Ask the RD
I was recently shopping at a natural food store and noticed jars of coconut oil sharing a shelf with the extra-virgin olive oil. I thought coconut oil contained high amounts of saturated fat and was considered an artery clogger. Has this oil reinvented itself?
Answer: Good observation! Opinion on coconut oil has shifted, and the once reviled fat is now emerging as a healthful oil. But before you go tearing into packages of processed chips and cookies, be clear that virgin coconut oil—not the partially hydrogenated variety found in processed foods—is the one sharing the shelf with olive 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 from that found in other saturated fats: The fatty-acid chains 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 chains. This means the fat can be rapidly oxidized as energy and is less likely to be stored as fat.
The potential benefits of virgin coconut oil go beyond its medium-chain fatty acids. The oil is also high in lauric acid, a saturated fat that has been shown to increase both HDL and LDL cholesterol, which results in a neutral effect and ultimately makes the oil benign.
It’s important to realize that virgin coconut oil is still a fat and must 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 (350ºF), making it a great fat for sautéing and stir-frying. It imparts a mildly sweet coconut flavor.
Lourdes Castro, MS, RD, is an adjunct professor at New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health; she earned her master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University. She is the author of three cookbooks: Simply Mexican; Eat, Drink, Think in Spanish; and Latin Grilling. She is the director of the Biltmore Culinary Academy in Miami. Visit her website at www.slicethin.com. Send your questions for Lourdes to [email protected]