The word “superfood” has been thrown around a lot recently. One day it’s baby spinach saving the day. The next it’s kale to the rescue. Even chia seeds have garnered at least sidekick status!
But have you ever heard of about coconut oil being a superfood? My guess is that you probably haven’t… even though you should.
Because of the health benefits you’ll learn below, you’ll soon understand why it is as super as it gets.
[greybox] For the tl;dr folk that just want the coconut oil recommendation without the science, click here to go down to the conclusion section[/greybox]
What Exactly is in Coconut Oil?
For starters, coconut oil is made entirely of fat and very little else.
According to the US Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, 13.60 grams of fat, no carbohydrates or proteins, and minuscule traces of vitamins and minerals if any at all.
Of its fat content, the fatty acids in coconut oil are almost all – approximately ~87% – saturated. The proportions of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids pale in comparison to their saturated brethren.
87% saturated fatty acids?? Egads! Given all the bad mojo around the notion of saturated fats, there’s no way coconut oil can be actually healthy, right?
(Slight note: before going further, we should mention that there’s a difference between fatty acids and fats. Fats, also called triglycerides, are fatty acids that have been stored in the body. Fatty acids are what we consume in foods. We could go into it more, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
As it turns out, it is, and coconut oil is indeed very healthy.
Here’s where things get a little interesting.
Coconut Oil and MCFAs
While we most commonly classify fatty acids based on their levels of saturation (i.e. saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated), fatty acids can be classified based on their molecular size and/or the length of their carbon chain. The length of carbon chain is an important consideration here because it is a key determinant in how the body will respond and process the fatty acid being consumed.
For the most part, almost all oils and fats (animal fats included) we consume are made of long-chain fatty acids, which have 16 or more carbons to their name.
Coconut oil, on the other hand, has an exceedingly high quantity of medium-chain fatty acids, which have between 8 to 14 carbons to their name. For coconut oil, the dominant MCFA is lauric acid in particular. Also in coconut oil are capric acid, carpylic acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid.
Why does this matter, though? What is so great about MCFAs versus the more conventional LCFAs we consume?
There are so many that it deserves its own section.
Benefits of Coconut Oil
So as we mentioned before, coconut oil is mainly medium-chain fatty acids and a predominant source of lauric acid.
Here’s why this is important:
- MCFAs in general are harder to store in the body compared to LCFAs. As a result, diets with higher MCFAs and medium-chain triglyceride intake lead to higher energy expenditure and decreased adiposity. Translation: less likelihood of being overweight.
- Diets rich in virgin coconut oil are correlated to higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the good), lower LDL:HDL ratios, and promotes a reduction in waist size.
- Lauric acid, the primary MCFA present in coconut oil, has shown to have an antimicrobial effect on the spread of stomach viruses and other gastrointestinal issues.
- Increased consumption of virgin coconut oil (compared to other oils like soybean and copra) can be correlated to a heightened metabolism
- And, of course, there’s the ever famous observational study that found much lower levels of vascular diseases and issues in Polynesian cultures where coconut oil was a prominent component to their everyday diet (this study was the genesis behind the “coconut oil is healthy” notion)
And if that weren’t enough, coconut oil has been shown to be beneficial in other areas of body care as well:
- Applying virgin coconut oil as a topical cream can improve the healing of wounds
- Coconut oil can improve hair health and reduce protein loss in both undamaged and damaged hairs
And really, the list could go on and on.
Long story short, coconut oil is pretty awesome.
But Wait… Not All Coconut Oil is Created Equal
Despite the fantastic benefits that coconut oil can bring, there is an unfortunate caveat to the tale.
As with any food item that is mass produced, there are the good kinds of coconut oil, and there are the less-good (but still good) kinds.
As a starting point, it’d be a good starting point to separate the good from the better into two buckets. There’s the virgin coconut oils and then there’s the refined types.
