Scientists, nutritionists and consumers have long harbored a love-hate relationship with coconuts.
Lately, though, it’s been pure love.
With emerging scientific research in recent years, coconuts have become the darling of the natural foods world.
Once sequestered on the shelves of health-food shops, coconut oil and coconut products are now featured alongside their mainstream counterparts in many grocery stores.
Coconut is highly nutritious and rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Coconut water, coconut milk and coconut flour are among the hundreds of coconut-based products making their debut to newfound enthusiasts and long-term devotees.
Decades ago, studies tainted conventional coconut oil’s image. However, coconut oil is getting a consumer-friendly makeover thanks to scientists who are discarding their data against its use and the growing number of vegans, and gluten-intolerant folks, who rely on it as a sweet vegetable fat.
Solid at room temperature, coconut oil can create flaky pie crusts, puffy pancakes and fluffy cupcake icings, all without butter and shortenings. Those sensitive to gluten and dairy can replace milk and wheat flour with coconut products.
Initial studies on coconut oil, which supposedly demonstrated it was unhealthy, used refined and hydrogenated oil that contained trans fats. These studies have no relevance to the unrefined, organic coconut oil that’s found in big-box markets today.
Conventional coconut oil — used in some candies, coffee creamers and movie theater popcorn — is made from dried coconut that is cooked and treated with chemicals to produce bleached, refined oil for food use.
"It's bad stuff," says Cornell University researcher Tom Brenna. "This kind of coconut oil jacks up cholesterol levels in laboratory animals like rats, rabbits and hamsters, which scientists use to study the effects of fats in humans."
About 10 years ago, "virgin" coconut oil started to become a popular alternative.
"It's made with a mild extraction procedure from fresh coconut meat," says Brenna. "You purée it, heat it gently and skim off the fat that rises to the top."
Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) are the fruit of the coconut palm and have been around for millennia.
Ninety percent of coconut oil is saturated fat. Many scientists and nutritionists say that indulging in it too much is as harmful as other saturated fats, elevating cholesterol and clogging arteries. But they are quick to add that not all saturated fats are created equal.
The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA). Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. As coconut oil’s most abundant fatty acid, lauric acid is broken down into a compound called monolaurin.
Lauric acid and monolaurin can kill microbes like bacteria, fungi and viruses. For this reason, coconut oil can be protective against various infections.
MCFAs are metabolized differently than long-chain fatty acids found in modern-day seed or vegetable oils, processed shortenings and almost all highly refined foods.
LCFAs are difficult for the body to break down and can put a tremendous strain on the pancreas, liver and digestive system. They are stored mainly as fat in the body, and deposit in arteries as cholesterol. In contrast, MCFAs, like those in coconut oil, are easy to break down and are sent directly to the liver to be used for energy.
However, the American Heart Association and the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines report that coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7 to 10 percent of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, and is calorically ample.
A benefit of cooking with coconut oil versus olive oil is the smoke point. Unrefined olive oil has a lower smoke point than unrefined coconut oil. Thus, olive oil isn't ideal for higher temperatures. Oils can break down beyond their smoke point, which starts to change their molecular structure and integrity.
Providing a slightly sweet, nutty flavor, coconut oil enhances everything from stir-fry to baking. It doesn’t waver at temperatures up to 350 degrees as extra-virgin olive oil does.
Consuming organic coconut oil also tends to make us feel fuller, longer. Studies indicate that MCFAs help increase feelings of fullness and lead to a reduction in calorie intake when compared to the same amount of calories from other fats.
When MCFAs are metabolized, ketone bodies, which have been shown to have a strong effect on appetite reduction, are created in the liver. Because of this, they provide an immediate and long-lasting energy surge like carbohydrates do. But they don’t add fat to existing fat cells or promote weight gain.
Eating organic coconut oil with other foods allows the MCFAs to burn more calories for energy that lasts up to 24 hours.
Coconut oil's thermogenic properties raise body temperature, and people with sluggish thyroids report a rise in temperature of up to 2 degrees. If you suffer from extra weight due to a slow thyroid, the oil can help stimulate your metabolism, resulting in fat loss.
The antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties of this tropical treasure make coconut oil a great household staple.
Fluffy Coconut Flour Pancakes
From Nourishing Days
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup milk (raw cow’s or coconut both work)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey, or a pinch of stevia
1/2 cup coconut flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Coconut oil or butter for frying
Preheat griddle over medium-low heat. In a small bowl, beat eggs until frothy for about two minutes. Mix in milk, vanilla and honey or stevia.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine coconut flour, baking soda, and sea salt, whisking ingredients together. Stir the wet mixture into the dry until coconut flour is fully incorporated.
Grease griddle with butter or coconut oil. Ladle a few tablespoons of batter onto the pan for each pancake. Spread out slightly with the back of a spoon. The pancakes should be 2-3 inches in diameter and fairly thick.
Cook for a few minutes on each side, until the tops dry out slightly and the bottoms start to brown. Flip and cook an additional 2-3 minutes.
Tips: Add cinnamon or fruit to the wet mixture as desired. Just keep the pancakes small and watch them so they don’t burn.
Coconut tip of the day For an energy boost, mix a tablespoon of organic extra-virgin coconut oil with a tablespoon of chia seeds. Do not take this at night.
Health pearls “Eating crappy food isn't a reward — it's a punishment.” —Drew Carey
Granny’s remedies Rub coconut oil on the inside of your nose to help alleviate allergy symptoms. For a natural treatment for head lice, mix coconut oil with apple cider vinegar. Saturate, rinse and repeat.
Documentary pick of the week 2011's Farmageddon centers around the story of a mom whose son was healed of allergies and asthma after consuming raw milk and organic food. The film depicts the struggle of small local farms and food co-ops that are forced to cease operation by the government when they try to make their “clean” food available to wider audiences.
Stay in the loop with Bay area outdoor markets Tampa Bay Markets and St. Pete District Markets are collectives of community farmers markets that feature locally grown foods, crafts and live music. Both can be found on Facebook.
Free Lecture: Toxicity in the Body Rollin' Oats' Tampa store will host a discussion on toxicity by Dr. Dex Alvarez, of Palma Ceia Chiropractic & Wellness Center. Thursday, May 29. Free. 6:15 p.m. 1021 N. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-873-7428.
Summer Farm Camp Tampa's Sweetwater Organic Community Farm will offer a weekly camp for children ages 9 to 11. The first of its kind for the state, and designed with Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and Project WILD, campers will participate in a number of activities. They'll learn to cook and preserve, identify nutrients and chemicals in food, upcycle or create art with found objects, hike and interact with farm animals. For information, contact education program manager Chris Hawthorne at [email protected]
I am not a healthcare professional, but I am a passionate advocate of natural health, as well as a voracious reader and lecture attendee. I just want to learn and share. If you have any suggestions, news events or feature ideas please email me at [email protected]