not apply to the virgin oil. It seems that the health risk profile for virgin oil is significantly better than for the processed product.

Creative cooks in Brazil and elsewhere are exploring the culinary potential of virgin coconut oil. Many have commented on its slightly sweet, slightly nutty taste which makes it an excellent choice in pastries and sweet baking. Customer demand for virgin oil, coupled with falling demand for hydrogenated oil with its trans fats, means that the natural product is increasingly available in many countries, where it can most easily be found in health food and natural food stores and markets. I've spotted it recently in Fortaleza and the jar was clearly labeled "virgem". If you're buying it anywhere else, look for the word virgin or the local-launguage equivalent to make sure you're not getting hydrogenated oil.

Maybe we don't have to be quite so scared of coconut oil as we've been led to believe in recent times. It's a matter of making sure that one doesn't consume large amounts of hidden hydrogenated coconut oil in processed foods, that one uses only virgin oil when it is called for in a recipe, and as with everything else, consuming with in moderation.


  1. Wonderful update....thanks for posting. I used the virgin coconut oil a few times in bolo (in the US) from natural food stores and really liked it.

  2. Really interesting! I wonder if there is such a thing as a healthier, virgin version of palm oil too. I seem to remember reading that palm oil is really pretty bad for you because of it's high saturated fat content. It's very popular in West Africa as well as North East Brazil but then I guess both these areas have their fair share of other health issues such that a specific detrimental effect from palm oil would be masked.