The Mystery of Coconut Oil

The Mystery of Coconut Oil

Monday, May 3, 2021

By Mary Lou Block RDN LMNT

More than macaroons

Ever notice that coconut oil is everywhere these days?   I don’t just mean in macaroons!  From health food stores to your local grocer, you will find an abundant selection, not just of shredded coconut, but a sweet and versatile counterpart, coconut oil.

For those of you familiar with long lists of saturated fat no, no’s, I am guessing you are scratching your head.  You recall that coconut oil was definitely a NO, and now, it is considered a health food!  So what changed?

SF not bad. 

Coconut oil is 80-90% saturated fat.  It first appeared on the “No” food list in the 1970’s when saturated fat was vilified as a major dietary contributor of heart disease.  For years most people believed this theory.  It was not until decades later that an important truth was uncovered, sugar not fat, was the big culprit in heart disease.  In the meantime the reputation of many saturated fats was tarnished, coconut oil included.

Hydrogenated Coconut oil in processed food differs from VCO.

Hydrogenated coconut oil crisscrosses the ingredient list of many processed foods from pastries and doughnuts to fried foods.  This coconut oil is refined with solvents and then partially hydrogenated to produce a product that stays solid at high temperatures.   As such, hydrogenated coconut oil is stripped of healing potential and infused with inflammatory trans-fats.  This type of coconut oil should remain on your “No” food list.  But we are afforded more coconut oil choices than in processed food!

Coconut Oil’s MCT

The majority of coconut oil’s saturated fat is MCT (medium chain triglycerides).  This fat is more easily digested, a perk for individuals with gall bladder, digestive or pancreatic issues.  Such people struggling to tolerate fat, sometimes show improved tolerance to these shorter chain triglycerides.  Virgin coconut oil in limited amounts or liquid MCT oil (refined from coconut oil) thus becomes a healthful therapeutic tool.

Liquid MCT Oil

Liquid MCT, a very refined oil, is missing the most dominant fatty acid of coconut oil, lauric acid.  

The neutral flavor of liquid MCT oil makes it a coveted ingredient for hot beverages and smoothies used in keto diets.  MCT C8:C10 is recommended in such cases.  Just remember, it is considered one of the refined coconut oil products, but not unhealthy, just lacking the anti-oxidants.

MCT (C8:C10) is useful in keto beverages and for fat digestive issues.


Refined Coconut Oil

Refined coconut oil dominates the market.  It is desirable for characteristics of high heat tolerance and neutral taste.  Processing the oil tends to decrease the anti-oxidants.

The refining process begins with drying the coconut meat into a product called Copra.  A four step process removes impurities and odors from copra.  Cheaper oils may likely be massed produced with chemical solvents during this process.  Others are expeller-pressed by physical refining.

Expeller Pressed Coconut Oil is appropriate for neutral flavors in high heat cooking and baking.

Virgin Coconut Oil

When it comes to coconut oil, the terms extra-virgin and virgin coconut oils are used interchangeably. 

Virgin Coconut Oil begins with fresh wet or fresh dry coconut meat.  The wet milled product is made mainly in the Philippines and utilizes a fermentation and heat process that produces a high quality coconut oil, with a high level of anti-oxidants.  Believe it or not, the slow heat process releases the polyphenols from their protein bond, placing them in the oil.  Therefore, cold, raw-pressed coconut oil is significantly lower in anti-oxidants than the fermented and heated oil.

Health benefits of VCO

The star component of virgin coconut oil is lauric acid.  This particular fatty acid is only found in abundance in one other place in nature, breast milk.  Lauric acid is a known anti-viral substance.  It fights a virus by destroying the viral cell envelope.  In addition, it inhibits viral maturation and the binding of viral proteins to the host cell.  As a matter of fact, it was studied as a therapeutic agent during the COVID 19 outbreak in the Philippines.

The long list of maladies are studied for treatment with virgin coconut oil (inflammation, diabetes, cancer, bone loss, weight loss, Alzheimer’s to name a few).  Some research is conflicting as is always the case.  Could the conflicting research be due to the processing method of the coconut oil?  I would think this is a possibility. 

Science is sometimes slow to prove what nature already knows.  You can’t go wrong with real whole foods, and correctly processed coconut oil certainly falls into this category.   My favorite for best health is virgin coconut oil, processed by fermentation and heat.  I hope you enjoy adding some to your menu soon.


Coconut Flax Granola 


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