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Coconut oil has seen a dramatic rise in popularity over the last few years, going from seemingly obscure, to one of the most popular super foods on the market today. Why the sudden rise in popularity? It wasn’t too long ago that coconut oil was more or less viewed as the enemy, touted as being more artery clogging than lard due to its’ saturated fat content, but in recent years, those damning accusations have seemed to simply disappear, allowing coconut oil to make one envy-worthy comeback. One has to wonder, is this resurgence in popularity the product of well-orchestrated hype, or is it actually based on some scientific merit? Well, it turns out to be a little of both, but overall, science has played a large role in coconut oils sudden rise to popularity, thanks to the discovery that not all coconut oil is equal.
Maybe you have noticed, but there are two main types of coconut oil found on health store shelves. The first type is refined, hydrogenated coconut oil. This is the type of coconut oil that initially gave all coconut oil its’ villain-like image. Hydrogenated coconut oil is coconut oil that has been chemically treated, which essentially destroys any positive components found in unrefined, virgin coconut oil. When hydrogenated coconut oil is consumed, it can potentially cause the scary accusations that once made all coconut oils appear to be evil in liquid form, but this is also true of hydrogenated oils in general.
Although both types of coconut oils are considered a saturated fat, it is important to realize that not all saturated fats are created equal either. Like every other fat, coconut oil is a mix of fatty acids, but what makes coconut oil different from other fats is that coconut oil contains an uncommon mix of medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric acid, which is a fat that is rarely found in nature and most typically found in mother’s milk. Lauric acid has been claimed to have antimicrobial properties, and people often use it as medicine in treating a variety of ailments, but before the effectiveness of lauric acid as a treatment can be confirmed, more evidence is needed to support these claims.
When it comes to cooking with coconut oil, coconut oil has one significant advantage over almost every other oil. Considering just about all oils break down at high temperatures, it is important to know that high cooking temperatures also break down any beneficial properties that the oil initially had, causing the oil to oxidize and create toxic compounds. What makes coconut oil superior is that it has the ability to withstand high temperatures and remain ‘stable’ in its’ structure. In other words, coconut oil doesn’t loose any beneficial attributes when heated, unlike regular oils, making it a superb oil choice when cooking at high temperatures or for long periods of time.
While coconut oil has primarily gained its’ popularity in the food and health world, the beauty world has taken notice in a big way. Coconut oil has been claimed to make your hair better, your skin better and even cure a variety of skin conditions, thanks again to its’ antimicrobial properties, but so far, most of these claims remain that way as more scientific research is needed to authenticate any healing properties. Just as it is important to make sure you are consuming unrefined, virgin coconut oil, it is also important to use the same on your skin. After all, our skin is our largest organ, soaking up everything we put on to it. The beauty benefits found in coconut oil come from coconut oil that is in its’ natural form, so if you are using the hydrogenated version, you could be doing more harm than good.
So what is the overall consensus? Is coconut oil healthy, or is it all hype? In my opinion, which was formed on countless hours of research for my own personal interest, I believe that virgin, unrefined coconut oil definitely provides some health benefits, but that hydrogenated, refined coconut oil is no better for you than any other unhealthy fats on the market. Quality is key on this issue, as the hydrogenated version virtually strips all health benefits out of the equation. In support of my belief, I look at the research conducted over the years on tropical, island regions where coconuts are practically a staple in the diets of those native to the land. Various long-term studies conducted on these regions have concluded each time that the people of these islands were relatively free from modern diseases, including obesity, and that their high saturated fat intake (through consuming coconuts) provided no evidence of having harmful effects on their overall health (source).
As always, I stick with my motto of ‘everything in moderation.’ I personally use virgin, unrefined coconut oil in many of my recipes, and even in my beauty regimen as a body moisturizer during the winter, but it’s important to remember that there is such a thing as ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to your consumption, and that quality is of the highest importance when it comes to actually getting the health benefits coconut oil has to offer.