Recently one of my clients asked me a question regarding coconut oil. I thought this would be a good one to share with you all being that it is a question I get asked frequently. Her question to me was, “why is coconut oil considered to be a healthy oil?” “I had always heard that it was a highly saturated fat and was considered an artery clogger.” “Has something changed?”

Good question, right? My answer to her was, yes, the opinion on coconut oil has shifted, and the once reviled fat is now emerging as a healthful oil and one that I personally use more than any other. But first we need to be clear about the type of coconut oil that is the healthy one and the one that is anything but healthy. The one found in processed foods, such as chips, cookies, and crackers and the like, is the partially hydrogenated variety. The one sharing the shelves with extra virgin olive oil is the virgin coconut oil.

Virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconut that has been dried and had its oil extracted mechanically, not chemically like the partially hydrogenated kind. While the majority of fatty acids contained in virgin coconut oil are saturated, their molecular structure is a bit different than that found in other saturated fats. The fatty-acid chains found in coconut oil are medium in length, which is shorter than in most saturated fats. The human body can break down the shorter chains and metabolize them faster than longer chain fatty acids. This means that fat can be rapidly oxidized as energy and is less likely to be stored as body fat.

The potential benefits of virgin coconut oil go way beyond its medium-chain fatty acids. This oil is also high in lauric acid, a saturated fat that has been shown to increase the good cholesterol we need and lower the bad artery clogging cholesterol that we don't need.

With all of that being said, it is still important to realize that coconut oil is still a fat and should be consumed in moderation in order to keep total calorie intake in check. However, it is a good option for health seekers, and a great alternative for those following a vegan, kosher or dairy free diet who would like a natural solid fat to use in baking and cooking.

Culinary note. Virgin coconut oil is solid at room temperature and should be treated like butter in recipes. However, it has a much higher smoke point (280 to 350 degrees), making it great for sauteing and stir-frying. It has a mild sweet coconut flavor that adds a delicious touch to any dish.

Beauty note. Makes a wonderful lip and skin moisturizer and hair treatment for dry or over processed hair. If you burn yourself in the kitchen, grab a chunk of coconut oil and place it on the burn. Very soothing. 

Solid at refrigerated or room temp.

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