Curious About Coconut Oil

June 24, 2009

I’ve gladly embraced the coconut since I’ve been living in Brazil. As you can imagine it shows up in a lot of places around here. Those green coconuts with the tops chopped off and a straw inserted which most people seek out on their vacations, I now have access to everyday after my workouts at the park.

It’s a different world for me and while I was not a lover of coconut as a kid, it has grown on me quite rapidly in the past few years. Readily available as it may be, I will admit that it has been with reservation that I’ve generous added all forms of this food into my cooking.

Old habits die hard and when you are in a field where the dangers of saturated fats and all associated foods has been hammered into your head for years, it takes a while to adjust to new things. Then I started to read more and more about coconut oil. It’s nothing new, actually, been around forever, like most other natural, healthy foods, I might add.

I’ve been promising this post a while and I finally feel like I’ve done enough research to present what I’ve found and the views I’ve formed. It is really, really difficult to research topics like this in my opinion. I mean, 75% of the information out there that is understandable is from a company who sells coconut oil so you know they are going to present the positives. Yes, the info may be true, but one must read and believe with caution.

So here’s the breakdown.

Coconut oil has been used for a very long time in many of the cultures who have had easy access to it, India, Thailand, etc. Well, with our “eat low fat” mantra which eventually changed to a “eat healthy fat” mantra which is slowly becoming a “everything is okay except trans fat” mantra, coconut oil got a bit of a bad rap in the US.

Now this isn’t completely unwarranted. Much of what was being analyzed was refined and hydrogenated coconut oil, not good for you. However, the good stuff, the virgin coconut oil got thrown in with it making all coconut oil, no matter the source, bad for your heart, according to health professionals and some researchers.

Well, researchers (and lots of companies selling coconut oil) are now telling us that’s not true. I have to say, at this point, I agree.

Coconut oil has a high concentration of saturated fat, but this particular fat actually has two very positive qualities when it comes to health. One, it contains lauric acid. This gives coconut anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties. You can find people all over the web swearing how good it works for the immune system and as a topical ointment.

Second, coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) which are metabolized differently by the body than other fatty acids. They are absorbed more efficiently in our gastrointestinal tract and transported directly to the liver where they are utilized for energy. Long chain fatty acids, on the other hand, are converted into chylomicrons (substances that transport fats in the body) and go through the lymph system.

The big buzz around MCFA is that research studies have shown them to be associated with weight loss. Animal and human studies show an increase in energy expenditure after consumption leading researchers to believe they hold potential for promoting weight loss (1). In addition, another study concluded that intake of MCFA oils was more effective for weight loss than olive oil (2). In response to speculation that MCFA are associated with cardiovascular disease when used with weight loss programs, yet another study determined that there was no negative effect on metabolic risk factors (3). It was added in the conclusion that a distinction should be made on fatty acid chain length when discussing the effects of saturated fat on metabolic risk factors.

Okay, take a breather. Just a little more science stuff.

There has been some research linking coconut oil to improved cholesterol, but a lot of this has been in animal studies. Of course, that is where most nutritional research starts so it is worth mentioning. One study showed that the consumption of coconut oil by laboratory rats resulted in a decrease of total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL (4). From what I have gathered even if some professionals believe coconut oil doesn’t necessarily improve cholesterol, they do recognize that it may not exactly hurt it either. That can be viewed as a positive when it comes to fats considering all the bad publicity they’ve had in the past.

Virgin coconut oil is where it’s at when it comes to health. This name means it has been extracted from young coconuts using little to no heat and is in its most natural from. Refined coconut oils sometimes labeled as RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) can contain chemicals used in the processing and does not have the same nutrient profile as the virgin variety. Some people go for organic. I did read in my research that this wasn’t of utmost importance because coconuts don’t need a lot of pesticides to grow, but I can’t verify the accuracy of that information. I didn’t find anything else about that in my search.

Now for my minor rant.

I do believe that foods have medicinal, healing and even miracle properties and coconut oil just might be one. However, I dislike it when foods are advertised like this. Why? Well, because that is what we do in the U.S. with fads and most fads are dishonest. The miracle cure, the potential weight loss, etc. may be true, but turning things into fads and quick fixes is where we get ourselves into trouble. I feel by doing this we are buying into the fact that health is about quick fixes and not lifestyle.

I feel that foods should be about nourishment and enjoyment and the miracles a bonus for being healthy.

