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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A new addition to the pantry

If you've stepped foot into a health food store or the organic section of a larger grocery store, you've no doubt noticed the variety of oils available: grape seed, avocado, various nut oils...and coconut oil. At my favorite health food store of the moment, there's a large selection of coconut oils. Why would something that has had such a bad reputation in the past be sold at a store specializing in health? Perhaps because that something isn't actually bad for you.

Coconut products have been a hot topic among health nuts of late. If you've been paying attention, you've certainly heard the buzz on coconut water. You've probably heard mention of coconut oil as well. A friend recently told me that all she uses is coconut oil, even for sauteing vegetables. Several weeks ago I discovered I had but a few drops left of vegetable oil in my pantry. Vegetable oil is not something that gets a lot of use in my kitchen. When cooking or sauteing, I reach for olive oil, grapeseed oil, or butter. Vegetable oil is only used in my house for baking (which is something I only enjoy from time to time) and when David makes pancakes or waffles for the boys. I decided try out coconut oil in place of vegetable and just see how it works. I reasoned that it's not something that will get a lot of use, so what's the harm.
I decided on this product:

The first thing that took me by surprise is that coconut oil is in a solid form, much like shortening. I was told that when used for baking, just scoop out more than the amount you need, heat it until it's liquid, and then measure the amount you need just like you would with any other oil. This is exactly what I did when I made brownies using coconut oil. Whatever was left over I just poured back into the container and store the container in my kitchen cabinet. Now that it's stored in my kitchen it's in liquid form. I'm guess the temperature in my cabinet is warmer than the temperature in the store.

So...the brownies, my first cooking experience with coconut oil. I was thrilled to find that not only did the consistency turn out like normal, the taste was improved. Of course, I'm a coconut fan and love the flavor, but the coconut flavor is slight and not overpowering. The brownies definitely had a slight "mounds bar" flavor, without the shredded coconut texture that many people just can't get past. And my guess is that if you don't reveal the secret ingredient, people will never notice. So if you're serving someone with a definite coconut abhorrence, just don't tell them and see if they notice anything different.

My next experiment was to use coconut oil in lieu of vegetable oil for making a pie crust for my homemade chocolate pie. I served the pie on the 4th of July and got many compliments, particularly on the crust. I decided to let my family in on the secret ingredient. Not surprisingly, the reaction was mixed. Several folks were commenting on the saturated fat in coconut oil and the bad reputation it's had in the past. "Isn't coconut oil really bad for you?" was a comment that I heard several times. All I could say was that it came highly recommend from the health food store. This prompted me to do my own research. Turns out, there's tons of information out there on the health benefits of coconut oil. One woman I spoke with even takes a couple of spoonfuls of straight up coconut oil after each meal. She swears by it. I decided to give it a try for the next week or so, and see if I notice a difference. I'm starting with just one spoonful of oil after each meal. Honestly, it's not bad at all. The flavor is light and pleasing and it's not too "oily." Even after one day I can tell you that my energy levels have been up. That may be a placebo effect, but I'll take it over the lethargy I've been feeling for weeks.

I used coconut oil last night for frying up some veggies, and again, the flavor was wonderful. Slightly sweet.

Finally, I'll leave you with a few links so you can do your own reading on this product, but I wanted to highlight one section from a website which gets into the scientific nature of why coconut oil is better for you (and differs) from other oils.
The entire article can be found here:

"HL How is it that not all saturated fats are unhealthy? Tell us about medium-chain fatty acids.
BF Fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. Three fatty acids joined together form a triglyceride molecule. Some fatty acids are smaller than others. Medium-chain fatty acids are smaller than long-chain fatty acids. Likewise medium-chain triglycerides are smaller than long-chain triglycerides. The size of these molecules is very important because our bodies process and metabolize each fat differently depending on its size. Most all of the fats and oils in our diet are composed of long-chain fatty acids, whether they're unsaturated or saturated. There are only a few dietary sources of medium-chain fatty acids, the primary source being tropical oils, particularly palm kernel and coconut oils. That's why coconut oil is different from other oils and it the secret to many of its healing properties.

Because the medium-chain triglycerides are smaller than the long-chain triglycerides that are in most fats and oils, they're digested quicker. In fact, they don't even need pancreatic digestive enzymes to break them down. By the time they enter the intestinal tract, they are completely broken down into free fatty acids, while long-chain triglycerides still need the digestive enzymes to break them down. What's important here is that the long-chain fatty acids, when they're finally broken down, will be absorbed through the intestinal wall. From there, they are packaged into lipoproteins and released into the bloodstream. So the long-chain fatty acids go into the digestive tract and then into the bloodstream. As they circulate in the bloodstream they supply the fat that collects in fat cells and the fat that collects in artery walls.

With medium-chain fatty triglycerides in coconut oil the process is different. They are quickly digested, so pancreatic enzymes are not needed. By the time they enter the intestinal tract they are completely broken down into fatty acids. Because of this, they are absorbed immediately into the portal vein, and sent directly to the liver. In the liver they are used as a source of fuel to produce energy. Therefore, they bypass the lipoprotein stage, and they don't circulate in the bloodstream to the degree that other fats do. Consequently, they do not supply the fat that collects in fat cells or the fat that collects in artery walls. They produce energy not body fat and not arterial plaque."

Other sites for your own research: