A few weeks ago, I needed to make a birthday cake. Chocolate? I was strangely not craving chocolate. How about something different? Coconut! The recipe I found used canned coconut milk, but when I opened the can, all the fat had separated and risen to the top (like fat does), where it clung to the can in a thick mass. So while I was attempting to mix the fat and liquid back together (messy process), I thought about the chemical structure of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is the popular term, but it’s something of a misnomer. Coconut fat is rock solid at room temperature, harder than butter, nothing like other vegetable (plant-sourced) oils. That’s because the fat in coconut is more than 83% saturated, and saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Unlike most other high saturated fat foods like meat and dairy, coconut saturated fat is mostly medium chain triglycerides (MCT). Medium chain refers to how many carbon atoms are in a fatty acid. MCT chains are 6 to 12 carbons long. In vegetable oils and animal fats, the carbon chains are longer: 16 to 24 carbons in length.
|fat||% of total fat that is MCT||grams MCT per TB|
|beef fat||0.9 %||0.1|
As you can see from the chart, coconut oil is very high in MCTs, most of which is the 12-carbon lauric acid. Coconut fat might be the most concentrated natural food source of MCTs. You can buy high MCT oil for special diet purposes, but that is more of a pharmaceutical preparation, not a natural food.
Other than fat, coconut oil doesn’t have significant amounts of any vitamins or minerals.
Coconut oil production
Coconut fat is extracted from coconut flesh. Refined coconut oil is extracted from dried coconut meat by pressing. The resulting fat is mostly flavorless and odorless. Virgin coconut oil is pressed from fresh coconut, and retains a distinct coconut flavor and aroma. If you want a coconut flavor to your food, use virgin. If you’d rather not have pie crust or fried vegetables taste like coconut, use the refined variety.
Health Benefit Claims
MCT fats are handled differently during digestion and metabolism. The differences have some people believing MCTs might have unique health properties. Here are some of their arguments:
- The shorter fatty acid chains are metabolized quickly in the liver, and can serve as a faster source of energy than longer chain fats. Theoretically this means MCTs are less likely to be stored in fat tissue.
- MCTs are not incorporated into fat that is stored in fat cells, so it might help with weight loss.
- Brain cells can use MCT metabolites called ketones when glucose uptake is impaired, and so MCT might be useful for people with brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
- MCTs might be a good energy source for athletes.
So far there isn’t a lot of good evidence to support any of these claims. The impact of coconut fat on medical problems like high blood pressure, insulin resistance and poor muscle strength has been investigated, but no clear benefits have emerged. And there’s a catch: some of this research is done with a special formulated high MCT coconut oil, not the fat you buy in the grocery store for cooking.
Cooking with coconut fat
There are two main uses for coconut fat:
- Frying: Virgin coconut oil will add a coconut flavor to your food. It also has a lower smoke point, and is not a good choice for high-heat cooking. Use refined coconut fat for high temperature cooking. You can scoop the solid coconut fat out of the jar for this purpose; it will quickly melt in a hot pan. I prefer to use some coconut and some oil, such as peanut, for a high heat sauté.
- Baking: The solid nature of coconut fat makes it useful for some baking. However: unlike butter, coconut fat does not soften at room temperature. It remains a solid mass. You can’t beat it with sugar into cookie dough or cake batter. The best solution would be to soften it slightly, or even melt it, in the microwave and use right away before it solidifies. Pie crust made in a food processor can work better, as the processor will pulverize the coconut fat. But be prepared for unexpected results and don’t be afraid to experiment. Again, virgin coconut fat will add a coconut flavor to your bakery items. You may or may not want that. It would have been a plus for my coconut cake.
Alternative to butter
I’ve been trying to come up with an alternative spread for toast besides butter. Olive oil is healthy, but you don’t really spread it, and I’d rather not spoon olive oil all over my toast. Coconut fat won’t spread easily and would be strangely greasy and flavorless. So I combined the two: I melted some coconut fat in the microwave, and then combined 2 TB of melted coconut fat with 1 TB of EV olive oil in a little jar. I closed the lid and swirled it around and let it sit on the counter, swirling it around now and then. After a few hours, the mixture had solidified slightly, to the consistency of soft butter. Completely spreadable.
A nut oil would give this spread a different and delightful flavor. Try sesame or walnut oil, which have distinctive nut flavors. Here’s another possible use: in baking. I’d change the method slightly: combine 2 TB melted coconut oil with 2 tsp neutral oil like canola. Let it sit to solidify and use like softened butter in cookie or cake recipes. It will blend much more easily than solid coconut fat.
Is coconut fat a miracle health food? My opinion is No. MCTs are interesting and may have some unique effects on energy production, but evidence for significant health benefits is lacking. A main reason for using it for vegans and perhaps vegetarians is that it’s an alternative to butter. But keep in mind: it’s high saturated fat, and as such can have a negative impact on cholesterol levels.