So you won’t find me taking coconut oil medicinally by the teaspoonful like I have read about. Mostly because, well, that is what we do with medicine. Food can act as medicine, but I prefer to enjoy it as food. I do believe that coconut oil has health benefits and I plan to start incorporating it into my diet more when possible. Although probably not a lot considering the price, but I’m certainly not going to be avoiding it like I used to.

So far I’ve only enjoyed it as a spread on bread and I hope to eventually start cooking and baking with it more. It is only sold in small jars here and while I haven’t searched too hard I haven’t seen it in bulk.

My next step is to determine if coconut milk and grated, unsweetened coconut contain the same benefits as the oil. I’m thinking probably not since they may be processed, but if you have info on that, send it my way. I use these much more in my cooking. So far all I’ve found on it is from the guide for Alternative Medicine. She states that 3 ½ tablespoons of coconut oil is equal to about 10 ounces of coconut milk when it comes to lauric acid and the milk is processed differently so the nutrient and chemical makeup is likely different as well.

Do you use coconut oil?

Papamandjaris AA, MacDougall DE and Jones PJ. Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications. Life Sci 1998;62(14):1203-15
St – Onge MP and Bosarge A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. Am J Clin Nutr 2008 Mar;87(3):621-6
3. St – Onge MP et al. Medium chain triglyceride oil consumption as part of a weight loss diet does not lead to an adverse metabolic profile when compared to olive oil. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Oct;27(5):547-52
4. The Weston A. Price Foundation: The Latest Studies on Coconut Oil by Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.

A New Look at Coconut Oil
Coconut Research Center
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Blog Posts
Food Renegade
Nourishing Gourmet

This post has been submitted as part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays!

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  • Debinhawaii June 24, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Great post! I bought some coconut oil to try cooking and baking with but have not used it yet so I am interested in learning even more about it. Thanks for the info.



  • Amy June 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I just got a HUGE sample or the oil and we’ve been using it a lot in class. I don’t know about the taking it as medicine, but I do think it’s a great addition to any diet and any cooking repetoire. It has great flavor to use in mexican food and thai food. It’s also really stable (unlike olive oil) so is perfect for use on high heat like grilling, in a wok, or even frying if that’s your thing.

    My understanding is that coconut milk does have some of the same benefits but you have to use the full fat – a mistake most people make when buying lite.

    Looking forward to seeing your adventures with it!

  • Chow and Chatter June 24, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    awesome post Lori love the science, i use a lot of grated coconut in Indian dishes tastes great the RD in me knows about the Sat. fat but folks in India eat it all the time, so what the heck he he

  • Heather June 24, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    interesting post. i’ve been wondering about coconut oil for awhile. i’m allergic to fresh coconut meat – but not the milk or dried coconut. don’t really understand that, but my bronchial tubes say it’s true 😉 i wonder if coconut oil would be OK. i’ll keep the epi pen close by one night and give it a go.

  • Alison June 24, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Great post! I love how informative this was! And non-biased. Thank you so much.

    I have been wanting to buy some coconut oil. Both because I think it’s healthy and I’m interested in the taste.

    Unfortunately, it’s really expensive.

  • Elizabeth Jarrard June 24, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Wonderful post!! Loved the resources and all the research and work you put in to it! I definitely think that unrefined coconut oil is not bad for you. i also do not like how ever food that we “discover” won’t harm is touted as a miracle food and advertised as such.
    I don’t use any types of oil at home cooking (I’d much rather eat nuts and avocados for my fat!!!) but i do know it makes a lovely addition to many raw recipes, as well as adding a great flavor to indian and southeast asian style dishes.
    thanks again for the very informative post!!

  • 5 Star Foodie June 24, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    The last two times I went shopping I stopped in front of an organic coconut oil and pondered whether to get it or not. After learning more about it, I will definitely get it this weekend to try. Thanks!

  • Marianne (frenchfriestoflaxseeds) June 24, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Great info. I have been looking into coconut oil myself, partially because I love coconut, and have some recipes in books that use it, so I am planning on trying it out (hopefully sooner rather than later). I figure why not expand the types of oils in my cooking, because they will all offer different cooking properties, tastes, and nutritonal profiles, and variety can only help as opposed to harm.

  • sangeeta June 25, 2009 at 3:35 am

    this is usch a great write up….. completely unbiased and i liked when you said that food is food, not medicine n food becoming fad is not welcome…..i agree.
    i have read all about the traditional oils used in India and the source of my knowledge is the ‘Coconut board of India'( the govt. agency involved in production, research n marketing of coconut)….like wise other oils such as peanut, mustard, gingely etc… Dad is an agriculture technologist and i have access to the information….but as you said my concern was that these are the agencies who promote their product…….any way your comprehensive write up is very informative and credible…..real natural food is the best and i think if we use home extracted coconut milk we get the benefits of lauric acid.
    here in India coconut oil n milk is used as a moisturizer for skin n scalp and along with camphor it acts as a good ointment for many dry skin ailments.

