Coconut oil, also known as coconut butter, is a healthy traditional fat that is both gluten and dairy free. But please be careful when shopping for it. Coconut oil varies greatly in quality and taste depending on the source and processing.
Fortunately I found a brand that is of good quality and available for purchase online, which I share in this post.
Coconut oil can be an excellent substitute for butter and other “solid” fats in cooking.
Why would anyone use unhealthy hydrogenated vegetable shortening products like Crisco instead of a natural vegetable oil like coconut? It isn’t about the coconut taste – there are high quality unflavored coconut oils on the market. No, it’s because of the so-called health facts that kept coconut oil from appearing on most store shelves for 2-3 decades.
I no longer believe the propaganda that all tropical oils are bad. If you’re unsure, later in this article I provide links to information for you to read to kick start your own investigation and draw your own conclusions.
This oil is made from copra. However, unlike many brands, no chemical solvents are used during processing. Although it isn’t high in antioxidants like Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil it’s still certified organic and high in lauric acid.
You can read more about coconut oil processing later in this post if you’re interested.
Reminder: when you visit the links you can click on the brand name and find options to buy larger quantities in plastic containers for an even better value.
Coconut Oil Health Benefits
Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids (MCTs).
The MCTs in coconut oil are lauric, caprylic and myristic acids. Lauric acid is present in human breast milk and coconut. The body converts lauric acid to a substance called monolaurin. Monolaurin is a substance that protects infants from viral, bacterial and protozoal infections. Lauric acid is added to baby formula for this reason – derived from, yes, coconut!
A good quality coconut oil like the ones above will contain approx. 40-50% lauric acid.
According to lipid expert Mary G. Enig, PhD:
“Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acid. Lauric acid is a medium chain fatty acid, which has the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Some studies have also shown some antimicrobial effects of the free lauric acid.”
Safety of Coconut Oil
Semi-solid at room temperature, good quality natural (non-hydrogenated) coconut oil does not contain trans-fatty acids (TFAs) like vegetable shortening (e.g. Crisco) and other hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
Coconut oil is very stable; it will keep for several years without refrigeration. Even after one year at room temperature, coconut oil shows no evidence of rancidity even though it contains 9% linoleic (omega – 6) polyunsaturated acid. It’s also heat stable, so it can be safely used in all forms of cooking including baking, sautéing and frying.
Why have coconut oil and other tropical oils been demonized?
Not long ago, coconut oil was used heavily in North America for baking, pastries, frying, and in theater popcorn. In the 1980s, powerful groups in the United States, including the American Soybean Association (ASA), the Corn Products Company (CPC International), and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), began to condemn all saturated oils.
Faulty science was used to convince the public that saturated fats were unhealthy when, in fact, natural saturated fats (as opposed to fats that are made into saturated fats via the chemical process called hydrogenation) are very healthy. The organizations were/are aided by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who have strong ties to the vegetable oil industry. To learn more about this, please read The Oiling of America by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD
To read more of lipid expert Mary Enig’s research on coconut oil, please see:
Fortunately, coconut oil is more widely available than when Dr. Peat wrote some of his articles about it.
I recommend reading as many articles as possible on Dr. Peat’s site. Use the search function on his site if you like to find more info on coconut oil. You may have to re-read his articles several times to gain a greater understanding about fats and oils, hormones, etc. but it will be well worth your time.
Also, if you have been on a low fat diet for a long time, you may need to increase your dose of coconut oil, and other healthy fats, more slowly. My digestion was damaged after many years on a low fat diet and it took me a while to build up my tolerance for fat to the level that it is now. I don’t eat high fat, I eat moderate fat I guess you could say, but I was super low for years.
Is it Possible to be Allergic to Coconut Oil?
If a person is allergic to coconut they should to be cautious with coconut oil. Because there are trace amounts of protein from the coconut in virgin coconut oil, a sensitive person might react. Or, if a person is sensitive to salicylate levels in food, it’s wise to be careful because coconut is high in salicylates. There may be other compounds in coconut that trigger allergies, but those are the ones that have been noted.
