03 Mar 11 Villain coconut oil charms health food world
Coconut oil is supposed to be the devil itself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow.
Its bad reputation goes back in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a study claiming that a large serving of movie-theatre popcorn, hold the butter, delivered as much saturated fat as six Big Macs. “Theatre popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil,” Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the center, a consumer group that focuses on food and nutrition, said at the time.
So given all this greasy baggage, what was coconut oil doing in a health food store? In fact, it has recently become the darling of the natural-foods world. Annual growth of coconut oil sales at Whole Foods “has been in the high double digits for the last five years,” said Errol Schweizer, the chain’s global senior grocery coordinator.
Two groups have helped give coconut oil its sparkly new makeover. One is made up of scientists, many of whom are backtracking on the worst accusations against coconut oil. And the other is the growing number of vegans, who rely on it as a sweet vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature and can create flaky pie crusts, crumbly scones and fluffy cupcake icings, all without butter.
My curiosity stirred, I brought some home and experimented. I quickly learned that virgin coconut oil has a haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor. It’s even milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, and without any of the bitterness you sometimes get in olive oil.
Its natural sweetness shines in baked goods and sautes, and is particularly wonderful paired with bitter greens, which soften and mellow under the oil’s gentle touch. And the saturated fat in coconut oil makes it a good choice in pastries, whether you avoid animal fats or simply want to pack a little more coconut flavor into that coconut cream pie.
But before I get to the cupcakes, let’s start with the science.
According to Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University who has extensively reviewed the literature on coconut oil, a considerable part of its stigma can be traced to one major factor.
“Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data,” Brenna said. “Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.”
Partial hydrogenation creates dreaded trans fats. It also destroys many of the good essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other positive components present in virgin coconut oil.
And while it’s true that most of the fats in virgin coconut oil are saturated, opinions are changing on whether saturated fats are the arterial villains they were made out to be. “I think we in the nutrition field are beginning to say that saturated fats are not so bad, and the evidence that said they were is not so strong,” Brenna said.
Plus, it turns out, not all saturated fats are created equal.
Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists, said, “Different types of saturated fats behave differently.”
The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid. Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and bad LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, in the blood, but is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two.
She went on to say that while it is still uncertain whether coconut oil is actively beneficial the way olive oil is, small amounts probably are not harmful. The new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of total dietary calories a day come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams.