The presence of coconut oil in recipes and many other natural remedies is on the rise. I have just read in the paper that UK sales of coconut oil have risen from around £1m to £16.4m over the last four years.
Following the influence of some of my favorite chefs like Dale Pinnock, I have been using coconut oil in moderation in some of my recipes and felt the need to do some research into whether or not it is actually a healthy product.
Like most things in this area, there are hugely conflicting opinions but what I have gathered in as simple an explanation I can get it, is this:
Coconut oil comes from pressing the meat of the coconut plant and has been used in Asia, South America and other continents for centuries. Interestingly, according to the Guardian, in the 1940s it was the main source of non-dairy fat in the US diet until it was replaced by vegetable oils. Concerns about its high saturated fat content emerged in the middle of the last century and are well publicised today, even as it is making a come-back among the new ‘clean eating’ set.
Health authorities and the diet industry are keen to point out that it is very high in saturated fat (the type that is most bad for us), in fact, it contains more saturated fat than butter or lard. According to Wikipedia it is 91% saturated fat.
However! As with most things, not all saturated fats are created equal. It is thought by the pro-coconut oil lobby that coconut oil has a slightly different molecular make-up than other saturated fats and could be of help in lowering cholesterol, weight loss and other health benefits.
From a purely foodie point of view, coconut oil is a great tasting, natural plant based fat that is solid at room temperature, making it a great ingredient in some desserts. A favorite of mine is using it to holding together avocado based desserts when they come out of the freezer.
When it comes to cooking, we should be looking to use oils with a ‘high smoke point’. The reason for this is that when heated at or close to 180 degrees centigrade fats react with oxygen and undergo what is known as oxidation. In this process, some oils can form harmful compounds that have been documented as having a detrimental effect on health. This this true of many oils high in polyunsaturated fats, including a lot of vegetable oils such as soy bean, sunflower and corn oil. If you want to avoid carcinogenic compounds released by some oils when cooking, always check the smoke point and avoid polyunsaturated fats. Coconut oil has a relatively high smoke point compared to many fats.
However, whilst coconut oil does have a high smoke point, its high saturated fat content causes me to opt for other fats for most of my cooking. My personal choices for frying, roasting and other cooking at a high temperature are cold pressed rapeseed oil, olive oil (not extra virgin), and peanut oil when stir frying.
As with everything in life moderation and balance is always a good approach!