If you have had problems with coconut oil, follow Dr. Raymond Peat’s advice and do an online search for something called 76 degree melt. 76 degree melt is coconut oil that is filtered and unflavored, but not hydrogenated. It’s incredibly cheap too.
How Coconut Oil is Produced: A Primer
Refined, Bleached and Deodorized (RBD) Coconut Oil
Most commercial grade coconut oil is made from copra. Copra is the dried kernel (meat) of the coconut. Copra is made by smoke drying, sun drying, kiln drying, or a combination of the three. Due to the often unsanitary conditions during drying, coconut oil from copra is not suitable for consumption until it has been purified (refined). The end product is called RBD coconut oil. Chemical solvents are sometimes used to extract the oil from the copra for higher yields. The oil is filtered through bleaching clays to remove impurities, high heat is used to remove odor and taste, and sometimes sodium hydroxide is used to remove free fatty acids and prolong shelf life. In tropical countries, the oil is often hydrogenated. Oil produced this way should be avoided.
The traditional and healthier way to process copra to make coconut oil is by physical refining.
This is howTropical Traditions Expeller-Pressed Coconut Oilis produced. The copra is expeller-pressed without the use of solvents and allowed to stand so the oil separates from the water. The oil is then treated with heat to remove any remaining moisture, taste and smell. No additives are used, and the oil is NOT hydrogenated. This method results in a good quality food-grade coconut oil because the oil still contains medium chain triglycerides (MCT) such as lauric acid, and no trans fatty acids. Because the taste of this oil is very bland, it’s a good ‘all-purpose’ cooking oil. However, the oil is missing some of the nutrients and anti-oxidant properties that are in virgin coconut oil, described below. Also, oil produced this way may or may not be certified organic, so check labels.
Virgin Coconut Oil
Virgin Coconut Oil comes from fresh coconut meat, not copra. This is how Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oilis produced. Solvents and other chemicals are not used, and the oil is not hydrogenated. Many of the antioxidants in the coconut are retained, so the oil is stable and does not require refining. The oil also retains the smell and taste of coconut. As with the traditional expeller-pressed oil above, it’s best to choose a product that is certified organic.
There are currently two main processes to manufacture virgin coconut oil:
1. Quick drying. The coconut meat is quick dried with minimal heat and then the oil is expeller pressed – without the use of solvents.
2. Wet-milling. The coconut meat is not quick dried before extraction. Instead, the meat is chopped up, expeller-pressed without the use of solvents, and then the oil is separated from the water by either boiling, fermentation, refrigeration, enzymes, mechanical centrifuge or a combination of these methods.
a. Separation using the fermentation process is the traditional method of coconut oil extraction in the Philippines. Coconut milk from fresh coconuts is fermented for 24-36 hours so the water separates from the oil. The oil is heated for a short time to remove any remaining moisture and to draw the oil out of the curds that were formed during the fermentation process, then filtered. The result is a clear coconut oil that retains the scent and taste of the coconut. However, some oils produced this way have an ‘off’ taste due to the acids that form during fermentation.
b. Separation using the centrifuge process involves even less heat than the fermentation process. Coconut milk from fresh coconuts is chilled to 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) to allow the oil to separate from the water, then spun in a centrifuge to complete the separation. This process is very efficient, resulting in such a low moisture content that no further processing or heating is required. The result is a clear coconut oil that retains the scent and taste of the coconut.
Coconut oil is so delicious and versatile, soon you might find yourself buying large containers like the 1 gallon tub above to make sure that you always have an adequate supply!
If you check out the resources in my post gluten free cake recipes, you’ll find that coconut oil is a favored ingredient by people who are health conscious foodies. Coconut oil is also suitable for people following a Paleo/Hunter Gatherer type diet (see my post hunter-gatherer dietto learn more). If you’re following a gluten free casein free diet, or even if you are not, coconut oil may become one of your most valuable and oft used cooking fats. Coconut oil is also safe to eat uncooked, straight from the container.