about coconut oil

coconut oil at melting point
by Jackie Patti

Coconut oil melts at 78ºF, which means most of the time, it is solid in the home.

My house is not well air-conditioned (nor well heated for that matter!), so by mid-summer, it looks like the picture to the left, about half-melted and half-solid, forming artistic-looking shapes in the jar.

But most of the year here, it's solid, and frankly gets rather hard in winter.

In this post, I'm going to first cover the chemistry and benefits of coconut oil (with research!) and then get into practical matters such as choosing the best coconut oil, storage and cooking with coconut oil (with recipes!) and topical/cosmetic uses.

science stuff

chemical composition of fats

Like all fats, coconut oil consists of triglycerides, which are glycerol molecules (shaped vaguely like a capital E) with each leg attached to three fatty acids via ester bonds.

The Wikimedia image below is a great picture because it illustrates much chemistry at once. It shows a saturated fatty acid at the top; we call this saturated because it has no double bonds and thus is saturated with as much hydrogen as is possible (each double bond means the fatty acid has 2 less hydrogen atoms). The middle fatty acid in the illustration has one double-bond, making it monounsaturated and the bottom has several, making it a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA).

Theoretically, you could build fatty acids of any length and with any double bonds wherever you wanted them, but in nature, fatty acids always have an even number of carbon atoms, between 4 and 28, and one of the double bonds in PUFAs generally occur at the omega 3, 6 or 9 position.

The bottom fatty acid in the illustration is labeled at the alpha (α) and omega (ω) carbons. Alpha and omega mean the same as in ordinary speech, the first and the last, but refer to the first and last carbon of the fatty acid (excluding the carbons in the glycerol backbone). So when we say omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, we are talking about where the first double bond in a PUFA is located relative to it's omega end.

The terms cis and trans refer to the orientation around double-bonds, an explanation which I will save for another time so we can move along to practical matters here. For now, know that most natural fatty acids are in the cis configuration, which is good and most trans fats are artificial and bad because their geometry does not match that of normal fatty acids, thus deforming the structures (like cell receptors) that your body builds from them.

fatty acid composition of coconut oil & health benefits

Coconut oil is 91% saturated fat, 6% monounsaturated fat and 3% polyunsaturated fat. The majority of the saturated fatty acids are what is known as medium-chain fatty acids, including caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acid, as opposed to long saturated fatty acids found in animal products such as beef which contains a lot of stearic acid and arachidic acid. Triglycerides made primarily from the medium chain fatty acids are called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

Because they are smaller than other saturated fats, MCTs diffuse from the GI tract without the need to produce bile salts, thus are good for those with malabsorption issues. MCTs do not require a carrier to enter the mitochondria and are rapidly oxidized to produce cellular energy (ATP). Thus MCTs are absorbed, used and stored without the need to expend much metabolic energy.

Paradoxically, while they can be used with little energy required, MCTs increase thermogenesis, thus there is a lot of interest in coconut oil for weight loss. MCTs increases both fat and weight loss in obese subjects while conserving lean mass; studies show multiple effects with even small doses of MCTs: increased resting metabolic rate, increased postprandial energy expenditure and enhanced satiety leading to reduced food intake.

Studies show they reduce basal insulin, normalize glucose tolerance and diminish symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including raising HDL levels and shifting the LDL to the safer, smaller particle form. While not effecting fasting levels of either insulin or glucose in T2 diabetics, postprandial excursions in bG are blunted.

Alzheimer's disease has been characterized as diabetes of the brain; insulin resistance prevents the brain from effectively utilizing glucose for fuel. MCTs can be utilized by the brain directly to produce energy, as well as the ketones produced by their hepatic metabolism, thus ameliorating symptoms of cognitive decline.

There is also a good bit of evidence that MCTs are protective of gut health and reduce liver damage due to toxins.

The most abundant of the MCTs in coconut oil is lauric acid, a fatty acid not found in many other foods aside from human breast milk, which has a 6.2% lauric acid content. Lauric acid raises HDL more than any other fatty acid, saturated or unsaturated, and has proven antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.

