Coconut oil is a staple in any hard core paleo-eater’s diet. This is because A. we aren’t afraid of saturated fat, B. we know the dangers of rancid oils, and C. we like to have nice skin. It’s also an acceptable way to fry food because of the high smoke point.
Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts by one of two methods: wet processing or dry processing. Most coconut oil is dry processed because it is more economical (higher yield) and more appealing (1). The dry process involves removal of the coconut meat from multiple coconuts, drying it in a kiln, and pressing what is left. Two products come out of the press: coconut oil, and copra which is a high-protein fibrous mash that is used in ruminant feed and not suitable for human consumption. The copra is strained out, and the coconut oil remains (2).
Commercial coconut oil is about 91% saturated fatty acids, 6% oleic acid (healthy monounsaturated fatty acid), and 3% polyunsaturated fatty acid. It’s smoke point (why we love it) is 350 degrees F (3).
Many health organizations including the FDA (4), WHO (5), American Heart Association (6), etc, advise against the ingestion of coconut oil because of the high saturated fat content, but if you’ve read my post about saturated fat, you know how I feel about that.
According to a 2003 meta-analysis (7), the use of coconut oil as a replacement for other sources of saturated fats (just partially, not entirely) increased overall cholesterol, but much of the effect was on the HDL (good) cholesterol. One of the most accurate predictors of cardiac events is the following ratio total cholesterol: HDL cholesterol. The lower this ratio is, the safer you are. Consumption of coconut oil, decreased this ratio compared to the addition of CARBS. Replacing saturated fatty acids with carbs had little effect on the cholesterol ratio, but it did increase the concentration of triglycerides when fasting (7).
Besides its uses in cooking, coconut oil is great for skin and hair topically (8, 9). I know this from my personal experience, as well.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, coconut oil has a very high smoke point compared to other oils like olive (3). When an oil reaches its smoke point, it begins to break down to its components, fatty acids and glycerol. The glycerol will continue its breakdown to a substance called acrolein which is a compound in the smoke that is irritating to the eyes and throat (10). It is also a component of cigarette smoke (11). Since coconut oil has a high smoke point, it is safer to cook with. As oils break down, they also begin to lose nutritional value making olive oil healthy when raw, but not so much when heated.
Coconut oil does have a mild coconut scent and flavor. I prefer to cook with ghee or butter because the flavor is better, and the smoke point is still adequate. I mostly use coconut oil for topical purposes because the smell is nice. Different skin types react differently to the oil. For instance, my skin is firm, so it doesn’t absorb the oil quickly. The oil makes my skin look great, but I have to wash it off before going anywhere as it looks greasy. I’ve heard other people say that their skin soaks it right up. Trial and error. I’ve also used it to treat rashes, scrapes, burns, and even acne. It can even be used as a mouthwash, but I don’t do this anymore because it uses a lot of oil, and coconut oil is expensive. This is the brand that I use.
Anyway, I encourage you to give it a try, topically if not in cooking, and see how you like it. I think it’s pretty wonderful.
1. Grimwood et al., 1975, pp. 193–210
2. Grimwood, BE; Ashman F; Dendy DAV; Jarman CG; Little ECS; Timmins WH (1975). Coconut Palm Products – Their processing in developing countries. Rome: FAO. pp. 49–56.
3. Katragadda, H. R.; Fullana, A. S.; Sidhu, S.; Carbonell-Barrachina, Á. A. (2010). “Emissions of volatile aldehydes from heated cooking oils”. Food Chemistry 120: 59.
4. “Nutrition Facts at a Glance – Nutrients: Saturated Fat”. Food and Drug Administration. 2009-12-22. Retrieved 2011-03-16.
5. “Avoiding Heart Attacks and Strokes” (PDF). World Health Organization. Retrieved 2011-04-06.
6. “Tropical Oils”. American Heart Association. Retrieved 2011-03-16.
7. Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester AD, Katan MB (May 2003). “Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials” (PDF). Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 77 (5): 1146–55.
8. Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM (September 2004). “A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis”. Dermatitis 15 (3): 109–16
9. Rele, A.; Mohile, R. (2003). “Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage” (pdf). Journal of cosmetic science 54 (2): 175–192.
10. Morgan, D. A. (1942). “Smoke, fire, and flash points of cottonseed, peanut, and other vegetable oils”. Oil & Soap 19: 193.
11. Feng, Z; Hu W, Hu Y, Tang M (October 2006). “Acrolein is a major cigarette-related lung cancer agent: Preferential binding at p53 mutational hotspots and inhibition of DNA repair”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (42): 15404–15409.