Coconut oil is fast becoming a kitchen – and beauty – staple.
By Corinne Gaffner Garcia
At one time, coconuts were a vacation getaway treat: Filled with a beverage and a cocktail umbrella and served on a beach.
Today coconut—in particular the oil extracted from the white, fleshy interior—is all the rage. A lot of the excitement over coconut oil centers on health benefits that are currently the subject of scientific research.
“It protects against infectious illnesses due to antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties,” says Bruce Fife, ND, author of The Coconut Oil Miracle (Avery). “It can help balance blood sugar and improve insulin secretion and sensitivity.” Scientists have also found that coconut oil may aid in weight loss and protect the liver.
Back into the Kitchen
Coconut oil’s revival has followed decades of banishment from pantries because of a misunderstanding about the relationship between fats and health. It was used alongside other cooking oils until the mid-1980s, when all saturated fats were declared a threat to cardiovascular health by promoting blockages within coronary arteries. “By 1990, coconut oil had virtually disappeared from store shelves and restaurant foods,” Fife says.
However, Fife had caught wind of the oil’s benefits; he learned it was being used in hospital feeding tube formulas and added to infant formulas and being used to improve performance and endurance in sports. “I looked up every research article I could find,” he says. “I found that there was no truth to the idea that coconut oil caused heart disease. In fact, all the evidence showed that it protected against heart disease.”
Today, there’s no shortage of research and cookbooks promoting coconut oil’s myriad strong points. “Sometime in the 2000s, diets like the Atkins, Paleo and keto started spreading the news that saturated fats were far from unhealthy,” explains Elizabeth Nyland, author of Cooking with Coconut Oil (WW Norton).
The coconut revival has put the oil back onto pantry shelves, where, unlike some other oils, it will keep for several years. “I recommend using coconut oil anywhere you would use vegetable or other oils, although not for deep frying,” Nyland says. She adds that coconut oil is best used at temperatures under 350°F, the temperature at which it begins to smoke.
Some of Nyland’s coconut oil uses include:
- Adding it to smoothies in liquid or solid form as a flavor and nutrition enhancer.
- Using it on toast instead of butter.
- Adding it to coffee with a grass-fed butter for an energy boost.
- Putting it on popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast.
- Roasting vegetables in it; sweet potatoes are particularly complementary flavor wise.
When buying coconut oil, look for a product that is:
- Made from 100% organic coconuts
- Certified USDA Organic.
- A virgin oil obtained through the cold expeller method.
Women in the tropic have long used coconut oil to maintain smooth skin and thick, silky hair. It also confers low-level UV protection, an SPF of about 5 or so, and contains antioxidants that help protect the skin from sun damage (although it shouldn’t be used alone for this purpose).
Nyland recommends coconut oil for:
- All-over body and face moisturizer
- Hair conditioner or mask (it is a traditional dandruff remedy)
- Personal lubricant
- Wound dressing and cleansing (because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties)
Fife adds that the oil can speed the healing of cuts and burns and help treat acne because of its lauric acids, which helps kill the bacteria that cause skin eruptions. In addition, some people use coconut oil to remove warts and moles. (Moles that show signs of being malignant, such as those with uneven colors or margins, should always be seen by a health professional.) Nyland suggests mixing coconut oil with activated charcoal to create a toothpaste without the problematic ingredients found in standard dental care products.