In summary, coconut oil, chockful of MCTs and particularly lauric acid, is good for weight loss, stabilizing blood glucose, reducing the risk of heart disease, healing gut issues, preventing liver toxicity, reversing mental deterioration and clearing up infections.

practical stuff

Aside from health benefits, coconut oil has a relatively high smoke point (350ºF), so is a good oil for most cooking applications. And because of it's high saturated fat content, it oxidizes slowly and is thus resistant to rancidity, lasting up to 2 years without spoiling. So you can buy it in bulk cheap and use it for both cooking and cosmetic purposes.

best coconut oil

Coconut oil can be produced in several ways.

Conventional coconut oil is extracted by hexane which increases yield by 10% over traditional methods. It is also often subjected to the RBD process: refined, bleached, and deodorized. RBD coconut oil can be processed further via hydrogenation; this is the process that produces trans fats. Fractionation is the process by which specific fatty acids are isolated, so you can stuff capsules full of caprylic and capric acid and sell them as expensive MCT supplements or purify lauric acid to sell to the cosmetics industry. In short, you can take this wonderfully healthy food and screw it up via processing if you want to, and apparently as a society, we want to.

The preferred methods of coconut oil production produce either virgin coconut oil or expeller-pressed coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil tends to have a pronounced coconut flavor which works well in candies and curries; expeller-pressed has a neutral flavor like familiar vegetable oils and thus is more versatile in cooking.

organic coconut oil

I prefer expeller-pressed coconut oil for versatility. To save money, I do not purchase organic. I feel that coconut oil is a product that would certainly be in the "clean fifteen" if tested as it is rare for herbicides or pesticides to be used on coconut crops.

I buy the product pictured, in a 5 gallon bucket. Several times a year, Tropical Traditions has a free shipping sale, and that's when I order (sign up for their newsletter, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to be notified when the free shipping occurs). This results in a price of approximately $7/quart for a quality coconut oil, whereas the best price I can find locally is $13/quart.

Because coconut oil is so stable, you don't have to be afraid of stocking up like with olive oil or other oils prone to rancidity. Of course, you don't HAVE to buy a 5-gallon bucket, Tropical Traditions also sells pints, quarts and single gallons. And they also sell both organic virgin and organic expeller-press products as well; this is just my most frugal choice.

Whatever type of coconut oil you prefer, if you click on the image to place an order, I will receive a credit from Tropical Traditions on my next order and be very appreciative!

So what do you DO once you have gotten a 5-gallon bucket of coconut oil in your home? I scoop it into a few pint-sized mason jars at a time. These fit in my tiny microwave so I can zap if I need liquid oil for a recipe.

I pour melted liquid coconut oil from a pint jar into a smaller container to use for topical purposes just to keep the kitchen stuff from becoming contaminated from double-dipping.

cooking with coconut oil

There are people who "try" to get coconut oil in their diet for the health benefits or to speed weight loss; some mix coconut oil in their coffee or tea or even eat spoonfuls of it straight. Personally, I find it simplest just to cook with it, replacing other oils.

Most of my use of coconut oil is for simple frying; if a recipe calls for me to heat a tablespoon of olive oil or vegetable oil, I use coconut oil instead.

Because it's solid, it can replace shortening or lard in recipes easily also.

In using coconut oil in recipes that call for liquid oil, as most baking recipes do, you need to melt it first. As noted, I use my microwave for this; those opposed to microwaves can simply sit the jar in a saucepan of warm water on the stove until it melts.

You need to be a bit thoughtful when making batters about how you mix coconut oil in. If you add melted coconut oil to a bowl with cold milk or cold eggs, it will re-solidify into lumps that won't mix. Either add it to room temperature ingredients or mix the ingredients in a blender instead of a bowl so the coconut oil will emulsify instead of forming lumps.

Speaking of emulsification, I make mayonnaise with coconut oil also; the recipe is on my page with my curried chicken salad recipe.

I also do a lot of cooking with coconut cream, coconut milk (especially for curries) and just plain shredded coconut, as all of these contain significant coconut oil content as well.

coconut oil recipes

Though I use a lot of coconut oil, this is a new blog that does not yet contain a bunch of helpful recipes to link to beyond the mayo recipe above; some blogging friends kindly provided their coconut oil recipes for me to share with you.

