Coconut oil’s many health benefits have been eclipsed for decades by fears about saturated fats. But now it’s time for a more sophisticated understanding of the virgin coconut oil’s healthful nature and its indispensable place in southern Indian cooking.
I grew up in a world where coconuts reign supreme; the name of my home state Kerala means “land of coconut palms.” Wherever it is grown around the world, coconut has a long and respected history and all parts of the palm are used in some way or another in the daily life of the people in the coconut-growing areas. It is acclaimed as Kalpavriksha — the all-giving tree in ancient Indian classics.
Coconut oil extracted from the firm white kernel of the mature coconut is an essential ingredient in our cuisine. In addition to its many culinary applications, coconut oil is also widely used in home remedies and in Ayurveda, Indian herbal medicine.
Coconut oil is the most misunderstood of all coconut products; an oil that was used in cooking for thousands of years. Tropical oils were very popular in the U.S. food industry before World War II. It was used quite heavily in this country for baking, frying and even in making popcorn at movie theaters.
Everything changed a few decades ago when studies proclaimed that all saturated fats caused high triglyceride counts and raised cholesterol levels. The anti-saturated fat campaign and the promotion of polyunsaturated fats and their partially hydrogenated products destroyed the reputation of all saturated oils in America, especially coconut oil. Sales dwindled and American grocery stores stopped carrying it. I could find it only at Indian grocers, and I saved the precious oil for garnishing aviyal, a vegetable dish that requires coconut oil for its authentic taste.
The chemistry of coconut oil
Several fats in our diet, irrespective of whether they are saturated or unsaturated, or whether they come from plant or animal sources, consist of molecules called fatty acids. One well known system classifies them as saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated fats. Another system is based on the length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid. This method classifies fatty acids as short-chain, medium-chain and long-chain fatty acids.
The human body metabolizes each fatty acid differently depending on its size. Sixty-five percent of the saturated fat in coconut oil consists of seven types of medium-chain fatty acids. Of these, lauric acid is the most predominant. Medium-chain fatty acids do not circulate in the bloodstream like other fats, but are metabolized rapidly and converted into energy rather than stored as body fat. Research shows the human body also converts lauric acid to a fatty acid derivative that protects the body from viral and bacterial infections. The only other good source of lauric acid is mother’s milk.
Although it is high in saturated fat, coconut oil also contains heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats important for overall growth and development. The monounsaturated fat in coconut oil is made entirely of oleic acid, a component believed to possess the anti-cancer benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet. The polyunsaturated fat content of coconut oil is linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid.
Myths and truths
Old studies on coconut oil used the highly processed hydrogenated coconut oil. All hydrogenated oils, whether they are saturated or not, contain trans-fatty acids that have been altered from their original chemical composition, and they raise cholesterol levels that lead to heart disease. Recent research shows that it is the presence of trans-fatty acids in oils resulting from hydrogenation that causes health problems.
The saturated fat in coconut oil prevents it from easily oxidizing. It can withstand high temperatures. Medium-chain fatty acids in unrefined coconut oil do not easily turn into trans-fatty acids when heated, which makes it a stable oil to cook with. Coconuts can add flavor, variety and nutrients to your diet. All of these qualities make it ideal for baking, cooking, frying and stir-frying. Coconut oil remains a clear liquid above 75 F. Below this temperature, it will be a solid fat. It can be liquefied easily by heating. Studies have shown that an intake of approximately 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day is a healthy dose.
Today high-quality virgin coconut oil is considered one of the healthiest oils free of trans-fatty acids and is gaining popularity as a nourishing fat among health-conscious consumers. “Virgin coconut oil has a haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor. It’s even milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, and without any of the bitterness of olive oil” wrote Melissa Clark in her article on coconut oil in The New York Times.
When buying, it is important to note that coconut oils on the market vary drastically in terms of quality. Choose a good quality virgin coconut oil and use it in moderation. Low-quality coconut oils are processed by chemical extraction using solvent extracts. This method is quicker, produces higher yields, and is less expensive. These oils may contain chemical residues and some are also hydrogenated, bleached and deodorized, which makes it unhealthy. Look for unrefined virgin coconut oil, and it is better to stay away from all hydrogenated oils, whether it is from plant or animal source.
One southern Indian favorite that relies on coconut oil’s goodness is a type of coleslaw called cabbage thoran. Pale green leaves of cabbage blend perfectly with coconut oil and curry leaves to make this tasty side dish.
Cabbage Thoran: Pan-Fried Cabbage With Curry Leaves and Coconut
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photos, from top:
Coconut oil, solid and liquid.
Coconut palms along Lake Vembanad in Kerala, India.
Credits: R.V. Ramachandran.