Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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.
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.