Friday, July 10, 2009

Crazy for coconut oil

You may have noticed that in a lot of recipes I tend to call for coconut oil. There is a lot of information out there suggesting that this is a relatively good fat for human health. Add to that its relatively high smoke point (the point at which oil used for cooking starts to break down), and coconut oil makes a pretty good choice for cooking.

What is coconut oil? Well, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like - although if you had visions of tiny oil derricks drilling into coconuts, you'll be disappointed. In practice, the oil is usually extracted from coconuts by drying and then pressing the "meat" (the same stuff you buy as shredded coconut in the store).

Does coconut oil add a coconut flavour to everything you cook? Well, some oils have more flavour than others, but the flavour is usually so subtle that you won't notice it unless you're taking a spoonful of the oil directly (and some people do this as a daily supplement).

Coconut oil is a saturated fat, so it's relatively stable (but it's one of the good kinds of saturated fats - it appears to raise the "good" cholesterol in your blood). It lasts for up to two years without going rancid, but it lasts somewhat longer when it's in the solid form. The melting point of coconut oil is around 25 degrees Celsius, so depending on how warm your kitchen is, you may want to store it in the fridge if you're not going to use it all up right away. (I find a standard jar of coconut oil only lasts me a couple of months anyway, so I keep it out on the counter.)

If possible, buy your coconut oil as "virgin" oil - while there is no standard for what constitutes "virgin" oil, this generally means that the oil has been only minimally processed. Watch out for hydrogenated coconut oil - this is sometimes done to increase the melting point, but it's just as questionable in coconut oil as it is in vegetable oils, nutritionally speaking.

There are a lot of health claims associated with coconut oil, including (as noted above) that it raises your HDL (or "good") cholesterol, thus improving your overall cholesterol ratio. It is also reported to raise your metabolism, and may have antiviral, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties. Additionally, the main fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, which may strengthen the body's immune system. Oh, one other thing - you can also use it on the outside of your body, it's supposed to make a wonderful moisturizer.

Whether you down a spoonful a day as a nutritional supplement, or you just use it for frying foods, coconut oil deserves a chance to be in your kitchen, in my opinion. Of course, I'm not a doctor, I'm just a caveman.

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