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Archive for the month “February, 2012”

So What’s So Great About Coconut Oil?


If you are craving a recipe this week, please check out previous posts that include coconut oil.

My friend’s daughter learned that solid fats such as shortening are toxic, and she asked me why coconut oil is good for you since it too is a solid fat.   I knew a few of the touted coconut oil benefits, but while I’ve been including it in many of my posts as a healthy, delicious ingredient, I wasn’t perfectly clear as to how and why it is different from other solid fats.  This one’s for you Carly.  Thanks for bringing it to light.

Not all fats are created equal.  According to Wikipedia, “trans fat” is the common name for unsaturated fat with trans-isomer fatty acids. Though rare, natural trans fats can be found in beef and dairy products, and in this form can actually have beneficial effects on cholesterol and triglycerides when consumed.  But in the food manufacturing industry, trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, which makes the oil more solid, less likely to become rancid and more…unhealthy.  Rancidity, a health threat itself beyond its resulting funky taste, is the process of oxygen breaking down the fats and producing harmful free radicals.  While trans fats help foods stay fresh longer, they can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels and interfere with natural metabolic processes leading to diseases.

Beware of trans fats in hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in processed foods and in solid shortening and margarine.  By contrast, the two oils touted by natural food chefs in cooking for their health benefits and stability, meaning they are least likely to turn rancid:  olive oil and coconut oil.  That’s because an oil is pretty stable if it’s mostly saturated (coconut), or if it’s mostly mono-unsaturated (olive).

Saturated vs. trans fats.  For years, research on the American diet yielded negative press about saturated fat, linking it to high cholesterol and heart disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer and other health conditions.  While we  know that too much saturated fat can lead to clogged arteries, only recently did researchers come to understand that trans fats have likely been the major disease culprits all along.  It’s interesting to note that until the 1970’s, food producers used coconut oil to get that buttery flavor and texture.  When it was replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil–most often made from soybean oil–the American obesity and diabetes epidemic began.

Coconut oil–seemingly saturated with benefits.  1. While virgin* coconut oil (see paragraph below on going virgin) comes in solid form, it is not a hydrogenated trans fat.  2. The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid rather than a long-chain found in most common vegetable or seed oils.  Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL as well as bad LDL in the blood, but doesn’t change the overall ratio of the two which is key.  In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 found that because of their chain length, medium-chain fatty acids can be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and transported directly to the liver, bypassing the process of fat absorption by adipose or fatty tissue. Translation: There’s less opportunity for the storage of medium chain triglycerides than for other saturated fats.  3. A 50-year study published in 1987 showed the anti-cancer effects of coconut oil.  In chemically induced cancers of the colon and breast, coconut oil was far more protective than unsaturated oils; 32% of corn oil eaters got colon cancer as compared to only 3% of coconut oil eaters.  Many studies since the 1920’s have shown an association between consumption of unsaturated oils and the incidence of cancer.  4. Virgin* coconut oil has a long shelf life; even after one year at room temperature, coconut oil shows no evidence of rancidity.  Inside the body, once consumed, other oils/unsaturated fats will oxidize (turn rancid) very rapidly due to being heated and mixed with oxygen.  Not so with coconut oil.  Because of this, some researchers believe coconut oil contains antioxidants.

*Go virgin.  Before coconut oil became the current “hot” health food of today,  studies that shunned it used unhealthy “refined” coconut oil to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits.  Refined coconut oil is typically hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat that, as you know, contains toxic trans fats. Refined oil is highly processed, has lost many good essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other positive components, and, due to its unsanitary original condition, gets bleached and deodorized.  Yuck! By comparison, “virgin” coconut oil is not hydrogenated, is minimally processed, free of trans fats, has not been chemically treated, has its own health profile, and tastes better.  

How much fat should we eat?  We know that too much saturated fat from animal fat, butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, etc. can cause elevated cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.  The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of total dietary calories a day come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams.  And overall, it is recommended that our daily intake of fat from all sources be limited to between 20 and 35% of our total daily calories (or 40-70 grams for a 2000-calorie diet).


Beans, Beans They’re Good For Your Heart (and other things)

Until today, my entries have been health-centered, nutrition being the focus, and recipes appearing last.  Beginning today, recipes are going to be front and center with their health benefits following as a close second.  Why the change?  I don’t know about you, but the more I read about food and health, the more I think about what I eat.  While this nutri-consciousness is an important step in making informed choices about what we eat and why, all that thinking was beginning to cloud my passion for delicious food and cooking.  So, moving forward with the confidence that my choices are naturally healthy ones, it’s time to put joy first again:  I am reestablishing my focus on the gorgeous, satisfying, captivating effect of good food.

Today’s recipe, a cannellini bean hummus, is a variation of my mother’s amazing classic garbanzo hummus recipe as well as the result of having a huge container full of leftover cooked beans.  I bought dried cannellini (knowing that canned beans likely contain the BPA found in the can’s lining) soaked them overnight changing the water once, and simmered them covered by 2″ of broth (made with “Better than Bouillon”) for 40 minutes.  I had almost twice the volume of beans than when I started!  You’ll note below that the darker colored beans have higher  antioxidant levels, so feel free to experiment with all kinds of beans for this recipe.  Cannellini beans make it a light, creamy  hummus.

Cannellini Hummus

3 cups cooked cannellini beans, (start with about 1 1/2 cups dried and see instructions above for soaking and cooking)

2-3 T lemon juice, if using Meyer lemons you may need more to taste

2 large cloves garlic

1/4 c olive oil

1 1/2 t fresh rosemary, finely minced

1/4 t Himalayan salt, or more to taste

In a food processor, blend all ingredients until smooth.  Serve with sliced jicama “chips”, organic corn chips, or your favorite veggies and crackers.

Bean Nutrients  Beans are naturally low in total fat, contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, and are rich in fiber, protein, calcium, iron, folic acid and potassium. They are high in flavanols, cancer-fighting phytonutrients found in many plant-based foods.  A study by the USDA found that three varieties of beans–red, kidney and pinto–ranked in the top four foods studied beating many fruits and vegetables for antioxidant benefits. Beans get their color and antioxidant activity from phenol and anthocyanins, and there is a link between the darker colors and higher phenol levels. This study found red beans to have the highest antioxidant level, with black beans coming in second place.

Being a legume, beans are in a class of foods that includes peas and lentils. One-quarter cup of any legume is equivalent in protein to an ounce of meat. A cup of legumes contains about 15 grams of protein, soybeans being the exception coming in at 29 grams of protein in a cup!  Beans are also a good source of soluble dietary fiber, containing about 4 grams per cup of cooked beans.

Bean Health Benefits  Published research has found that eating beans on a regular basis reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Several studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found significant reductions in heart disease and breast cancer risks by eating beans two to four times per week. Further, research by the National Cancer Institute found that beans reduce the risk of colon cancer.  Being high in soluble fiber, beans reduce cholesterol and/or tryglycerides which helps the heart.  In addition, folate found in beans is a B vitamin which reduces homocysteine levels in the blood; this also reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s the phytonutrients in the beans that are the superheroes preventing breast cancer.  And it’s the fiber and phytonutrients that maintains colon health.

Getting Enough  So, how do we incorporate 2 to 4 cups of beans into our weekly diets?  Try making hummus and other bean dips, making bean soups and side dishes, and including beans in tacos and salads.

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