About Refined Coconut Oils
When referring to refined coconut oils, the base product from which the oil is produced is most likely a substance called copra. Copra is a dried part of the coconut removed from the shell that’s inedible unless some sort of processing – kiln drying or smoke drying – is done to it. These drying processes already cause the copra-sourced oil to deviate a bit from regular coconut oil, and there’s further processing needed in order to get it to the same look and feel as its virgin counterparts.
Refined coconut oils, especially those sourced from copra, will generally go through a refining, bleaching, and deodorizing process. When you go through your supermarket and come across the acronym RBD on certain coconut oil labels, it’s a reference to these three additional processes.
In addition, you might come across the following terms on coconut oil packages, all of which denote some sort of refinement done to the oil.
Some examples are:
- Expeller-pressed – An oil that’s been expeller pressed simply means that it’s been squeezed under a mechanical press in order to extract its oils. It’s been a practice that’s been around for centuries, but since it only extracts ~65-70% of available oils, manufacturers might try to extract the remaining oil with a chemical solvent called hexane… which is poisonous. In order to get rid of the hexane and in the general expeller-pressing process, the oil itself might heat up and change its overall flavor profile.
- Hydrogenated – Hydrogenation is when hydrogen gas is forced into oils, which will alter the chemical profile of some of the oil’s fatty acids. This is done in order to give the oils a longer shelf life and to prevent them from going rancid. It warrants a discussion for another day, but for now, always stay away from hydrogenated oils.
- Liquid coconut oil – This is coconut oil that’s in liquid form after it’s been stripped of one of it’s chief components, lauric acid. After the research-backed benefits of lauric acid intake, why would you want to have less of it? No need to go liquid on this one
And there are more and more types of refinements and processing. Enough of them for now, though, and onto the better versions of coconut oil: the virgin kinds.
Virgin Coconut Oils: The Good Guys
Virgin coconut oil, by definition, is the oils extracted from fresh coconut, as opposed to the copra from the refined processes above.
To extract these oils, there are two prevalent processes for making this happen:
- Coconuts are first dried and then the oil is pressed out of it.
- The oil is pressed out of fresh coconuts first without the coconuts being dried beforehand.
The latter approach is part of a larger process called “wet milling.” Wet milling implies that, in order to separate the coconut oil from any resident water, an additional step possibly involving heating – such as boiling or mechanical centrifuge – is done to the oil.
Ironically enough, this wet milling process, despite in most approaches heating the oil, seems to yield more antioxidants than its cold and dry pressed counterparts.
Conclusion: Which Coconut Oil to Choose?
After a long time on the outs for its high saturated fatty acids contents, people are coming around to seeing that coconut oil is one of the best consumable oils out there for you.
But with all the different brands, vendors, and choices, what are the best available coconut oil options?
If it were up to us (and in the case of our own pantry, it is), here are the types of keywords to look out for. These are the types of words you want to see on your label:
- Extra virgin (doesn’t really mean anything extra like it does with olive oil, but it signifies it’s virgin)
- Wet milling
- Wet processed
And, perhaps more importantly, here are the keywords you don’t want to see at all on your label:
- Hexane (in case any vendor is crazy enough to actually market that they extract oil this way)
- Expeller-pressed (again, not necessarily bad, but might come with bad mojo)
- RBD (when virgin’s around, why settle?)
This is a lot to keep in mind, I know. But once you find that right brand for you, getting the best type of coconut oil will be a breeze from here on out.
And soon enough, you’ll be able to reap the powerful benefits of this true superfood.
What brand of coconut oil do you buy? Why or why not? Comment below!
[greybox]Other Sources Not Linked in Article:
“What Type of Coconut Oil Is Best? How to Choose a Coconut Oil.” Coconut Oil. CoconutOil.com, Web.
Dean, Ward. “Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs).” Nutrition Review. Nutrition Review, n.d. Web.
“Health Benefits of Coconut Oil.” Organic Facts. Organic Facts, n.d. Web.
“Coconut Research Center Home Page.” Coconut Research Center Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web.[/greybox]