Food Review: coconut oil

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Converts everywhere are drizzling it over their vegetables or adding dollops into their morning smoothie. We have even seen celebrities wolfing it down by the spoonful. Coconut oil is claimed to curb sugar cravings and aid weight management, but is it all that its cracked up to be?

What is it?
A quick Wikipedia search tells us that coconut oil is an oil extracted from coconut meat. It is widely used in vegan cooking as it can substitute for butter in desserts.
Pros:
  • Coconut oil consists of short- and medium- chain fatty acids which contrasts to other plant based oils that comprise long-chain fatty acids. This could confer some health benefits, however there is yet to be confirmation of this through research.
  • Coconut oil contains phenolic compounds, which offer some antioxidant properties.
  • Has a unique nutty taste that works well in savoury dishes and adds a lovely coconut flavour to desserts.
Cons:
  • A higher saturated fat content than butter, which is why coconut oil is solid at room temperature. Saturated fat is the type of fat that increases our LDL cholesterol levels (the bad type of cholesterol), placing us at increased risk of vascular disease like stroke or heart attack.
  • Coconut oil is extremely calorie dense, with 1 tablespoon providing just under 500kj, or approximately 120 calories.
  • Coconut oil may increase HDL cholesterol levels (the good type of cholesterol, which helps to reduce risk of vascular disease) BUT it does not do this as effectively as unsaturated fats do.
  • The National Heart Foundation of Australia specifically recommends avoiding coconut oil due to its high saturated fat content.
The alternative:
Let us not look past our other plant based oils, including canola, sunflower and rice-bran oil. Olive oil is also great in salad dressings or when cooked over moderate heat. I often combine canola and olive oil in cooking to increase the smoking point. All of these oils comprise unsaturated fats, which do not increase our LDL (bad) cholesterol, and can increase our HDL (good) cholesterol.
Certainly coconut oil has its place – I love the flavour it brings to sweet treats and it works wonderfully in vegan nut crusts for tarts or pies. For everyday use, however, choosing an unsaturated plant-based oil is best.
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