Coconut oil or coconut butter can be heated to high temperatures. However, it contains 82 % or more saturated fatty acids and is therefore very unhealthy, even though it is highly praised by the food industry.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, but has a very low melting point and therefore turns very quickly to liquid. What can you cook with coconut oil? Given its high content of saturated fatty acids, coconut oil can more safely be heated to high temperatures (higer smoke point) and is as such suitable for general cooking, frying, baking, deep-frying, and other cooking methods. Coconut oil has a cooling effect in the mouth because it absorbs the heat energy as it melts. Industrially processed, liquid coconut oil is ideal for the production of margarines and confectionery (ice confectionery or ischoklad: seasonal candy made using only chocolate and coconut oil).
Quite a few recipes that call for coconut oil are available. We also show (a few) original recipes from books that call for coconut oil on our website. However, for these recipes we offer healthier variations.
Purchasing — where to shop?
When purchasing coconut oil, look for natural (untreated and virgin) and, if possible, organic varieties. Cold-pressed coconut oils are often raw and still have the typical coconut flavor. Supermarkets and wholesalers such as Rosauers, Albertsons, Safeway, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and WholeFoods in the US as well as Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, and Morrisons in the UK usually have several different types of coconut oil on their shelves. Buy organic quality, preferably from organic shops and preferably virgin coconut oil.
Coconut fat is not liquid and differs from coconut oil mainly in the hardening process it has undergone, which can also produce trans fats. Coconut fat (solid vegetable fat) has a neutral flavor and does not taste like coconut. However, solid vegetable fats contain trans fats. It is also possible to find coconut fat that has not been hardened but only gently deodorized so that it also has a neutral flavor.
What does “virgin” mean in the case of coconut oil? All virgin oils are natural and pressed without the addition of heat. However, when the seeds or here coconut meat is cold-pressed, heat is still produced. But cold-pressed oils are not refined, steamed, or roasted. This results in a distinct fruit or seed flavor and a more intense color.
How long does coconut oil keep after it is opened? If the coconut oil is stored in a cool, dark place in an air-tight container, it stays good for several years. This is quite the contrast to healthy oils containing polyunsaturated fatty acids that don’t tolerate exposure to oxygen for long.
Nutritional information — nutritional value — calories:
Coconut oil consists primarily of triglycerides, which are made up of 82 % saturated fatty acids. These are derived from caprylic acid, lauric acid, capric acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and myristic acid. Incidentally, lauric acid, systematically, dodecanoic acid (chemical formula: C12H24O2) has some nutritional benefits and is also found in palm kernel oil, which as a result was highly praised in Germany, and the industrial version was then given the name confectionary fat (Konditorfett).
As fatty acid residues, the triglycerides contain monounsaturated oleic acid residues (5–8 %), but only small traces of magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, copper, iron, phosphorus, amino acids, vitamin E, and lactones. If the oil is refined, the vitamin E is lost. A large part of the 99+ % fatty acids consists of medium-chain lauric acid, which has some nutritional benefits even though it is a saturated oil — and the industry then uses this to make it look like everything is good.
If you are familiar with the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and other awards, or our book review of it, you will know what we mean with this statement. Please click on the link to read more - and also look over the nutrient tables at the end of this text.
Health aspects — effects:
Nutrition expert Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge showed in her research that medium-chain triglycerides can help adults to lose weight.4,5,6 However, a special coconut oil was produced for this study that consisted of 100 % of these fatty acids. Commercially available coconut oil contains only 13–14 % of these medium-chain triglycerides.7 The German Nutrition Society repudiated this test and trend as recent studies have found no effect on thermogenesis or fat burning.8
The industry has sold coconut oil as a superfood for many years now. However, the American Heart Association (AHA) thoroughly refuted this in a 2017 study. Coconut oil contains much more saturated fatty acids (82 %) than palm oil at 49 % saturated fatty acids or palm kernel oil at 55 %. Coconut oil even has more negative points than some animal fats. Nevertheless, we find much information that puts coconut oil in a positive light. For example, a “medically certified” nutrition expert writes on her website (August 2018): The only oil in my kitchen comes from a coconut. Will our attempt to change her position work?
