Grease of the gods

Move over butter and olive oil, coconut oil is back

It has saturated fat and can increase cholesterol levels.

Yet coconut oil may not be the evil grease it was once branded as. Though this tropical oil still retains some of the negative reputation that it gained during errant health campaigns of decades past, foodies, health advocates, doctors and chefs of today are increasingly praising the virtues of coconut oil. The product, which is extracted from the flesh of ripe coconuts and which remains opaque and solidified at relatively high temperatures, is famously fragrant; even in a crock pot mélange of spices, grains and veggies, coconut oil makes itself known with its sweet and incomparable aroma and taste.

“I use about five gallons of coconut oil every couple of weeks,” says Ann Leon, owner and chef at Leon Bistro, on Main Street. Leon’s restaurant features mostly California-Mediterranean cuisine, yet the tropical scent and flavor of Southeast Asian coconut oil find an easy home in her kitchen. Leon uses coconut oil to sauté vegetables, to flavor chocolate mousse, to soften and sweeten fruit smoothies, to melt into root vegetable purées, in curries, and as a general replacement for butter.

At S&S Produce, grocery buyer Chris Schadt has seen coconut oil turn from reviled villain into esteemed superfood.

“People used to say stay away from it,” says Schadt, noting that only in last four years has coconut oil exploded into its current star status. “Now, more and more people all the time are looking for it, often for their hair or for their skin, and also for cooking.”

Coconut oil was first castigated as a particularly unhealthful food in the years following World War II. The major strike against it was its saturated-fat content and its supposedly negative effects on cholesterol levels. As late as the 1990s, coconut oil was receiving negative press that labeled it a source of artery-clogging saturated fat and “bad” cholesterol. However, the studies of 20 years ago that spawned the unsavory hype were conducted using partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which contains trans fats. The good stuff—and most of what is now available at retail outlets from your local cooperative to Costco—is unrefined, unbleached, pure and natural virgin coconut oil.

Yes, coconut oil contains saturated fat, but much of this fat is lauric acid, which boasts natural antifungal and antibacterial properties and is believed to support the immune system. Coconut oil has been linked to low levels of heart disease in Pacific Island populations. While it can increase cholesterol levels, this effect occurs mostly with high-density lipoprotein, or HDL—known as the “good cholesterol.” The overall consensus today is that coconut oil is good for us.

The vast majority of the world’s coconut oil is produced in the Philippines, Indonesia and India. The nuts are cracked open and the flesh ground out and dehydrated on heated sheets of metal. Finally, the dried shavings are pressed, rendering pure liquid oil. Sealed in jars, the oil coagulates at room temperature.

At most small retail outlets, customers can expect to pay about $15 to $17 for a 32-ounce jar. Leon buys her coconut oil at Costco—among the most economical retail sources for the product.

“A gigantic bin is about $20,” she says.

Leon also incorporates coconut sugar, coconut flour, coconut milk and coconut butter into her menu.

She notes that coconut oil is fast gaining popularity largely due to the increasingly popular paleo diet, by which adherents avoid all foods that were not present in mankind’s pre-agriculture days, like grains, dairy and refined sugars and oils. The paleo diet is frequently advertised as a meat-lover’s banquet, but vegetarians and vegans can participate, too—and among the many non-animal foods that paleo dieters thrive on is the coconut.

Falling in love with coconut oil is easy. Cook something. Anything. Brown rice. Quinoa. A kabocha squash. Potatoes. Serve some on a plate and melt coconut oil over the dish. Season with salt. Eat—and just try to go back to olive oil. While coconut oil is traditionally used in kitchens of South Pacific and tropical persuasions, and while it’s unlikely that chefs of classic French or Italian cuisine would ever incorporate coconut oil into their recipes, the truth is, their food just might taste better if they did.