Lear claims that after years of bad press for its high saturated-fat content, coconut oil is now being praised as a miracle cure for a wide range of ailments, a weight-loss aid, longevity booster, and a nondairy butter substitute for vegans longing for a delicious pie crust.
Lear says that coconut oil comes from the meat of nuts harvested from the coconut palm — not to be confused with palm oil.
Marion Nestle explains that all fats are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, but the proportions vary; fats that have a large amount of saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and comes chiefly, but not always, from animal food products.
Examples include butter, lard, meat fat, solid shortening, and coconut oil. Saturated fat tends to raise the level of cholesterol in the blood.
For years, writes Lear, the prevailing medical establishment view has been that saturated fat contributes to heart disease.
But Lear mentions that coconut oil’s proponents — who include a number of scientists, nutritionists, and alternative-medicine practitioners — “claim different types of saturated fats behave differently in the body, and that lauric acid, the principal saturated fat in coconut oil, increases the levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) as well as LDL (“bad” cholesterol).”
However, Lear still recommends avoiding the partially hydrogenated coconut oil (trans fats) found in packaged foods.
Lear was impressed with how coconut oil behaves in the kitchen, and says you can buy it in two forms: minimally processed “virgin” coconut oil, which has a deep, coconutty flavor, and refined coconut oil, which is flavorless.
“Like the testers at Cook’s Illustrated, I don’t want everything I cook to taste like coconut, but wow — the more intense stuff was fabulous in a South Indian shrimp and vegetable curry ladled over rice, and using it for oven-baked sweet potato fries convinced a near-phobic friend he had nothing to fear from orange vegetables.”
What she appreciates most about coconut oil is its stability. “It doesn’t develop an off flavor as quickly as many other oils do. That’s one health benefit that’s proven, by the way; rancidity, which happens when oils oxidize, causes carcinogenic compounds to form.”
Jane Lear currently writes for Kitchen Daily and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her books include “One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors,” in collaboration with New York City chef Floyd Cardoz.
She was also a contributor to “The Gourmet Cookbook, Gourmet Today,” and the forthcoming “Martha Stewart’s American Food.”