Coconut: The Tree of Life
by Karlene Karst, RD
Coconut water, milk, oil, moisturizers, body and hair care; it is safe to say that all things coconut are at the top of the nutrition world, for good reason. In many parts of the world, the coconut tree and its products have for centuries been an integral part of life, and it has come to be called the "Tree of Life." However, it wasn't always that way. In fact, coconut oil has been wrongly branded as the nutritional evil for many years. Over the last few decades, the relationship between coconut fats (because of its saturated fat component) and health has been the subject of much debate and misinformation.
Saturated Fats: The Very Good, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There are two main groups of fats—saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are semisolid at room temperature and are found in animal products. They have been generally considered "bad" fats, as research once showed a link to heart disease; therefore, especially in the past, nutritional researchers and health officials have recommended a reduction of saturated fats in the diet. Contrary to popular belief, full-fat dairy, including milk, butter, and cheese, has never been convincingly linked to cardiovascular disease.
However, not all saturated fats are created equally. Saturated fats are actually useful for energy production, satiety, and hormones. The three subgroups of saturated fats are based on their fat-chain length: short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain. For the discussion of coconut oil, short and medium chain are the important ones to consider.
The Very Good: Short-Chain Saturated Fats
Short-chain saturates, found in butter, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil do not clog arteries, nor do they cause heart disease. Rather, they are easily digested and a source of fuel for energy. In short, whereas other fats are stored in the body's cells, the short-chain fats in coconut oil are sent directly to the liver, where they are immediately converted into energy. So, when you eat coconut oil, your body uses it immediately to make energy rather than store it as body fat. Because this quick-and-easy absorption puts less strain on the pancreas, liver, and digestive system, coconut oil "heats up" the metabolic system.
Experts in the field of fat and nutrition show that virgin coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a proven antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal agent that is very beneficial in attacking viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens and builds the body's immune system.
The Good: Medium-Chain Saturated Fats
Medium-chain saturates are found in several foods, but the highest content is found in coconut oil, and they are not associated with increased cholesterol levels or the occurrence of heart disease (which was at one time thought to be the case; however, when the science was investigated further, it was found that the lack of essential fats in the diet was the cause of heart disease). More recently, subject groups studied in the South Pacific for their regular use of coconut oil in the diet exhibited low incidences of coronary artery disease and low serum cholesterol levels.1
A study in Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 reviewed the beneficial lipid effects in 1,839 premenopausal women in the Philippines. The researchers found that dietary coconut oil intake was positively associated with high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, especially among premenopausal women, suggesting that coconut oil intake is associated with beneficial lipid profiles. It was not significantly associated with low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or triglyceride values.2 Little or no change is evident in cholesterol levels when an EFA-rich diet contains nonhydrogenated saturated fats. Coconut oil is naturally saturated, so it does not need to go through hydrogenation.
Cooking with Coconut
Coconut oil is a heavy oil that is colorless when heated (white at room temperature) with a slight hint of coconut flavor. Its smoke point is 350°F / 177°C so it can safely be used for frying. Despite its high level of saturated fats, the health benefits of this wonder oil have been well established.
Coconut oil can be used for medium-high-heat cooking and is great when used to cook pancakes, sauté veggies, and cook fish, especially halibut and shrimp. Coconut oil is also used in baking and as a "better butter" spread on toast and muffins. It's also great on popcorn.
Coconut oil contains excellent moisturizing properties as well. Look for coconut oil body care products to help moisturize and soothe dry skin and prevent wrinkles and stretch marks with the most fragrant smell reminiscent of a tropical vacation.
1 Lakmali D. Amarasiri and Asoka S. Dissanayake, "Coconut Fats," Ceylon Medical Journal 51 (June 2006): 47–51.
2 Alan B. Feranil, Paulito L. Duazo, Christopher W. Kuzawa, and Linda S. Adair, "Coconut Oil Is Associated with a Beneficial Lipid Profile in Pre-menopausal Women in the Philippines," Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 20 (February 2011): 190–195.