On our website, we have included a video of a lecture given by Prof. Dr. Dr. Karin Michels, director of the Institut für Prävention und Tumorepidemiologie (Institute for prevention and cancer) at the University of Freiburg and professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It is titled Essen Sie sich gesund (Eat yourself healthy) and lasts 55 minutes. We recommend that you watch this lecture attentively because it can improve thousands of hours of your life. Karin Michels deliberately includes the statement: Coconut oil is the purest poison!
Even if we find this statement to be exaggerated and do not agree, she probably found this provocation necessary in order to counter the dominance of those interested in turnover. Coconut oil is sold as a superfood as are many foods for the mere fact that companies can make a profit by doing so. Coconut oil is the complete opposite of a superfood — it does great damage to the coronary arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and other common serious diseases.
Eating coconut oil causes the undesirable LDL cholesterol in the blood to increase, which promotes cardiovascular disease. However, it increases the healthy HDL even more, which improves the total/HDL serum cholesterol ratio. If only this ratio is used and the numerous disadvantages are ignored, it can be claimed that coconut oil helps reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis, or atherosclerotic plaques). Cunning but legal.
A 2016 study analyzing 21 research papers, including 8 clinical studies and 13 observational studies, concludes: Overall, the weight of the evidence from intervention studies to date suggests that replacing coconut oil with cis unsaturated fats would alter blood lipid profiles in a manner consistent with a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In other words, coconut oil should be replaced by a healthier oil.10
Which oil is healthy? Canola oil is a good option because it contains a high proportion of monounsaturated fatty acids.2 Canola oil is also suitable for frying whereas sunflower oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil, soybean oil, pumpkin oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil are not because they contain many polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are particularly healthy but turn into trans fats when heated. Disadvantages: Some of these oils also have a poor ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. In the box above (link), you will find a long table of the properties of all common oils.
What is the healthiest oil? We would suggest flaxseed oil right away, but it is only suitable for salads and you have to use it soon after it is opened, unless you fill it into dark 10 ml bottles and store it in a (dark) refrigerator. This prevents the oil from having contact with oxygen for longer periods of time. Quality is always connected with more time and energy.
A study conducted in 2014 concluded that the amount of saturated fat consumed had no bearing on heart disease. However, this study had one major problem in that it didn’t take into account what people ate in place of saturated fat. Dr. Franklin Sacks, a professor of cardiovascular disease, identified this major flaw in the study: the people were consuming primarily sugary soft drinks and donuts. On July 17, 2018, Sacks stated on heart.org that this is just one example of how our belief in science has been exploited.
The nutrition expert Dr. Rachel Johnson (PhD, RD) at the University of Vermont summarizes the studies to date as follows: replacing saturated fat with healthy fat decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease to the same extent as taking cholesterol-reducing statins.
A number of American physicians and book authors go so far as to recommend cutting oil from your diet and to instead get your fats from seeds and nuts. Doctors Dean Ornish, T. Colin Campbell, John A. McDougall, Michael Klaper, Caldwell Esselstyn, Michael Greger, Joel Fuhrman, and Neal D. Barnard claim that high animal fat and protein diets, such as the standard American diet, are detrimental to health. For more information, follow the link in the box above.
How can I lose weight with coconut oil? Some consumers who have been falsely informed about coconut oil drink it to try to lose weight. By doing this, they are causing long-term damage to their bodies; losing weight has to be approached quite differently — not by consuming pure calories. But the food industry and stores see this as an opportunity to make money.