  • Erica June 25, 2009 at 3:43 am

    I do not use coconut oil (in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it). Interesting to learn all the pros/cons and various chains of thought. After all this confusion with what is and what is not good for you, I am happy I am sitting on the eat cleaner wall. Eat close to nature, mostly plants, everything closest to its natural form (you know this theory!). Can’t go too wrong with that…I think 😉

  • Lori June 25, 2009 at 4:52 am

    Debinhawaii – Your welcome! I’m interested to know how you use it.

    Amy – Thanks for adding to my knowledge about cooking with it. I do have a lot to learn there. I did read that about the lite. Good to know. Thanks!

    Chow and Chatter – I know, I have that same attitude about many of the cultural foods here.

    Alison – Thanks! Glad it was helpful. I enjoy the flavor of it. It does have a mild coconut flavor.

    Heather – Hmmm…be careful with the oil. My guess is that it is going to have the same makeup as the fresh meat. The milk and dried flesh have probably been processed. Maybe it is removing the thing you are allergic to. I hope it works out though. It is a tasty addition to meals.

    Elizabeth – Thanks! Wow, no oils in your cooking. Hmmm…that would be a challenge for me.

    5 Star Foodie – Definitely pick some up and try it. I’ve only found it at our Japanese store here in a small jar, but I plan on getting some just for toast and adding small amounts.

    Marianne – Definitely agree with you regarding variety. I think it does help if you like coconut to begin with. I can definitely detect the coconut flavor in the oil. I’m not sure what that means for people who don’t prefer the flavor.

    sangeeta – What a great resource for information your Dad must be! I did read about the scalp treatments using the oil. I find it all very interesting.

    Erica – I definitley think clean is the way to go too. Come to think of it I really haven’t seen coconut oil in the US either, just at one supermarket in a small jar. I think the better sources are online where you can buy it in bulk.

  • gastroanthropology June 25, 2009 at 5:19 am

    Hi Lori – Great post! I’ve bought into coconut’s bad rap and tend to shy away from coconut because I assume it’s bad for me. Ugh. But like butter I have reintroduced certain things into my diet and just eat in moderation.

    I’ve used lots of coconut products, especially when I was doing pastries (Coconut sorbet was a huge seller). But I don’t think I have used coconut oil – I’ll keep an eye out for it. Love trying new things.

    Definitely agree with your philosophy on food being enjoyment + nourishment. The miracles are a bonus, but don’t think it makes sense to consume something in excess.

  • NoMeatAthlete June 25, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Great post, I’ve been wondering about coconut oil and milk a lot. I completely agree with your ideas about miracle foods. A few years ago it was omega-3’s, then it was Acai and goji, now it’s virgin coconut oil. No single food is going to be a cure-all!

    I’d love to know if you find out more info about the processing of canned coconut milk, since that’s what I always use in cooking.

  • laura June 25, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Yay, I’ve been looking forward to this post. Would love to hear about how you use it as you begin cooking with it. They stocked Spectrum coconut oil at my local Safeway in the natural foods section for a while, but unfortunately no longer.

  • Reeni♥ June 25, 2009 at 9:05 am

    I’m so glad for this! I haven’t yet used coconut oil but have been considering it. I have just been unsure about it – hearing how it is not good for you – and then hearing that yes, it is good for you. I will definitely start incorporating a little bit into my cooking. Thanks, Lori!

  • Sagan June 25, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Thanks for the fantastic information! I’m interesting in trying coconut oil.

    Also I very strongly agree with your sentiments about believing that some foods have medicinal properties, but disliking the way they’re paraded about.

  • Sweta June 25, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Great post Lori!
    When I was a student and we learnt about the SFA’s in coconut oil,we had pointed out to our professor that statistics could not pin-point an alarming rate of CVD’s in the coastal states(which are the highest consumers of coconut and coconut oil)than the rest of the country,to which her answer was that it could be because the same people also ate fish on a daily basis(the omega fats negating the bad effects of the SFA’s). I guess this is a very valid point!
    I still use coconut regularly for my cooking (chutneys,garnish,gravies)!!
    I for one believe in a rotation policy for the oil I use for cooking-I use all oils(in moderation).Traditionally,we also use coconut oil for the skin and hair 🙂

  • Anna June 25, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I never used the oil, just the milk, and I love to drink the water, just make a whole and put a straw Mmmm delicious.
    Specially if you are on the beach.

