by Matthew Kadey, R.D.
Once castigated for its generous saturated fat content, coconut oil has been given a second life as a (gasp!) healthy fat. And while drinking it by the tablespoon still isn't a great idea, you definitely should consider adding the oil to your diet.
Yes, coconut oil is almost 90 percent saturated fat, but not all sat fats are created equal. "The saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid that appears to have a more neutral effect on heart health when compared to longer-chain saturated fats found in meats and dairy products," says Wendy Bazilian, R.D., author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet.
This makes sense considering citizens of nations that consume prodigious amounts of coconut products, such as Sri Lanka, have lower rates of heart disease than Americans. Some research even suggests that coconut oil can paradoxically improve cholesterol numbers by revving up enzymes in the body that break down fats.
Bazilian adds that medium-chain fats are metabolized more easily into energy in the liver, meaning they may be less likely to be stored as extra padding on your thighs if you keep your overall calories in check. "Up to 1 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil a day, depending on individual calorie needs, can be a healthy and tasty addition to your diet when replacing other less-healthy calories," Bazilian says. "But don't believe the hype that simply adding coconut oil to your diet can help you shed a bunch of body fat."
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More proof that coconut oil is a worthwhile addition to your pantry: Lauric acid appears to have antibacterial properties, and studies show that the tropical oil (particularly the virgin varieties) contains a bounty of antioxidants that may help knock out those pesky cell-damaging free radicals that are thought to accelerate aging and disease. Topically, coconut oil is also a great skin moisturizer.
How to Choose a Coconut Oil
Coconut oil that is labelled "virgin" or "extra virgin" is extracted from coconut meat using delicate methods such as cold-pressing. "This type of oil will have more antioxidants as well as a stronger coconut flavor and aroma," Bazilian says. Perfect for a batch of brownies or a fragrant curry.
Not ready to go loco for coco flavor? Try refined coconut oil (sometimes labelled "expeller-pressed"), which is further processed to have a more neutral taste and scent. Refined coconut oil also has a higher smoke point than virgin, so Bazilian says you can use it for higher-heat cooking such as stir-frying or when you are making dishes like scrambled eggs and don't want it to taste like a beach vacation. But she recommends researching brands online to find ones that avoid using harsh chemicals to refine their coconut oil.
Both cold-pressed and expeller-pressed versions have a long shelf life (about 2 years without refrigeration), meaning there is less worry about coconut oil going rancid than there is about more delicate oils such as flax or extra-virgin olive oil.
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The Best Ways to Cook with Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has a variety of uses in the kitchen. Add a tropical flare to these six foods.
1. Baked goods: Because it tolerates high temperatures, coconut oil is a notable substitute for butter, shortening, or other vegetable oils in Paleo-worthy baked good recipes. Scones, cupcakes, muffins, brownies, and cookies will have a lightness that you just can't get with butter.
Since it's solid at room temperature, coconut oil needs to be melted before use in most baking. To do so, simply place the jar in a bowl or pan with very hot water and let sit for a few minutes. If mixing it with any cold ingredients, be sure to stir the oil in quickly so that it doesn't solidify and make clumps. In its solid form, coconut oil works brilliantly as a dairy-free option in recipes where you cut solid butter or shortening into dry ingredients, such as with pie crusts.
Generally you can substitute coconut oil one-for-one with butter or other oils in baking recipes, although you may want to add an extra dash or two of any liquid your recipe calls for to compensate for the extra moisture that butter lends to baked goods. You can also substitute half the butter for coconut oil to limit any coconut flavor. (No need to adjust anything else in this case.)
2. Granola: Embrace your inner hippie and bake up batches of homemade granola using coconut oil, which lends an irresistible aroma to your oats and nuts. While some vegetable and nut oils oxidize at high temperatures, resulting in "off" flavors and potentially fewer health benefits, coconut oil can stand the blast furnace that is your oven unscathed.
3. Roasted vegetables: The next time you're roasting a batch of hearty winter vegetables such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beets, or rutabaga, try tossing them with a mixture of coconut oil, lemon juice, thyme or rosemary, salt, and pepper for an appealing hint of coconut.
4. Popcorn: Those kernels pop so beautifully when dropped into a pan with a spoonful of coconut oil, this fat may just be the best thing to happen to popcorn since the microwave.
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5. Nut butters: Break out the food processor and grind together 2 cups nuts such as almonds, pecans, or cashews with 2 tablespoons coconut oil until smooth and buttery. Since you can customize each batch by adding honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, flax seed, or even ground coffee, you may just never buy peanut butter again.
6. Mayo: If a season of Top Chef has you itching to embrace your inner Julia Child, try whirling up your own mayonnaise. But for a twist, pour in half olive oil and half melted coconut oil.
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