What makes coconut oil so healthy? Or is coconut oil really so healthy? These types of questions are frequently asked because it is easy to claim that any type of food is healthy simply by describing healthy substances that they contain — even if these are only present in the smallest amounts — and by not mentioning the main drawbacks and disadvantages. The huge amount of uncertainty that consumers have about which foods are really healthy comes from statements made in studies with flaws, for example, those described above.
It isn’t good practice to only look in one direction. Go through the arguments given by (serious) critics. Learn more about the nutritional value and effects of the individual oils — not from people who are trying to sell you the oil, but from critics — and then you won’t need to do much weighing of the pros and cons. A New York Times survey in 2016 conducted by Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-Katz for the article Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree shows that most nutritionists at least are more informed than consumers. The results showed that 72 % of the public believed that coconut oil was “healthy” whereas only 37 % of nutritionists held this same view. But it is still amazing how well the food industry can sell something as healthy that isn’t healthy and not receive any consequences for doing so.
Danger — Intolerances — Side effects:
Since coconut oil consists of practically only fat and this fat is to a large extent made up of saturated fats, it is impossible to speak about any holistic healing effects of coconut oil. It is therefore also impossible to list off direct dangers apart from the long-term and sometimes life-threatening negative consequences described above that are caused by eating coconut oil in large amounts intensely or over a long period of time. If a person eats a healthy diet otherwise, it is fine to occasionally consume small amount of your favorite oils — even if we don’t recommend doing so.
Coconut oil is produced primarily in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. Other countries that supply considerable amounts include Brazil, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico.
Cultivation — harvest:
Coconut trees grow primarily near the equator in tropical regions. They thrive in coastal regions, near river banks, and in tropical lowlands. The growing conditions are similar to those required for oil palm trees that produce palm oil. However, coconut trees are occasionally found growing at an elevation of 1600 m (e.g., in Africa on Kiwu Lake or in the east of Peru).9
Sections of rainforests are frequently deforested in order to make room for coconut oil plantations. Compared to palm oil, it takes more land to produce the same amount of coconut oil. The yield for coconut oil is significantly lower (0,7 t/ha) than for palm oil (3.3 t/ha), and there is evidence of human rights violations and illegal deforestation.3
Tall coconut trees don’t produce coconuts until after the sixth or seventh year. They bear fruit year-round and can produce a full yield of coconuts for up to 60 years. As the coconut trees age and grow taller, the harvest becomes more difficult and less profitable. And then after about 80 years, they no longer produce coconuts. Coconuts are harvested when they are still green and immature; they often have a triangular shape and can be a bit larger than a human head.
Coconuts are generally harvested manually. Either they are cut off the tree using knives on meter-long stems, or skillful climbers ascend the trees to harvest the coconuts. Sometimes there are trained monkeys (i.e., pig-tailed macaques) that climb up the tree and twist the coconuts until they fall down. For the monkeys, it is a kind of game. However, they lose interest relatively quickly if, for example, the line gets caught in the branches and they can no longer climb down without help. Given the complicated harvest, a second type of coconut trees are also grown; these are called dwarf coconut trees and are found primarily in the Caribbean region. They bear their first fruits after 3–4 years.9
For the production of coconut oil, the flesh (copra) of the coconut is dried and the copra is crushed. Industrial drying reduces the water content to 5 % so that bacteria and fungi no longer have a nutrient medium.9 Then the oil is pressed in oil mills. Before it can be used as cooking oil, it undergoes a refining and deodorization process to remove the rancid taste.
Likelihood of confusion:
Is coconut oil and palm oil the same? Palm oil is better than coconut oil — both for the environment and for consumers because it has fewer saturated fatty acids and doesn’t take up as much space (= less deforestation). What is the difference between palm oil and coconut oil? Palm oil comes from oil palms (Elaeis guineensis), originally from Africa. Coconut oil, on the other hand, comes from the fruits of coconut trees (Cocos nucifera). According to Wikipedia, it is believed that coconut trees originated in continental Southeast Asia as far as Indonesia or in the Sunda Islands, that is, Melanesia. Both products consist mainly of saturated, unhealthy fat.
