Coconut oil might not be the healthy alternative you’re looking for

Learn about the different types and everyday uses of coconut oil.

Coconut oil is a popular item on the shelves of many stores today. Different sources are claiming it has magical health powers that will either cure certain diseases, help you to lose weight and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil is promoted as an alternative to butter and shortening for those following a vegan diet. It is also used in many processed foods because of its baking qualities such as theater popcorn, coffee creamer and some candies. Let’s take a look at coconut oil on an individual level first.

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from mature coconuts. It has a sweet, nutty flavor and gives foods a tropical flavor when added to dishes like fish and vegetables. Coconut oil is a fat and is 92 percent saturated meaning it is in solid form at room temperature. Saturated fat is known to be unhealthy to the human body because it increases cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart disease. Coconut oil is digested differently than regular saturated fats. Because it is made mostly from medium-chain fatty acids versus long-chain fatty acids, it is delivered directly to the liver to be metabolized and burned for fuel leaving less to be circulated throughout the body and deposited in fat tissue. Now you might think that this makes it healthier, but there is little to no evidence at this time showing that this fat reacts to the body differently than regular saturated fat that is found in foods like butter or shortening.

Two types of coconut oil

When purchasing coconut oil, there are two common types: refined and unrefined. Unrefined coconut oil is sometimes called pure or virgin coconut oil and is made from fresh coconut meat. The product is then pressed into coconut milk and boiled or fermented to separate the oil from the milk which is a quick process not requiring the addition of chemicals. Refined coconut oil is processed from dried coconut meat which goes through a process where bleach is added and chemicals to cut down on potential bacteria and to increase shelf life. The coconut oil is sometimes partially hydrogenated which adds trans fats. There is no evidence that shows one version being healthier than the other. They both hike up cholesterol levels.

Everyday usage

Coconut oil has many uses from your skin to your hair and even as a lip balm. It is used for cooking and found in many processed foods that that can be sold in stores and food establishments. When cooking with coconut oil, keep in mind that there are many many ways to add it to your favorite dishes either as a substitute within a recipe or to add a spoonful over oatmeal or into a pot of soup. Remember that coconut oil is a fat and is very dense in calories (9 calories per gram), so when you add it to your smoothies or you fry an egg in it or add it to your favorite vegetables, you are also adding calories. You can use coconut oil to replace fats in your recipes also. Here is a simple recipe for whole wheat coconut oil waffles.

We all want to find that healthy superfood that will be the magic ticket to cure diseases, make us healthier and help us lose weight. At this time, evidence backs up the idea of eating balanced diet from the food groups and being physically active. Visit www.choosemyplate.org for more information or Michigan State University Extension for more topics on a healthy lifestyle.

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