SPECIAL ISSUE FOR THOSE WHO REALLY WANT TO KNOW
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).