Unrefined coconut oil sees rise as health food

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2007

Does eating fat make you fat? Ten years ago, most people would have answered this question with an unqualified "yes." However, opinions about fats and oils have evolved considerably as of late. One indication of how far things have come is the rise of unrefined coconut oil as a health food. This highly saturated fat is now considered one of the best foods you can eat both to stay healthy and to lose unwanted pounds.

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Coconut oil has been eaten in the tropics for thousands of years. One famous study examined people on a Tahitian Island who got a whopping 63 percent of their calories from coconut oil. Contrary to dire warnings from the American Heart Association about this level of saturated fat consumption, the study concluded: "Vascular disease is uncommon ... and there is no evidence of high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations."

One reason coconut oil is so beneficial is that it is high in medium-chain fatty acids. This form of fat is used by the body to produce energy and is not stored as fat. One medium-chain fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, has the additional benefit of being a potent anti-microbial agent that helps protect the body against viruses, bacteria and fungi. The only other comparable source of lauric acid is human breast milk.

What about the weight loss benefits of coconut oil? Animal studies suggest that eating coconut oil helps weight loss because it stimulates thyroid function. For many people, a sluggish thyroid creates a tendency to put on extra pounds.

There are lots of ways to use coconut oil. Some people eat it straight, taking a tablespoon in the morning to give them energy for several hours. You can also mix a tablespoon into your favorite morning smoothie.

In baking, you can substitute coconut oil for butter or shortening. It is excellent for pan-frying and deep-frying because it has a high smoke point and a neutral flavor. Not only is coconut oil good for cooking and eating, but you can also slather it on your skin since it is an excellent moisturizer that also smells good.

When buying, look for coconut oil that is unrefined. The label should say "virgin" or "extra virgin." Unlike olive oil, there is no difference between "virgin" and "extra virgin" coconut oils. Avoid refined coconut oils. These are processed at high heat, chemically bleached and deodorized. While they probably will keep for centuries, they are flavorless.

Here is an easy recipe for a short bread cookie using coconut oil rather than butter or shortening:

Coconut short bread

¾ cup coconut oil

1/3 cup raw sugar

2 cups flour

1 tsp vanilla

½ tsp salt

1 cup unsweetened coconut

Combine ingredients. Drop by teaspoon onto greased cookie sheet and bake 10-20 minutes at 350 degrees F. Recipe courtesy of Omega Nutrition.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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