Like fashion trends, food trends are cyclical, and coconut oil is back these days like a pair of neon leg warmers. It was reviled in the mid-'90s as the artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising secret behind delicious movie theater popcorn. Now coconut oil has made a stealthy comeback—and this time around, it’s being considered by many as a health food.
According to Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, that’s because the coconut oil found at health food stores today is not the same as what was some 20 years ago.
“One is highly processed and the other one is much less processed,” he says. “And the less processed one, which we call virgin coconut oil, seems to be a much more healthful product.”
Melissa Clark, who covered the topic in her "Good Appetite" column for The New York Times, explained that “non-hydrogenated, virgin coconut oil—the pure stuff actually squeezed from coconuts—is not as bad for you as we were led to believe.”
While deep-fried candy bars are still probably not a good idea, there is a growing distinction between “good” and “bad” fats. Virgin, unprocessed coconut oil happens to fall in the former category. She explains that many of the previous reports condemning saturated fats have been peer reviewed and found lacking in some instances. “The fact is that there are also different kinds of saturated fats, and we’ve been lumping it together in this big evil cloud of saturated fat,” says Clark (pictured below). “Now we’re hearing: ‘Oh, well, maybe you can eat a little bit of it, as long as you don’t overdo it.’”
Clark notes that coconut oil is a medium-chain saturated fat that contains lauric acid, which she says has not been shown to be related to heart disease. In fact, lauric acid is naturally present in breast milk. It’s easily digested, protects babies’ gastro-intestinal tracts, and can be used to help patients who have had gastro-intestinal surgery. Lauric acid has also been shown to boost immune systems. However, as with all recently hot food trends, there’s a limit to what lauric acid can do.
“Of course, you go on the Internet and type in lauric acid, and it starts to tell you that it’s good for everything: It’s good for acne...It’s going to cure the common cold. It’s going to help you lose weight. None of those things are proven at all,” cautions Clark.
Coconut oil has proven results in the kitchen, however. It’s a vegan-friendly substitute for butter since it stays solid at room temperature.
“It cooks food beautifully because it can withstand pretty high temperatures,” says Clark, who adds that it doesn’t impart a bitter flavor like other cooking oils. “It gives just a real gentle sweetness to foods.”
Because of that slight sweetness, coconut oil isn’t a full-scale replacement for all standard cooking oils. Clark recommends using it for sauteing things like chicken or vegetables and is particularly enthusiastic about using coconut oil for preparing sweet potatoes.
It’s hard to say whether coconut oil is just a momentary craze, or whether it’s going to become a go-to for baked goods. The reality, though, is that coconut oil in its unaltered form has been around for ages.
“Coconut oil could be a passing fad in terms of, let’s say, Americans eating large amounts of it to get its lauric acid,” says Dr. Brenna, “but there are populations that eat a lot of coconut oil and seem to be pretty healthy.”
Below, get Melissa Clark’s recipe for double coconut granola, which will appear in her upcoming book, "Cook This Now." (It’s out in October from Hyperion.)
Double Coconut Granola
Makes about 7 cups
- 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
- 1 1/2 cups raw pecans, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
- 1 cup coconut chips
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 1/2 cup virgin coconut oil, melted
- 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 3/4 cup dried cherries
1. Preheat the oven to 300° F.
2. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pecans, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, coconut oil, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Spread the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake until golden all over, about 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.
3. Transfer the granola to a large bowl and add the cherries, tossing to combine.