Thursday, 18 July 2013

Superfood Spotlight: Coconut Oil

For months, if not years now, my friends and fans have heard and seen me wax poetic on the many virtues of coconut oil – snow white, magically melty, does-it-all coconut oil. Well, it seems today is no different – except I’ve compiled many of these amazing traits and uses of my favourite eat-right-from-the-jar oil in one place.

First and foremost, as a nutritionist, I am in awe of its health properties and uses as a food.

Coconut oil is made up of saturated fatty acids. This means that the molecule is saturated in hydrogen atoms such that the chain makes a straight or solid line, as opposed to unsaturated fatty acids, which are missing one or more hydrogen atoms, causing the chain to bend at these junctures. This molecular structure of solid lines lends itself to the oil’s solid state at room temperature. Similarly, the bends in unsaturated fatty acid chains contribute to their liquid state at room temperature.

The solid structure of the saturated fats also means that it is generally protected from oxidation, remaining unchanged after exposure to heat and air, and making it absolutely fabulous for just about any type of cooking or baking.

My very large jar of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature.

My favourite cooking and baking applications of coconut oil:
  1. Stir fries. Depending on what kind of coconut oil you get – virgin or extra virgin – coconut oil can give your dish a subtle coconutty taste, perfect for Thai-style veggies.
  2. Butter replacement. Like coconut oil, butter is a saturated fat, so it makes sense that we can use coconut oil in recipes calling for butter. Add a pinch or two of quality sea salt or Himalayan salt to up the “buttery” when using coconut oil to sauté mushrooms or greens, or when making popcorn the “old-fashioned” way on the stove or with your popcorn maker.
  3. Vegetable oil replacement. I have a recipe for oatmeal muffins that I got from my mother, modified to be vegan-friendly. Over time it has diverged from the original recipe so much that I can’t honestly call them oatmeal muffins anymore. Using coconut oil instead of vegetable or olive oil as the recipe originally calls for has given this banana chocolate-chip muffin recipe a cupcake-like fluffiness. I’ve been kind and shared this recipe on my website: Banana Chai Chocolate Chip Muffins, September 2012.
  4. Candy making. Coconut oil makes a great melt-in-your-mouth base for homemade chocolates, truffles, and icing, and is often used in raw desserts and snacks.

Beyond cooking and baking, coconut oil has numerous health benefits, many attributed to its content of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are quickly digested, and as such provide quick energy to cells, without spiking insulin. This is good news for athletes looking for an energy boost without sugar, and diabetics and insulin-resistant individuals. There has also been recent discussion about applications for MCTs and coconut oil supplementation in managing Alzheimer’s. Because some of the insulin in the body is produced in the brain, and insulin resistance is being linked to Alzheimer’s – to such a degree that Alzheimer’s may eventually be considered type III diabetes – reducing sugars and increasing intake of MCTs may help improve energy levels and cognitive function without increasing insulin levels in the brain.

MCT oils can be purchased in health food stores, are liquid at room temperature, and sometimes packaged or marketed as salad oils. I like to put a spoonful of MCT oil in pre-workout smoothies as an energy source, and a spoonful of whole coconut oil in post-workout smoothies as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic component to aid recovery. This latter application can be useful for sufferers of arthritis as well.

Some other great uses of coconut oil:
  1. Oil pulling. This practice entails taking a spoonful of oil – coconut, sesame, sunflower, or olive – in the mouth and swishing it around and over teeth and gums for up to 20 minutes without swallowing. Afterward one spits it out (preferably not in the sink), and brushes the teeth as usual. It's recommended to be done first thing upon waking, and is said to strengthen and whiten teeth, as well as pull toxins from the mouth. I like using coconut oil for this since it has a pleasant, mild taste, and I actually enjoy the way it melts in my mouth in the first minute or two.
  2. Skin care. Coconut oil is naturally emollient, and is wonderful for softening and moisturizing the skin. I like to apply it to my lips and rub it into my hands, feet, and elbows in the winter instead of buying lip balms and moisturizers. Not surprisingly, many DIY beauty-care recipes call for coconut oil.
  3. Healing infections and wounds. Along with its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, coconut oil also possesses some antiseptic, antifungal, and antiviral properties. These properties are attributed to coconut oil's main MCT lauric acid. I advise to take a spoonful or two in the morning at the onset of cold/flu symptoms in addition to oil pulling. I've applied coconut oil on broken blisters, burns, paper cuts, and cat scratches instead of harsher antibiotic ointments and seen faster wound healing. My husband also used it last summer to relieve itching and moisturize his surgical scars.
These are just some of the many uses and benefits of coconut oil. Remember to choose organic virgin or extra-virgin coconut oils, ideally cold-pressed and unrefined.

What are some of your favourite uses of coconut oil?

The Love Plants for Life Nutrition Workshop Series is running Monday evenings in July and Thursday evenings in August.

Please be advised that this article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor or therapist.
Always consult with your medical and/or alternative healthcare professional prior to starting a new supplement to avoid contraindications with your condition or medications.

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