I don’t know about you but for a long time I was under the false impression that all saturated fats are bad for my health and can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and all sorts of nasty crap. Coconut oil, with its 90% saturated fat, was definitely off the menu. Only in the last couple of years I realised how wrong I was and that not only are naturally occurring, unhydrogenated fats are ok for me to eat, but they can also heal and prevent many illnesses and diseases. Now I kick myself for missing out on all these ‘newly’ discovered benefits of a formerly evil coconut oil for 30 years of my life.
Yes, coconut oil is the new wunderkind of the dietary world – ‘the miracle oil’ – and as its popularity grows, so do the questions about its types, uses, storage and applications. It’s a staple in paleo cooking but there are many more uses of coconut oil the kitchen. That’s why I wanted to create a useful reference guide to answer common questions about the coconut oil and to give you new ideas on how to use this fantastic ingredient.
So, what is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is an edible oil, like olive or macadamia oil, extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts. The oil is made up of around 90% saturated fat, 6% monounsaturated fat, and 3% polyunsaturated fat. Unlike other highly saturated and unsaturated fats, coconut oil is mostly made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). The saturated fat content makes coconut oil very heat-stable and enables a long shelf life. It is well-known for its healing, anti-inflammatory properties and its metabolism-boosting medium chain tryglycerides. It has many uses from dietary, medical and industrial applications.
Benefits of coconut oil
Coconut oil has many benefits, from being directly associated with specific positive health effects to acting as an aid in certain body functions. I’ve read through dozens of papers, articles and blog posts and collated the following list of known/claimed benefits. Some claims are based on preliminary research and studies so I encourage you to read more on the topics in your spare time. Based on what’s been studied and reported, coconut oil does the following:
- Boosts metabolism & aids with weight loss.
- Improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose.
- Improves heart health & reduces health risks associated with diabetes.
- Supports thyroid function.
- Supports immune system.
- It’s anti-fungal, antiviral & antibacterial.
- Promotes healing & tissue repair.
- Improves digestion & nutrient absorption.
- Enhances physical performance.
- Hydrates and protects the skin, improves skin tone and prevents wrinkles and skin aging.
- Reduces psoriasis, eczema symptoms.
- Improves hair and scalp condition.
- Functions as a protective antioxidant.
- It’s a quick energy source and controls sugar cravings.
- Relieves stress on pancreas and enzyme systems of the body.
- Reduces symptoms associated with pancreatitis.
- Helps relieve symptoms associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Relieves symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia (prostate enlargement).
- Reduces epileptic seizures.
- Helps protect against kidney disease and bladder infections.
- And much more.
How does it work?
Have you ever hear of lauric acid? It’s a compound with amazing health promoting properties. It contains antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral properties that boost the immune system. Coconut oil fat is nearly 50% lauric acid, which is converted by the body into monolaurin and makes coconut oil effective in treating many bacterial and fungal infections such as candida, athlete’s foot, measles, influenza, and hep C. Another source of monolaurin is human breast milk, go figure!
Another reason coconut oil has so many benefits is because unlike most other fats and oils, it is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids, (MCFA’s), which are smaller fat molecules metabolised in the liver and immediately absorbed and converted into energy, kind of like glucose but without the insulin spike. Other fats and oils are made up of long chain fatty acids, or long-chain triglycerides, which are larger molecules that are difficult for your body to break down and are mainly stored as fat. The MCFA’s in coconut oil actually boost your metabolism and help your body use fat for energy, which can lead to weight loss, Type 2 diabetes risk reduction, increase in energy, accelerated healing and improved immunity. When it comes to your skin, coconut oil is very hydrating and keeps skin’s connective tissues strong, which prevents sagging and wrinkles.
Types of coconut oil
Refined coconut oil
- Made from dried coconut, also known as copra; the standard end product made from dried kernel (meat) is RBD oil, which stands for refined, bleached and deodorised. The reason the oil has to undergo this process is that the dried copra is not fit for consumption and the oil needs to undergo processes to filter our impurities and to make it more stable; it’s a pretty common way to mass-produce coconut oil.
- Because it’s refined it’s fairly tasteless and doesn’t smell like coconut; it can withstand higher cooking temperatures before it reaches its smoke point; great for deep-frying foods without the flavour of coconut.
- It’s not as great as the virgin, completely raw coconut oil but still has the same beneficial medium chain fatty acids; from what I read, it’s very close in its nutritional value to virgin coconut oil so it’s more about the extraction method and what chemicals have been applied.
- Most of the coconut oils available in grocery stores and vitamin stores are refined unless they specifically state otherwise; not all refined oils are created equal so try to get good quality, non-hydrogenated (yep, even coconut oil can be hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated but mainly in tropical, Asian countries), and refined using natural, chemical free process like steam or diatomaceous earth.
- Refined oil is great if you’re on the budget as it’s usually cheaper. It’s also good for things which require lots of oil like deep-frying, using it as a bath oil or in soaps, or using it as a body moisturiser.
Unrefined coconut oil
- Usually labelled as ‘virgin’ or ‘extra-virgin’, this coconut oil is made from the first pressing of fresh, raw coconut using mechanical means without the addition of any chemicals; depending on the extraction method, the flavour can be mild to very intense (more heat exposure during extraction, more coconut flavour in the oil).
- Good raw, unrefined, virgin coconut oil should have a very mild coconut flavour and scent.
- The difference between ‘virgin’ and ‘extra virgin’ is, well, pretty much none existent as far as I’ve researched, it’s more of a marketing trick to get you to pay more.
- Virgin, unrefined oil is more superior to refined coconut oil.
