Its distinctive tropical smell can evoke pleasant memories of spending time at the beach when you were a kid or of eating a delicious birthday cake. It is coconut, and a surprising amount of research suggests that coconut oil belongs not only in your memories but in your pantry, your medicine cabinet and in your day-to-day life.
Ostracized by the American medical community in the 1980s as part of an all-out campaign against saturated fats, coconut oil has been making a comeback. Current research shows that not all fats are created equal, and that coconut oil contains a healthy fat that can actually help to lower cholesterol levels in the body.
“Saturated fats are divided into two primary categories; long-chain fats and short- and medium-chain fats,” writes research scientist Jon Kabara in his introduction to the book The Coconut Oil Miracle by Bruce Fife. “Each sub-group has remarkably different biological effects … The over-consumption of polyunsaturated fats in our diet is more detrimental to our health than the saturated fats found in tropical oils.”
It is interesting to note that, in countries where people consume a large amount of coconut oil in their diet, such as Thailand, the rate of heart disease and diabetes is lower than in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. The saturated fat in coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid that appears to have antibacterial properties. Lauric acid is found in human breast milk and converts to a substance called monolaurin in the body. Monolaurin is useful in boosting our immunities and in fighting viruses.
Studies show that virgin coconut oil contains antioxidants that may help fight cell-damaging free radicals that contribute to aging and disease. Unlike many of the fats we consume which are long-chain fatty acids that must be broken down before the body can absorb them, coconut oil is easily digested and goes quickly to the liver for energy production.
Coconut oil, the most nutrient dense part of the coconut, remains solid at room temperature like butter.
To get the best health benefits of coconut oil, look in the health food section of your store for a label that reads “Unrefined, expeller-pressed coconut oil,” which is an unprocessed product derived directly from coconuts with little to no modification. Both cold-pressed and expeller-pressed versions of the oil have a shelf life of about two years without refrigeration and are therefore less likely to spoil than more delicate oils such as extra-virgin olive oil or flax.
Because it tolerates high temperatures well, coconut oil is a great substitute for butter, shortening or vegetable oils in the kitchen. Use it for cooking eggs, in stir-fry recipes and in baked goods. You can usually substitute coconut oil one-for-one with butter or other oils in baking recipes.
Coconut oil helps your body absorb vitamins and nutrients, so taking a spoonful of coconut oil along with your daily vitamins may help boost their effectiveness. An easy way to add coconut oil to your diet is to spoon it into your tea or coffee instead of another sweetener.
Coconut oil also is great for many topical uses. You can bring it to liquid form by immersing a container of the solid oil into a bowl of warm water for a few minutes. Do not microwave the oil, as it will affect the healing properties of the oil.