Today, let's take a look at popular source of fatty acids that didn't used to be thought of as a health food, coconut oil.
It was not all that long ago that coconut oil was equated with the devil himself. It was supposed to clog your arteries. It was supposed to raise your cholesterol. It was supposed to give you heart attacks. Coconut oil was supposed to be worse than lard or butter or corn oil.
Back in 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest killed tens of millions of dollars movie theater popcorn sales by pointing out that the high-calorie "butter" on "buttered" popcorn was really mostly coconut oil. Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center at the time, famously said, "White popcorn should be the Snow White of snack foods, but adding coconut oil turns it into Godzilla."
Nowadays, however, you can find coconut oil in the health food store between the virgin olive oil and the cold-pressed perilla oil. What has transformed coconut oil from greasy (but tasty) treat into health food staple?
It partly has to do with the fact that vegans like frosting on their cupcakes and flaky crusts for their pies. Frosting on desserts is traditionally done with lard. Pie crusts are traditionally made with butter. Vegans don't eat lard and they don't eat butter.
Coconut oil, however, stays solid at room temperature, much like lard and butter. It has a kind of nutty, vanilla flavor. It's milder than butter and lighter than lard.
And because it is not necessary to ice the mixing bowl the way it is for making butter-based pie crust, it's actually easier to make a pie crust with coconut oil than it is with butter. Part of the popularity of coconut oil is the reality that vegans like desserts, too.
But the other reason coconut oil is becoming very popular has to do with the fact that the scientists 20 years ago were just plain wrong.
Or rather than they weren't entirely honest about what they were studying.
Decades of cholesterol research has tested the effects of feeding high-fat foods to rabbits. In case you are unfamiliar with rabbits, rest assured that bunnies usually don't eat fried chicken, bacon, pie crust, or cupcakes. However, when they are fed these and similar foods, their cholesterol levels go right through the roof. Scientists have long told us that they same thing will happen to us.
To make sure their tests of coconut oil gave measurable results, scientists didn't use virgin coconut oil for feeding their test rabbits. They used partially hydrogenated oil, the kind of coconut oil that doesn't turn into a solid when it's held at room temperature.
This wasn't so the rabbits wouldn't start baking pies and icing cupcakes. It was so the scientists could measure liquid coconut oil into the rabbit chow and make sure the rabbits actually swallowed all the oily stuff with their food. Virgin coconut oil would get caught in bunny whiskers and ruin the results.
The bad coconut oil used in the "scientific" study of cholesterol was loaded with artificially created trans- fats. Virgin coconut oil does not contain trans- fats.
Virgin coconut oil is a saturated fat, but it turns out that all saturated fats are not created equal. Medium chain triglycerides, it turns out, lower the bad LDL cholesterol and raise the good HDL cholesterol. That's due to a particular saturated fat called lauric acid, which is abundant in natural, virgin coconut oil, but actually removed from the highly processed coconut oil.
Chemically processed coconut oil puts trans- fats in and takes lauric acid out. If you are a rabbit, it will kill you. If you are a human, it's not exactly good for you.
But virgin coconut oil is almost as beneficial as fish oil. And it's a lot tastier. You can't use fish oil to make a pie crust or to put icing on a cupcake. (Well, you could, but it would taste fishy.) And there are evidence-based claims that virgin coconut oil in your diet can clear up acne and fight viral infections, even HIV.
How much coconut oil is enough, and how much is too much? About 20 grams (1-1/2 tablespoons) is OK, assuming you are not using other oils for health, too. You can use that 20 grams in cooking and still take up to 5 grams (5,000 mg) of fish oil, of course, and not be taking in too much fat in your diet. In fact, it's a great strategy to make your diet as close to no-fat as possible except for healthy oils such as the coconut oil you use in cooking and fish oil or (if you are a vegan or a vegetarian) microalgae oil you take as a supplement.
Virgin coconut oil, by the way, really is good on popcorn. It brings out a sweet flavor in the salty popcorn. It's good for stir fries, and it brings out sweet flavors—without added sugar—in vegetables we don't usually think of as sweet, such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, onions, white potatoes, and even Brussels sprouts. It brings out the richness of ginger, garlic, and coriander (coriander seed if you are in most of the world outside the USA, and coriander leaf if you are an American). And it's a great oil for making desserts that pack an antioxidant punch.
So don't forget the coconut oil! Buy one jar for now and one to keep on hand.