  • Michelle @ Find Your Balance June 26, 2009 at 6:28 am

    I LOVE coconut oil. It’s delicious for baking, especially something like pineapple bread that goes well with the coconut flavor. But the original reason I got interested in it is because it can withstand high-heat cooking. Olive oil is my usual cooking oil but that’s supposedly only good for medium heat. Coconuts that live in hot-weather climates are considered excellent for hot cooking and for your body during hot weather. I’ve even used as a skin moisturizer.

    As for fats…yes, this is one of those naturally occuring saturated fats that are actually good for us, according to everything I read including this post! Hooray for healthy fats! They make everything taste awesome!

  • foodrenegade June 26, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Wonderful. I love it when people get the word out about coconut oil!

    Thanks for sharing this in today’s carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • Jen June 26, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I added coconut oil to my family’s diet a few months ago, and we love it! I have both virgin (mild coconut taste), and expeller pressed (no coconut flavor, but processed without solvents or chemicals).

    Try making popcorn with virgin coconut oil, then top it with butter and sea salt. It is the best popcorn we’ve ever had!

    I use the expeller pressed oil as a substite for shortening in baking, and for frying.

    I ordered in bulk from Wilderness Family Naturals. It is pricey, but cheaper in bulk. The price is worth it to me, to include a healthy oil in our diet.

  • cathy June 26, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Interesting, Lori! I’ve read a bit about coconut oil, but not enough to know what I think about it. You’ve saved me some time! I’m doing a post (hopefully – I keep putting it off) on saturated fats next week. You’ve got good stuff here – I’ll be sure to reference you!

  • Tangled Noodle June 28, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Sorry I’m so late with this comment but what an incredible, well-researched and tremendously informative post! I, too, have only recently developed an appreciation for coconut but have never considered using the oil, precisely for the reasons given here at the beginning. I really appreciate that you’ve done the homework and found that, like most natural and unrefined products, it does have benefits.

    I completely agree with you that we should be aware of the health benefits of foods but that it should not become a marketing tool. Why? Too often, people simply overdo it – they hear that Substance A is good for your heart and rather than incorporate it into their regular diet in moderation, they think ‘more is better’!

    If you learn anything more about coconut milk or fresh grated coconut, please let us know! I have never liked the packaged, grated coconut at stores (too sweet and desiccated) so I grate my own!

  • Lori June 29, 2009 at 7:19 am

    gastroanthro – Glad I could help. I’m feeling like coconut oil could option to mix up my butter use.

    No Meat Athlete – I’m keeping my eye out for more info. That list of miracle foods just seems to be getting longer and longer these days.

    laura – It’s difficult to find here too. Palm oil is used much more. I’ll likely try out a bulk order when we are back in the US and see how it goes.

    Reeni – It can all be so confusing and so many people are influencing the info we get. I think as someone esle mentioned, it goes back to natural foods.

    Sagan – Glad you liked the post. I’m not one for all the hype either.

    Sweta- What interesting info and an interesting observation.

    Anna – I like the water too. I wonder if any of the oils get in there. 🙂

    Michelle – Yeah, I hear it is a good option for frying foods. I’ll have to give it a try if I have a craving for a favorite. I really want to see how it turns out in some of my baking.

    Kristen – It’s definitely growing on me!

    Jen – Thanks so much for the helpful info. I’m glad to know about the two varieties and how you use them.

    cathy – I can’t wait to see the posts on fat!

    Tangled Noodle – Glad I could provide a helpful post. I am not a fan of the more is better attitude either, because regardless of what it is, it usually isn’t better. Even vitamins and mins have their limit. I’ll let you know if I come across info for the milk or grated. I want to grate my own, but we don’t have a knife here that could be used to get into one! 🙂

  • Mrs H June 30, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Thank you for doing this post on Coconut Oil. I like to read 101 Cookbooks and she uses it quite a bit in her backing. I’ve tried it twice and was very pleased but didn’t know how I felt about the saturated fat aspect but later read an article talking more about the health benefits. I appreciate your scientific explanations very much!

  • sangeeta November 13, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Hi Lori..
    just posted about making extra virgin coconut oil at home here

    i have given your link to this post too , check out..

  • P.N. Subramanian November 27, 2010 at 6:06 am

    Very informative post. In fact we use coconut oil for cooking at home.