Friday, May 1, 2009

Smart Fuel: Coconut Oil


By: Mark Sisson

We’ve written about the nutritional benefits of coconut, shared recipes that include coconut milk, and discussed the merits of coconut flour, but we’ve never actually fully covered one of the best coconut products out there: coconut oil.

Coconut oil consists of about 92 percent saturated fat and is therefore nearly solid at room temperature. It can be used in cooking, but is also a common ingredient in home remedies and skin care products.

Although it gets a bad rap in some circles for its high saturated fat content, we know that such fats can offer many health benefits. For example, coconut oil has been found to help normalize blood lipids and protect against damage to the liver by alcohol and other toxins, can play a role in preventing kidney and gall bladder diseases, and is associated with improved blood sugar and insulin control and therefore the prevention and management of diabetes. In addition, coconut oil has antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. On a more superficial level, meanwhile, coconut oil is thought to help strengthen mineral absorption, which is important for healthy teeth and bones, and can also help improve the condition and appearance of the scalp, hair and skin when ingested or topically applied.

So how is this veritable miracle food manufactured? In brief, coconuts are collected, broken open and then the flesh is allowed to dry. To extract the oil, the dried flesh is then heated at a low temperature until any moisture is evaporated, leaving you with an oil residue. Now, the thing to note here is that in most coconut oil manufacturing processes chemicals are used to expedite drying as well as to speed the heating process. However, if you select an organic coconut oil, no chemicals will have been used during processing and the original coconut itself will have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

One other thing to note is that with coconut oils there are many different grades, or values of refinement. According to the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community Standards for virgin coconut oil, coconut oil can only be sold as such when it is “obtained from the fresh and mature kernel of coconut by mechanical or natural means with or without the application of heat, which does not lead to alteration of the oil.”

Refined coconut oil – which is generally what you’ll see in stores – is made from copra, the dried meat of the coconut. However, because the process of drying the coconut is somewhat unsanitary – it includes laying them out in the sun, putting them in a kiln, or smoking them – the oil is inedible, and is therefore required to undergo a refinement process that includes some combination of using high heat to deodorize the oil, filtering the oil through bleaching clays, adding sodium hydroxide to remove impurities and prolong shelf-life, or performing some kind of hydrogenation or partial-hydrogenation process. In industry terms refined coconut oil is RBD - refined, bleached, deodorized.

The choice is clear – steer clear of the refined stuff and stick with organic virgin coconut oil.

A word of warning about coconut oils labeled as extra virgin. Experts note that there is no other – or more virginal – process of extracting oil from coconuts and the concept of the “extra” is nothing more than a marketing ploy.

Coconut oil is less sensitive to heat than other oils (won’t oxidize as easily) so it’s great for stir-frys and sauteeing. You can substitute it in baking (when making Primal energy bars, for example) and in recipes that call for butter, lard or any other high-saturated fats. It is fairly similar in consistency to butter so it can be used as a spread for vegetables. It makes an excellent addition to a smoothie and can also be used in place of a creamer in coffee or tea.

Our verdict? This is one seriously tropical way to get some more healthy fat in your diet.

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