It should also be noted that certain groups of people, for example, in Polynesia, have eaten a diet based on coconut — and lots of fish — for thousands of years. Coconut trees grow near the sea and rivers. However, they knew that unlike the old coconut flesh from which coconut oil is pressed, coconut water from young coconuts is healthy. And fish is almost the opposite of coconuts because it has so many unsaturated fatty acids. The bottom line is that in most circumstances these people worked hard — and very few of them lived to be as old as we do.
A plate with coconut trees painted on it was found that is about 2750 years old from the Phoenician culture of the Mediterranean.9 There is only one species (C. nucifera) in this genus, but there are many different varieties.
Coconuts are botanically classified as stone fruits (drupes) and not nuts. They consist of three layers that grow together and often cause them to have a slightly triangular shape. The three “eyes” that can be seen on one side are the three germination pores, whereby only one seedling starts to grow at a time.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that coconuts gained economic importance when they were cultivated on plantations by Dutchmen on Ceylon. Since 1961, the worldwide production of coconut oil (Oleum cocos) has doubled.
Coconut oil is an important source of fat and protein for people in tropical regions (who have a low life expectancy).9 The dry residue left over from the production process is also used as animal feed because it has a high protein content (20 %). Apart from the food sector, coconut oil is a popular ingredient in cosmetics. Thanks to the lauric acid it contains, coconut oil is used as a base for shampoos, soaps, creams, bath oils, and massage oils.
How good is coconut oil for the skin? Coconut oil has a cooling effect on the skin and is thought to be a natural remedy against mosquitoes. The other promises apply to almost every oil. Is coconut oil good for the face? Since coconut oil does not contain any nutrients other than fat, any recommendations for using it for the face or hair are misled. It would be better to use a cream or oil that is specially designed for this purpose. There are also special oils you can use for your hair.
In the pharmaceutical field, coconut oil is used to produce medicinal products and insecticides. Coconut oil is also an important component in synthetic resins and candles. In the Philippines, coconut oil, transesterified with methanol, is used as biodiesel and as an additive to diesel fuel.
The fibrous shell of the coconut, the mesocarp, is processed into ropes, mats, baskets, carpets, and wall coverings. The fibers of ripe coconuts serve as fillings for mattresses and upholstery or as thermal insulation.
Literature — Sources:
- Deutschsprachiges Wikipedia. Kokosöl. (German-language Wikipedia. Coconut oil)
- ahajournals.org: Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.
- regenwald.org: Kokosöl - keine gute Alternative zu Palmöl (Coconut oil — not a good alternative to palm oil)
- Wosen J. How coconut oil got a reputation for being healthy in the first place. STAT. Boston Globe Media. June 2017.
- St-Onge M, Ross R, Parsons W, and Jones P. Medium-Chain Triglycerides Increase Energy Expenditure and Decrease Adiposity in Overweight Men. Obesity Research. 11(3). Nov. 2002.
- St-Onge M, Bourque C, Jones P, Ross R, and Parsons W. Medium-versus long-chain triglycerides for 27 days increases fat oxidation and energy expenditure without resulting in changes in body composition in overweight women. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. 27(1). 2003. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802169.
- American Heart Association News: Saturated fats: Why all the hubbub over coconuts? June 2017.
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (German Nutrition Society). Mittelkettige Triglyceride für die Adipositastherapie nicht empfehlenswert (Middle-chain triglycerides not recommeded for the treatment of obesity). DGEinfo. 2011.
- Brücher H. Tropische Nutzpflanzen. Ursprung, Evolution und Domestikation (Tropical agricultural crops. origin, evolution, and domestication). Berlin. Springer Verlag. 1977.
- Eyres, Laurence et al.: Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans; Oxford academic Nutrition Reviews; doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuw002 (2016)