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Community Health

Coconut oil: Miracle or hype?

March 27th, 2014 10:30 am by Marci Gore

Coconut oil: Miracle  or hype?

David Grace photo.

Coconut oil is being touted by some as a miracle product. Fans of this tropical oil say its benefits range from weight loss to the treatment of Alzheimer's disease to lower cholesterol to healthier skin and hair, and whiter teeth.

The recent hype over coconut oil is nothing new to Marie Browning, a holistic nutritionist, certified in nutritional wellness through the American Naturopathic Certification Board. Browning keeps a jar of coconut oil, which is a solid at room temperature and a liquid when heated, in both her kitchen and her bathroom and says she has been using and recommending it to her clients for years.

"People tend to be afraid of it," she said. "But it's actually very good for you. Forget what you've been told for 20 years. Lots of other countries have been using it for decades in lots of ways, in lots of healthy good ways. There are just a lot of reasons to use it. It's very versatile. My clients have heard me over and over again say coconut oil, coconut oil."
Browning says, from our heads to our toes, coconut oil can be beneficial.

"It contains lauric acid and that is known to boost immune system function. It is extremely heart healthy. It soothes the skin. It soothes mucus membranes. It helps our bodies absorb other nutrients. I tell people to use it to take off their makeup. Use it as a moisturizer. There is not a single part of your body that you could not apply this to. It would not only be OK, but it would actually be helpful and healthy," she said.

Browning explains what makes coconut oil unique is that, unlike most other saturated fats that are long-chain fatty acids, the fat from the coconut itself is a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA).

"This means several things, but the bottom line is, [MCFA] does not like to be stored as fat. It likes to be used as energy. It has fewer calories as a fat than other fats do," she said.

And, Browning adds, coconut oil is really only one of two sources where a MCFA can be found. The other, she says, is human breast milk.

"There's a reason mother's milk is so high in medium-chain fatty acids. The human brain needs this to develop properly," she said.

Although it is in its earliest stages, some research shows coconut oil may be able to help with the symptoms of or slow the progression of dementia, Browning said.

"That is a very slippery slope of a discussion because certain types of dementia are not going to respond. But if cooking with coconut oil could help just slow the progression down, that would be progress in some cases," she said.

Lisa Gilreath, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Indian Path's Health Resources Center, is not completely sold on coconut oil.

"There is a lot of health 'hype' touting the benefits of coconut oil for treating Alzheimer's disease, chronic fatigue, Crohn's disease, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid conditions and weight loss. Unfortunately, there isn't enough scientific evidence yet to support these claims about coconut oil's potential health benefits," she said. "Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than lard and butter. Processing transforms some of the unsaturated fats into unhealthy trans fats."

However, Gilreath says she doesn't caution against the use of coconut oil like she used to, but she doesn't necessarily tell her patients to start using it.

"And if they do use coconut oil, I recommend they use it within their daily saturated fat guidelines," she said. "The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fat in your diet to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories and limiting trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total daily calories."

Browning says if you want to give coconut oil a try, cook with it just like you would with olive oil or any other cooking oil. But, keep in mind, that it does have a distinct flavor and smell.

"I have clients that cook their eggs in it. I personally don't do this because I don't want my eggs to taste 'coconutty.' But, if I'm making Chinese food or Thai food or Indian food, then I use the coconut oil because the flavor is perfect," she said.

Browning also recommends using coconut oil to pop popcorn on the stovetop.

There are also countless recipes online that use coconut oil. Below are some you might want to try that use it for baking.

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Muffins With Coconut Oil

4 Tbsp. good quality coconut oil

2/3 cups sugar, evaporated cane juice crystals, or packed coconut palm sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

7 1/2 ounces canned pumpkin

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

1/2 tsp. salt

Sliced almonds for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 6 muffin cups with paper liners. In a mixing bowl using an electric mixer, beat the coconut oil and whatever type sugar you've chosen until mixed. Add the eggs, pumpkin and vanilla and beat until smooth.

Mix the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and salt together into a medium bowl, then stir that mixture into the pumpkin mixture until blended.

Divide batter among the 6 muffin cups (it should come up to the top and will be thick enough to heap on) and sprinkle tops with sliced almonds.

Bake at 375 degrees F. for 23 to 25 minutes. Allow muffins to cool in pan, then lift from pan.

Peanut Butter Cookies Made With Coconut Oil

Almost 1 cup coconut oil

2 1/2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/3 cup brown sugar

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

3 eggs (2 jumbo)

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. cinnamon (fresh ground best)

1 1/2 cups crunchy unsalted peanut butter

Combine baking soda, baking powder, salt, flour, cinnamon and set aside. Beat together the coconut oil and peanut butter. Beat in the eggs. Add the sugars and vanilla. Combine peanut butter mixture with the dry ingredients. Roll into small balls and use a potato masher to make cross-hash pattern. Bake at 350 degrees F. for about 10 minutes for chewy cookies and longer for crunchy.

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