  Coconut Candy: Peanut/Almond Butter Chocolate Coconut Crisps (Gluten Free, Corn Free) from Fresh Bites Daily
  "Magic Shell" Ice Cream Topping from Completely Nourished
  Gluten FREE Strawberry Cream Pie from Healing Cuisine by Elise
  Sourdough Battered Onion Rings from Girl Meets Nourishment
  Quick, Tasty "Almond Joy" Bites from Scratch Mommy
  Coconut Oil Chicken Glaze from Real Food RN
My list of recipes is a bit limited; if you have a good coconut oil recipe, please leave a comment below!

topical use of coconut oil

As eluded to above, I use coconut oil externally often. Because of it's antibacterial properties, it makes a decent deodorant (not an antiperspirant). Because of it's antifungal properties, it prevents heat rash in the summer also. I also use it as a dressing for cuts and boils. And I have given coconut oil to folks with small second and third degree burns and they've reported amazing healing.

But my best personal story of external coconut oil use is what happened to my sister.

coconut oil for skin

A few years ago, my sister was visiting me after a large weight loss. Because we were now in our 40s and our bodies didn't bounce back as well as they used to, the back of her thighs were covered with deep and ugly stretch marks. Because I treat coconut oil almost like an old-fashioned patent medicine, prescribing it for nearly everything, I gave her a jar to take home with her and she began using it after every shower. She visited again a few months later and proudly dropped her drawers to show me, barely any lines were visible at all until you got very close. The coconut oil had healed her stretch marks and tightened her skin!

coconut oil for hair

I was annoyed by frizziness in the winter when the air was dry shortly after I had given up the dreads. Because I'd had dreads so long, I didn't have any anti-frizz serum. I put a small smidgen of coconut oil in the palm of my hand, rubbed my hands together until it melted, and then ran my fingers through my hair. Works better than any hair product I'd ever tried!

additional uses for coconut oil

Coconut oil makes a good personal lubricant as well, though it's not condom-safe.

And one of my cats loves licking it off my finger! ;)

And if that is not enough for you, Katie over at Wellness Mama has collected 101 Uses for Coconut Oil!


coconut oil, fatty acid medium chain triglycerides, and lauric acid from Wikipedia

M-P. St-Onge, P.J.H. Jones Greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 27(12):1565-71; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12975635, PMID=12975635 (accessed Jan 2014).

Tsuji H, Kasai M, Takeuchi H, Nakamura M, Okazaki M, Kondo K. Dietary medium-chain triacylglycerols suppress accumulation of body fat in a double-blind, controlled trial in healthy men and women. J Nutr. 2001 131(11):2853-9; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11694608, PMID=11694608 (accessed Jan 2014).

B. Martena, M. Pfeuffer, J. Schrezenmeir Medium-chain triglycerides Int. Dairy J. 2006 16(11):1374-1382. Full article available as a PDF from meltorganic.com: http://www.meltorganic.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Medium-chain-triglycerides.pdf‎, (accessed Jan 2014).

St-Onge, MP; Jones, PJ Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. J Nutr. 2002 132(3):329-32; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11880549, PMID=11880549 (accessed Jan 2014).

Papamandjaris, AA; MacDougall, DE; Jones, PJ Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications. Life Sci. 1998 62(14):1203-15; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9570335, PMID=9570335 (accessed Jan 2014).

Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester ADM, Katan MB Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 77(5):1146-1155; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12716665, PMID=12716665 (accessed Jan 2014).

Dreon DM, Fernstrom HA, Campos H, Blanche P, Williams PT, Krauss RM. Change in dietary saturated fat intake is correlated with change in mass of large low-density-lipoprotein particles in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 67(5):828-36; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9583838, PMID=9583838 (accessed Jan 2014).

Kabara JJ, Swieczkowski DM, Conley AJ, Truant JP. Fatty acids and derivatives as antimicrobial agents. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 1972 2(1):23-8; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4670656, PMID=4670656 (accessed Jan 2014).

Bergsson G, Arnfinnsson J, Steingrímsson O, Thormar H. In vitro killing of Candida albicans by fatty acids and monoglycerides. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2001 45(11):3209-12; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11600381, PMID=11600381 (accessed Jan 2014).

Reger MA, Henderson ST, Hale C, Cholerton B, Baker LD, Watson GS, Hyde K, Chapman D, Craft S. Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging. 2004 25(3):311-4; PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15123336, PMID=15123336 (accessed Jan 2014).

Disclosure: Affiliate
My list of recipes is a bit limited; if you have a good coconut oil recipe, please leave a comment below!