Coconut Oil: Should You Cook With It?

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Olive oil tops the list of healthy oils you should be cooking with. But coconut oil is a growing culinary star that continues to shine brighter and brighter. But does it really deserve to be so popular?

Here are some facts about how to cook with coconut oil…and whether you should or not.

What Are The Different Types Of Coconut Oil?

There are three main types of coconut oil that you can use in cooking and baking:

  • Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the fruit of fresh mature coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals. It is considered to be unrefined.
  • Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat that is often chemically bleached and deodorized.
  • Partially hydrogenated coconut oil is a processed, and very controversial, variety of coconut oil that is used commercially by some food manufacturers.

Is Coconut Oil Really Good For You?

The health benefits of coconut oil have been in the news for quite some time now, claiming to cure everything from weight loss to Alzheimer’s disease. The truth? There isn’t enough scientific evidence yet to support all of these claims about coconut oil’s potential health benefits.

First, the bad news: The coconut oil that you’ll find on supermarket shelves, whether virgin or refined, is high in saturated fat – higher even than butter. In fact, coconut oil is actually considered to be a solid fat.

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, 13.6g total fat, 11.8g saturated fat, 0.8g monounsaturated fat, and 0.2g polyunsaturated fat.

Additionally, you already know to avoid processed food products, such as commercial baked goods, that contain partially hydrogenated coconut oil. Why? The processing of this oil transforms some of the unsaturated fats into trans fats.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fats in your diet to less than seven percent of your total daily calories and limiting trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total daily calories. These guidelines have been established because saturated fats, in general, and trans fats are associated with increased total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol, as well as increased risk of coronary artery disease.

But, here’s the good news: Like all plant-based oils, coconut oil does not contain cholesterol. Also, coconut oil, specifically virgin coconut oil, has some antioxidant properties, potentially because of plant nutrients called phenolic compounds.

Also, virgin coconut oil is high in lauric acid, which is a saturated fat that’s classified as a medium-chain fatty acid; it can raise both “bad” and “good” cholesterol levels. And there’s some preliminary evidence — including both animal and human studies — suggesting that coconut oil intake may be associated with a neutral, if not beneficial, effect on cholesterol levels.

So, what should you do? Avoid partially hydrogenated coconut oil. If you choose to cook with virgin coconut oil, do so in moderation to help limit your total saturated fat intake.

How To Cook with Coconut Oil

Virgin (or unrefined) coconut oil has a very light, sweet-nutty coconut flavor and aroma. It can be an ideal ingredient option when you need a cooking fat with a neutral flavor.

Here are some basic cooking tips:

  • Coconut oil is ideal for baking or medium-heat sautéing — up to about 350°F.
  • Coconut oil can also be a great choice when preparing curries or other dishes that benefit from a slight tropical flavor.
  • Coconut oil can be used for baking or for medium-high heat sautéing or stir-frying — up to about 425°F.
  • Though high in saturated fat, virgin coconut oil doesn’t contain trans fat, making it a better choice than trans fat-containing shortening.
  • For vegans or strict vegetarians, coconut oil offers a plant-based replacement for butter that stands up well in baking or sautéing.

Like other oils, coconut oil should be stored well sealed and in a cool, dark place. It solidifies when cool, but quickly liquefies when warmed up.

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