You've probably started noticing that coconuts and coconut oil suddenly seem to be all over the grocery shelves, from big bottles of the solid oil to products like coconut yogurt and coconut-infused granola. What's with the sudden ubiquitousness of this tropical plant?
It could be because it's starting to look like coconut oil may have come by its unhealthy reputation unfairly. Long avoided because it's considered a source of harmful saturated fats, research is starting to show that coconut oil may actually be a source of healthy fats, along with being a versatile ingredient that has dozens of uses beyond cooking.
We've rounded up 11 things we think you ought to know about coconut oil — some of them might surprise you!
Hydrogenated coconut oil is not a great choice: Coconut oil got its bad reputation in part because of its use when hydrogenated. Hydrogenated oils and trans fats are especially unhealthy because they both raise our LDL or "lethal" cholesterol while lowering our HDL or "healthy" cholesterol. If you purchase coconut oil, look for labels that say "virgin" and make sure it's not hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated and contains no trans fats.
Vegans dig it: Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it makes a great substitute for butter, margarine, or other spreads. Vegans don't eat any animal products, including butter or margarine, which makes coconut oil a great alternative for them.
So do Paleo dieters: People following a Paleo diet eschew dairy, which means they don't eat butter. Many of them have turned to coconut oil as a delicious substitute.
They do have saturated fats: It's true that coconut oil contains saturated fats — 12 grams per teaspoon, in fact. If you are supposed to be watching your saturated fat intake, talk to your doctor before adding coconut oil to your diet.
It's rich in medium-chain fatty acids: Medium-chain fatty acids have molecules that are composed of eight to 10 carbon atoms, compared to the 12 or more found in the more-common long-chain fatty acids. There is some research indicating that MCTs can help with weight loss, though this potential effect isn't fully established yet.
It's delicious: Coconut oil doesn't taste as strongly of coconut as coconut milk or meat, but it does have a lighter version of that flavour, without overpowering dishes. Try it spread on toast instead of butter! You might be quickly converted.
It's not a miracle food: No single food is a magic bullet, coconut oil included. An internet search will bring up dozens of webpages claiming that coconut oil can do everything from clear up your acne to cure cancer. It'd be great if that were true, and research into the food continues, but there is no scientific evidence supporting the majority of the health claims made for coconut oil.
It's a source of lauric acid: The majority of the saturated fat in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid, which is why many consider it to be a healthier choice than other fat sources. There are studies that show that lauric acid can increase your HDL or "healthy" cholesterol and lower your LDL or "lethal" cholesterol.
It's high in calories: Regardless of the form it comes in, each gram of fat has nine calories. So if you're on a calorie-restricted diet, you'll want to watch your coconut oil intake—like any oil, it's high in calories. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it in moderation, whether it's for the taste or any potential health benefits; it just means you'll have to account for it in your daily intake totals.
It's great for your skin: Dreading dry winter skin? Buy a jar of coconut oil — it makes a great moisturizer from head to toe, particularly for dry lips and rough hands and feet.
Diaper cream: It's thought that coconut oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties—that and the fact that it's moisturizing and gentle makes it a great choice for an all-natural diaper cream or baby salve. As a bonus, it's safe to use with cloth diapers.
Massage oil: Like other natural options, coconut oil is great to use for massages. And the fact that it's solid at room temperature makes it a less messy option than liquid oils. You'll be moisturized and relaxed!