Coconut oil is a staple food in many parts of the world. You can travel to Thailand, the Caribbean, parts of Brazil, countries in Africa, and the vast southern half of India and find this oil on center stage when it comes to delicious and healthy cuisine. The popularity of this oil is partly due to its stability, ease of use in cooking, and taste.
Like all foods, the quality of coconut oil has a lot to do with its potential health benefits. Refined coconut oil that has been heavily processed, bleached, and deodorized is not going to provide you with the same desirable balance of fatty acids, or the same beneficial polyphenol content, as either virgin coconut oil or less extensively refined coconut oil (sometimes called "naturally refined" by the product manufacturers). Choosing organic coconut oil is a good way to assure you of higher quality in this regard.
From a nutritional standpoint, coconut oil is very unusual. It contains very little polyunsaturated fat (about 2%) and also very little monounsaturated fat (about 6%). The vast majority of the fatty acids contained in coconut oil is saturated fatty acids, and they account for about 85% of all the fat in coconut oil. When fats contain so many saturated fatty acids, they are often solid instead of liquid, and so it is unusual for a liquid oil to contain this high proportion of them. The type of saturated fatty acids contained in coconut oil is also unusual. Saturated fatty acids in foods are usually broken down into three groups: short chain (very short in length), medium chain (intermediate in length), and long chain (long in length). Unlike the long-chain saturated fatty acids (for example, palmitic acid) found in many animal fats, the saturated fatty acids contained in coconut oil are mostly medium length. In fact, about half of all the saturated fat in coconut oil comes from lauric acid, a medium-length saturated fatty acid.
Most of the research on coconut oil and health has been conducted on animals or in a laboratory setting using cells and other tissues. For this reason, it is not yet possible to draw any solid conclusions about the role of coconut oil in our everyday human diets. I have noticed that coconut oil is a very well-promoted subject on the Internet, with many claims for its health benefits, notably for its antiviral activity. But once again, based largely on animal and in vitro research, or on isolated components of coconut oil (like monolaurin), most of these conclusions seem preliminary.
However, at the same time, there is such a long track record of coconut oil use in many cultures and their food traditions that I will be surprised if the research doesn't eventually show some key health benefits. Some of these health benefits are likely to be related to the unusual fatty acid composition of coconut oil, and other benefits are likely to be associated with the special polyphenols found in this oil (when virgin or very lightly refined). Also, it's the natural pattern of fats found in coconut oil that seems especially important to me, in addition to the blend of fats in the overall diet that results from the inclusion of coconut oil. If you decide to include coconut oil in your diet, I therefore recommend that you continue to use other high-quality oils (like extra virgin olive oil) as well.
One of the practical benefits of coconut oil is that it has a higher smoke point than many other oils, so that you can cook with it at normal stovetop temperatures and have less concern about oxidation. The smoke point for lightly refined coconut oil is about 450°F (232°C) while the smoke point for unrefined virgin coconut oil is about 350°F (170°C).
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