Cooking With Coconut Oil – What Are The Benefits?

Coconut oil, having long languished on the ‘naughty list’ of foods forbidden to the health conscious, is now being hailed as a ‘superfood’ with miraculous properties. So what’s so good about coconut oil and how do we use it?

Coconut or copra oil, not to be confused with coconut cream or coconut milk, is made by extracting the oil from the white coconut flesh. High in saturated fats, coconut oil is slow to oxidise and lasts longer than other fats and oils before spoiling, making it the cooking oil of choice for millions of people in the South Asian area and beyond.

The link between saturated fat and heart disease has meant that the Western diet has been slow to welcome coconut oil as a main stream product. Until recently it has been a specialist ingredient reserved for Asian cooking. However, with several recent studies casting doubt on the commonly held belief that eating saturated fat directly increases cholesterol levels and is harmful to health, coconut oil has seen an increase in popularity. From improving the appearance of skin and hair to claims regarding weight loss, digestive aid and giving immunity to viruses the coconut oil market is booming!

Coconut oil is high in saturated and unsaturated fatty acids which manufacturers claim are helpful in dealing with viruses and diseases, and have antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Dabbed onto cold sores it can reduce inflammation and shorten the life span of the flare up. It has a long history of use in Ayurveda traditional Indian medicine and has recently begun to be used to treat the symptoms of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It is thought a particular fat present in coconuts can be used by the human body to manufacture ‘ketone,’ the food used by brain cells to function which may improve or even halt the symptoms of dementia. More work needs to be done to prove this link however, and the British Heart Foundation still has coconut oil on its list of foods to avoid.

Coconut oil can be used in place of butter or oil in most recipes. There are two main types available:­ virgin coconut oil has a soft coconut aroma and a more pronounced coconut taste. It gives an Asian flavour to recipes and is ideal for cooking fish, curries and stir fries. Refined coconut oil has all the benefits but without the coconut flavour and can be used for baking and cooking things which requires a lighter oil. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and is generally sold in blocks or jars.

This versatile oil has lots of uses other than culinary:­ coconut oil is less likely to produce an allergic reaction as it is the oil of a tree nut (rather than ground nut or peanut) so can be used as a massage oil and to moisturise and treat a range of dermatological problems such as dermatitis. It makes an excellent conditioner for dry hair as it prevents moisture loss and can treat dandruff when applied to the scalp. Rubbed into nails and cuticles it can prevent dry flaking nails and it makes an effective lip balm.

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