The global chef coconut oil enters good-fat, bad-fat debate food v gashi 2015


Confusion reigns when it comes to edible fats. Most researchers and nutritionists have declared extra virgin olive oil the hands-down winner. Transfats are the all-time losers. Other nut and seed oils, depending on the method and and degree of refining, fall somewhere in the middle.

But what about coconut oil? In the past few years it’s been spreading to grocery shelves across America. People are confused. Isn’t coconut oil supposed to be artery-blocking and serum cholesterol-boosting, with more heart-attack-instigating saturated fat than butter, lard or tallow? Or is it a healthy food alleged to do everything from help you to increase metabolism, flatten your belly, stave off Alzheimer’s to kill off pathogens?

From the 1920s to the 1940s highly refined, bleached and deodorized coconut oil (R.B.D.), was used in commercial food preparations (like popcorn), cosmetic, industrial and pharmaceutical purposes and in home-cooking. By the 1950s it became part of the saturated fat scare and lost favor. In the past decade or less coconut oil has had an image makeover.

Extraction methods set the two coconut oils apart. The first, R.B.D. coconut oil, is pressed from copra (dried coconut meat). The harsh processing destroys beneficial essential fatty acids and antioxidants, like lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid that can raise artery-clearing high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and flavor. Since it is tasteless and odor-free, R.B.D. coconut oil was commonly used in the United States and Europe for frying and shortening.

To produce virgin coconut oil (V.C.O.), shredded fresh, wet coconut is pressed to squeeze out coconut oil and milk. The two form an emulsion that is then separated. Unlike R.B.D. coconut oil, V.C.O. is not refined or subjected to high temperatures, which destroy beneficial, heat-sensitive components.

Coconut oil is almost completely saturated fat (but contains no cholesterol), it melts at 76 degrees F, is semi-solid and stable at room temperature with a shelf life of about 2 years. To keep it pliable, store coconut oil in the pantry, not refrigerator. Melted V.C.O. is clear with a mild coconut aroma and delicate, nutty taste. It’s milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, without any of the occasional bitterness of olive oil. It can replace butter or shortening in baking and cooking; it’s especially delightful for sautéing.

Sauté or stir-fry vegetables, bitter greens, bean or vegetable burgers, eggs, meat or fish. Drizzle melted coconut oil on air-popped popcorn or use in stove-top popping. Coat poultry or meat before rubbing with seasonings. Boost the flavor of vegetable or grain dishes without animal fat or butter — drizzle with melted V.C.O. Substitute V.C.O. for oil or butter in a 1:1 ratio in most recipes or mix half and half with cold, unsalted butter for pie crusts. In baking, allow cold ingredients like eggs or milk come to room temperature for smooth blending.

The current popularity of coconut oil is driven by our desire to find healthier alternatives to vegetable shortening and transfats (hydrogenated vegetable oils). Vegan and dairy-free diets celebrate V.C.O. As part of a balanced diet emphasizing fresh produce, whole foods and fats like avocado, extra virgin olive oil and nuts and low in sugar and refined carbs, studies show virgin coconut oil will not harm and may indeed support heart and overall health.