Coconut Oil: A Controversial Cooking Oil

Coconut oil comes from the coconut fruit, which has been considered a food source for thousands of years. Coconut oil has recently become widely adopted by people seeking to eat healthy diets, but it has a long and storied past that includes periods when it wasn’t considered healthy food at all.

The history of coconut oil starts with the history of the coconut itself. There are two main varieties of coconut, one set from the Indian Ocean and the other from the Pacific.

Coconuts have been cultivated along India’s Malabar Coast for more than 2,000 years. There is evidence of them being grown in Sri Lanka and the Maldives as well. In the Pacific, the first places where coconuts were cultivated included the Philippines and Malaysia.

Coconut oil was heavily used in Ayurvedic medicine from 1500 BCE. The use of coconut oil in the Pacific would be documented by Captain Cook much later on.

The name coconut wasn’t given to the fruit until the 17th century.

At the end of the 19th century, Europeans developed coconut plantations in the West Indies and Southeast Asia specifically because to grow coconuts that would meet Europe’s demand for cooking oil and oils for making soap.

Coconut oil was a popular cooking oil in the US and Europe at the end of the 1800s up to World War II when it became hard to find because the supply was cut off. Many consumers switched to soybean oil.

Coconut oil fell out of favor in the 1950s because of its high levels of saturated fat. The belief that saturated fat raises cholesterol became widely held around this time. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, which means that it was considered unhealthy when compared to oils like soybean oil. Soybean oil is primarily unsaturated fat.

More recent studies have found that the dangers of the saturated fat in coconut oil may have been overstated and that there is no correlation between coconut oil in the diet and heart disease.

There are two main types of coconut oil: virgin or unrefined, which is made from the meat of the coconut without much processing. Refined oil undergoes processing and may contain additives.

Coconut oil flavor profile

Virgin coconut oil has the sweet, nutty flavor of fresh coconut meat. Refined coconut oil has a flavor profile that is close to neutral.

Health benefits of coconut oil

Coconut oil is not a great source of vitamins or minerals, but it does contain some compounds that are crucial for good health, such as:

  • Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs): Animal studies show that MCFAs are more likely to be sent to the liver than to be stored as fat. The liver converts them to energy and other metabolic products.
  • Antioxidants: Coconut oil contains antioxidants that combat free radicals.

You may be able to treat or prevent certain health problems with coconut oil in your diet. These include:

  • Obesity: Studies show that adding a modest amount of coconut oil to the diet can help to reduce waist circumference.
  • Diabetes: Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides that may help to prevent insulin insensitivity and diabetes that results from it.

Health concerns

Coconut oil is fat, which means that it adds calories and can lead to or exacerbate obesity when consumed in excess. Some studies have found that while coconut oil does raise good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein), it also increases bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein). This means that it should not be considered heart-healthy.

Common uses

Unrefined coconut oil has a low smoke point, so it will have to be used in low-temperature cooking. You can also use it as a butter or shortening substitute for baking. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point of about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, which means you can use it for high-temperature cooking.