The Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

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When I was about five-years-old, my mother brought home a whole, hairy coconut and sat down with me and my little brother on our brick red linoleum kitchen floor in Houston, Texas.  She let us examine the coconut.  Then she brought out a hammer and nail to open it.  I wish I could tell you more, but after that, the memory ends.  I don’t know if I drank the liquid inside the coconut or tasted the coconut meat, but I like to imagine that I did.

A short time later my mother became very ill and incapacitated so the coconut memory is a treasure, one of the few happy times I recall with her.  You might think that given the special memory, I’d have spent the rest of my childhood loving coconut.  Well… thanks to the Passover holiday, and a certain company’s kosher for Passover coconut macaroons (which I believe had a shelf life of 40 years to represent the time the Israelites wandered the desert), I  have nothing but traumatic coconut associations.  My family’s annual eight days of eating only kosher for Passover food left me half-starved and perplexed.  After inedible boiled chicken dinners my grandmother would bring out those macaroons (the 11th plague!) that still tasted of the conveyer belt they came off of.  They had a grainy texture and were sweet in a nauseating sort of way.

Though it’s probably been 20 years since I’ve eaten one of those macaroons, just writing about them brings back the chemical smell.  I can only guess at their ingredients: partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, potato starch, shredded plastic with artificial coconut flavor, and some special powder that preserves freshness for generations.   It’s because those macaroons that I wrote coconuts off for decades.  After my diabetes diagnosis in 2008, however, when I cut most carbohydrates out of my diet, I began to investigate non-carbohydrate food options.  One that came up over and over again was coconut.  And it seemed like the vegans and raw foodists that I admired were all preparing dishes with coconut oil.

It turns out, and it took me a long time to understand this, that coconuts are good for us.  The macaroons are part of the reason I was confused.  The other reason is that coconut oil is a saturated fat which until recently, I thought was a totally bad thing.  But there’s a lot of room for debate on the saturated/unsaturated fat issue.  And the saturated fat in coconut oil (sometimes called coconut butter because it’s solid at room temperature) is different from the saturated fat in animal products.  About half of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that’s easily metabolized by the body.    According to nutritionist Gena Hamshaw, author of the blog Choosing Raw, “The saturated fatty acid chains make coconut oil resistant to oxidation and rancidity, and some of the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil–lauric acids–may have anti-inflammatory effects.”  Lauric acid is a component in human breast milk, and it’s been suggested that it has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-acne properties.  It’s also said to speed up metabolism.

Perhaps the most fascinating claim about coconut oil comes from Mary T. Newport, M.D., a neonatologist in Florida who says she has reversed symptoms of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease with coconut oil.  She’s written a book about her experience, Alzheimer’s Disease, What If There Was a Cure?.  In the book Dr. Newport discusses the glucose connection to Alzheimer’s disease (sometimes called type 3 diabetes), and she explains and why the medium chain triglycerides found in coconut oil are a miraculous treatment for Alzheimer’s.   (For the short version of the Newports’ story see this Tampa Bay Times article.)

 There’s not much in the way of scientific data to support any of the health-related coconut oil claims (and there’s not likely to be any scientific data produced on the theory that putting coconut oil in your nostrils can prevent seasonal allergies).  I, however, can make my own anecdotal claim that’s pretty easy to prove – coconut oil does not raise blood sugar levels.   And here’s another (far less dramatic) claim: It’s a delicious way to cook vegetables.

Speaking of delicious cooking, last year the New York Times food writer Melissa Clark wrote about coconut oil.  She interviewed Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University who has extensively reviewed the literature on coconut oil.  According to Brenna, a considerable part of its stigma can be traced to the fact that most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil.    Partial hydrogenation creates trans fats and destroys good fatty acids and other nutrients.  So the key to keeping coconut oil healthy is to use virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated.  Watch out for coconut oil that has been bleached, deodorized, refined, or is labeled kosher for Passover and was used to manufacture macaroons in 1980s. (Note: Another important fact about coconut oil is that it’s stable at high temperatures, which makes it an ideal oil for grilling, baking, and pan-frying over heat.)

If this article hasn’t made you want to eat coconut oil, there are other good reasons to have some around your home.  It can be used as hair conditioner, lip balm, shaving cream, hand cream, and eye make-up remover.

 For some terrific recipes using coconut oil check out Sarma Melngailis of Pure Food and Wine‘s recipe for Sweet and Easy Plain Cashew Milk, and Carolyn Ketchum of All Day I Dream About Food’s Coconut Flour Cupcakes.

Macaroons Disclosure: Gena Hamshaw published a recipe for Almond and Coconut Macaroons yesterday.  I did ask her about coconut oil, but I did not ask her about macaroons and I did not tell her that I was writing about them.  This macaroonian overlap is purely coincidental.

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