Cold-pressed, expeller-pressed or centrifuged are methods of extracting oil from dry or fresh coconut and can be used for both refined and unrefined varieties. All methods can create a good, healthy oil. Expeller-pressed and cold-pressed don’t always mean ‘raw’ as sometimes these oils are heated to rather high temperatures during the extraction process, which is not a problem as coconut oil is a highly stable fat and will not go rancid. It does however mean that the flavour will be more coconutty. If you want a more mild and delicate coconut oil, look out for a centrifuged oil which is less likely to be exposed to heat during extraction.
Buying coconut oil
There are many brands and types of coconut oil and they vary in price depending on the source, production method, packaging and the marketing team. Super expensive doesn’t always mean the best, although it does often indicate the quality of ingredients and the purity. I always recommend to try a few brands and to find out as much as you can about the manufacturing process. Personally I really like Niulife coconut oil because the guy who started the company actually invented a natural expelling method they still use today and they are a fair trade and family owned business who make good products. However there are many great brands out there and regardless of where you are, here are a few things to look out for:
1) Colour – white colour when it’s solid and colourless when liquid, any discolouration might mean contamination and inferior quality.
2) Aroma and flavour – virgin, unrefined coconut oil should smell and taste like coconut but should not be overpowering and strong, if it smells roasted or smokey it means it’s been exposed to a lot of heat and it might not retain as many nutrients; and if it’s odourless and neutral tasting then it’s most likely refined and treated.
3) Price - the coconut oil in most stores can get quite pricey and doesn’t always mean superior product. It’s always a good idea to buy in bulk as the oil is stable and will last for at least 12 months. You can try a few different brands and make sure you like the smell and taste before you commit to buying a big batch. You can also share the shipping costs with friends and family and save even more money.
Storing coconut oil
Coconut oil can be stored out of the fridge, away from direct sunlight, for up to two years. It will stay liquid in temperatures above 25C (75F) and will turn into butter and solid texture in lower temperatures or if refrigerated. If the oil is solid and you need to use it in a liquid form, apply low level heat and it will transform very quickly.
How to use coconut oil?
There are hundreds of ways you can use coconut oil – in cooking, as part of your skincare routine, as part of flu and cold treatment, or to rub on cuts and bruises. I’ve put together a few examples of how you can use it.
As far as how much coconut oil you should consume, most recommend 3-4 tabslespoons of coconut oil for adults per day to achieve optimal results. It would be less for kids and those of you starting out with coconut oil or saturated fats in general. If you’ve been following a low fat diet and only now decided to transition to a higher fat intake, I would recommend to gradually build up the consumption of fat to avoid the initial diarrhoea you might experience along the way.
Coconut oil as food
- I use coconut oil in cooking as it’s very heat-stable. I fry and deep-fry in it, rub it on my roast meats, stir-fries and sauces. It’s really good for Asian cooking as its flavour is very complimentary.
- It is a solid most of the time at room temperature or when refrigerated and is therefore a great substitue for butter or margarine and can be used for dips, spreads, in baking and desserts. Use 1 to 1 ratio when substituting other oils or butter for coconut oil. I use it in my grain-free granola recipe, cherry ripe chocolate truffles, or when pan frying my meatballs.
- It can even be used to make mayonnaise, I would used a good quality refined coconut oil for that.
- Add a couple of teaspoons to smoothies, juices, tea or coffee.
- Refrigerate it and eat as is by scrapping some with a teaspoon. The taste is slightly sweet and subtle, it really is quite nice and doesn’t have that oily texture you might expect, more like white chocolate.
- Mix some coconut oil with cacao & honey for a quick energy boost before a workout.
For you skin & hair
- Use it as a face or body moisturiser. Many women use it to improve and to prevent the appearance of stretch marks.
- Use it as a massage oil or bath oil, we add 4-5 tablespoons to a hot tub and your skin is wonderfully soft and moist after.
- Use coconut oil to make natural homemade soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and even a bug repellent.
- Rub it into dry hair and wrap with a towel for a couple of hours before washing with shampoo.
- Use a little on your hair to remove fiz.
- Helps to heal skin after a sunburn. Make sure to apply coconut oil after the initial heat burning sensation is gone.
- Believe it or not but rubbing some coconut oil on skin will also protect it from the sun, it has SPF4.
- Can be used as a naturally antibacterial skin cream, an after shave lotion, and to improve appearance of cellulite.
- Mix with salt or sugar for a great skin exfoliator or to rub the dead skin off your feet.
- Use as a safe baby lotion.
- Use on your hands after doing the dishes to avoid dry skin.
- Use on cuticles to help nails grow and rub into elbos to help with dry elbows.
- It can be used as natural treatment to get rid of head lice. Full instructions here.
- Rub a little on wounds and cuts to promote healing and avoid infection.
- Given its antifungal properties, the oil can be used on feet to fight athlete’s foot or tor fungus.
- Use to season cast iron skillets and frying pans
- Applied externally, it can help pets struggling with skin issues.
- You can make a homemade vapour rub by mixing half a cup of coconut oil with a few drops of eucalyptus and rosemary oils to rub on the chest and throat.
- Coconut oil can even be used as a sexual lubricant, although it can damage latex condoms.
- Some have used topically to kill yeast or yeast infections.
- Rub on cold sores to speed healing and prevent bacteria from growing.
How do you use coconut oil and what type do you mostly use? Leave a comment below or on Facebook to get the conversation going and don’t forget to share this post with your friends.
Check out my Eat Drink Paleo Cookbook - a fantastic edition to any kitchen, filled with exclusive recipes, cooking tips and easy guide to paleo. Also just out, the new Rejuvenate program, which I co-authored with a medical nutritionist Claire Yates – it will teach you how to achieve radiance, wellness and longevity through food and holistic living.
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