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Ask a Foodie: Healthy fats make coconut oil a great cooking alternative

All oils are not created equal.

Fat content, flavor profiles and health benefits differ between varieties like olive, peanut and vegetable oils. A recent trend in the culinary world finds coconut oil replacing the more common, cheaper alternatives.     

This week’s Ask a Foodie answers the anonymously submitted question: “I would like to know more about cooking with coconut oil. Any advice?”

Dr. Bruce Fife is a certified nutritionist and naturopathic physician based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Fife serves as the director of the Coconut Research Center and has written 12 books on coconuts and coconut oil. 

“Coconut oil is very heat-stable, so it makes an excellent cooking or baking oil,” Fife said in an interview with Flavor 574. “It’s much healthier to use than other oils, particularly the polyunsaturated and even the monounsaturated oils. It’s more stable and more healthy than, say, the corn oil, the soybean oil that many people use.”

The smoke point of coconut oil is about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it ideal for sauteing or pan-frying foods. The smoke point is basically the temperature at which the oil begins to burn.

“Any recipe that normally calls for margarine, shortening or any other type of oil, just substitute coconut oil in its place, one for one,” Fife said.

Jenny Weaver, owner of The Moringa Tree, an organic grocery and cafe in Elkhart, uses coconut oils in many of her dishes.

Because coconut oil usually comes in a solid form at room temperature, Weaver suggests melting it down to a liquid for easier measuring. In its solid form, it works well as a substitute for shortening.

“I use different kinds of coconut oil. There’s some that we use without flavor, because we don’t want everything to taste like coconut. But there are some dishes that it really enhances the flavor of,” Weaver said. “I use the really strong coconut-flavored oils in my baking, so you can taste it with the cakes and certain dishes, like curry.”

Elkhart fitness instructor and personal trainer Lori Harris often outlines diet plans for her clients and recommends coconut oil when preparing meats.

“It’s a great high-heat oil to stir fry chicken, beef or that sort of thing in a large skillet or wok, because it doesn’t burn,” Harris said. “The oil doesn’t break down and it gives it great flavor.”

Coconut oil can also be used as a binding ingredient when combined with small seeds and nuts. Harris said several of her clients have used the oil in raw snacks, like trail mix and almond butter balls. 

“I also use it in my coffee,” Harris said. “I make a ’bulletproof’ coffee and blend coconut oil in with that.”

Fife said coconut oil is composed of about 90 percent saturated fat—the good kind.

“The saturated fat in coconut oil is a unique type of fat. All fats and oils are composed of fat molecules known as fatty acids. You can categorize these fatty acids into three major categories based on their size or the length of their carbon chain,” Fife said.

The vast majority of the fats in our diets, Fife explained, are composed of long chain fatty acids — whether they come from vegetable oils or from animal fat.

Fife said most of the health benefits of coconut oil can be attributed to its medium chain fatty acids. These are more easily broken down and used by the body as energy, rather than being stored as fat. 

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