Cocunut oil has a wide range of applications, from consumption as a food product, to use as a bio-diesel, and as feed for livestock. Coconut oil is also extensively used in the cosmetic and soap industries. While coconut oil has developed a bad reputation as a food or cooking agent in the western world due to its high concentration of saturated fats, it is the primary source of fat in many Asian diets.
Coconut oil is derived from harvested coconuts. It is produced either via a dry or wet process. Dry processing involves drying the coconuts and then pressing them, producing coconut oil and a mash by-product. The oil manufactured during dry processing is generally of low quality and not used for human consumption. During the wet manufacturing process, a liquid is derived from the coconut meat. Oil is then separated from the liquid using a variety of mechanical and chemical methods.
The dry process yields a higher rate of coconut oil, with 1000 coconuts producing approximately 70 liters of oil. World coconut oil production exceeds six million tonnes annually.
Health Effects in Food
While the generally accepted wisdom regarding saturated fats is that they are “bad” fats, proponents of coconut oil disagree. Coconut oil is comprised of 91% saturated fatty acids, but supporters of the oil point out that the saturated fats consist of medium-chain fatty acids, which pose a lesser risk than long-chain fatty acids. Dietary scientists are torn on the subject, with the general consensus advising moderation and variety in cooking oils.
Coconut oil intended for cooking and consumption comes as a solid, with a melting point of 24° Celsius, indicating that it should be stored in a cool, dry place. Two types of coconut oil are available; virgin and refined. Virgin oil undergoes less processing and retains a coconut flavor which can be transferred to food. Refined oil is bleached and deodorized; food cooked it in will not take on its flavor.
Natural and Homeopathic Uses
Coconut oil is extensively advertised (especially on the internet) as having an almost endless variety of applications. These range from increasing thyroid function, to use as an effective sunscreen. General caution is advised when using any product for health purposes when the claims are not sufficiently grounded in scientific research. However, many of the positive benefits that coconut oil merchants lay claim to are of the home-remedy variety, with little risk of side-effects or complications. Under the circumstances, one may wish to proceed under the adage that “whatever doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger,” all other considerations being equal.
A quick internet search reveals hundreds of uses for the oil. Taken at face value, anyone who does not have a supply of coconut oil on hand must either be desperately sick or in immediate danger of becoming that way. While this article does not intend to verify or dispute any claims made by coconut oil aficionados, it will, within its limited scope, examine some of the most common and widely accepted uses of the oil.
Coconut oil is said to increase functionality of the thyroid gland. Proper thyroid function regulates metabolism. If the thyroid is effectively regulating metabolism an increase in energy and endurance may be noticed. Overall, proper thyroid function is essential to leading an active and healthy lifestyle.
A 2009, 12 week study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, where one group was given a supplement of coconut oil, and the other group given a supplement of soybean oil, found that the group receiving coconut oil had a reduction in abdominal girth. It should be noted that participants were also required to observe a prescribed activity and meal regimen.
Coconut oil has been found to be an effective anti oxidant. In this capacity, especially in individuals who are anti oxidant deficient, consumption of coconut oil can help protect cells from damage cause by free radicals. Cell damage caused by free radicals in implicated in the development of numerous diseases. Cancer, heart disease, and immune system disorders have all been linked to free radicals.
Some claim that using coconut oil will help to lower cholesterol. This is only partially true. While coconut oil will not lower overall cholesterol, some studies indicate that it will increase levels of HDL, or good, cholesterol. The result is an improved bad to good cholesterol ratio.
Of course, lowering cholesterol by switching to coconut oil could have more to do with what is being eliminated from your diet than the addition of coconut oil. Most dieticians recommend other vegetable oils as a healthier alternative to butter or lard than coconut oil.
Skin and Hair
Coconut oil is widely accepted as an effective skin moisturizer. Maintaining appropriate levels of moisture in the skin can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Due to its moisturizing properties, coconut oil is used as an ingredient in many commercially produced skin creams and cosmetics.
Coconut oil is also considered an anti-microbial and anti-fungal agent. These properties can be beneficial for people with oily skin or individuals with acne, and for treatment of minor yeast infections, although medical advice should be sought. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that coconut oil applied to the scalp is an effective treatment for dandruff and lice.
Coconut oil proponents also promote a myriad of methods for making everyday products out of coconut oil. Online recipes can be found for coconut oil toothpaste, deodorant, mayonnaise, make-up remover and shaving cream. While most of these uses are harmless, and potentially beneficial, caution is urged when using products for “off-label” applications. Do the product promoters have a vested interest in its consumption? While coconut oil has many promising health benefits, more research needs to be done to confirm many of the claims.