Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cooking with coconut oil

Yesterday my sister asked me what I knew about cooking with coconut oil. She too had heard rumblings about the seeming shift in public perception of this once vilified fat. Today, it popped up again in an article in the New York Times. Time for a closer look.

Previously lumped in with other scary fats like palm oil, coconut oil has been growing in popularity in the past five years. And users are getting support from the research community. Seems scientists are rethinking their original statements about what the fat does in our bodies.

For details on the science, here's an excerpt from the article:

Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists, said, “Different types of saturated fats behave differently.” 

The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid. Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and bad LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, in the blood, but is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two. 

She went on to say that while it is still uncertain whether coconut oil is actively beneficial the way olive oil is, small amounts probably are not harmful. The new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of total dietary calories a day come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams. 

Alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil is still waiting for definitive evidence that it is a good fat to include in your diet, although he does point to its topical benefits in skin care. Conversely, Dr. Oz  has made the switch to coconut oil from butter in his kitchen (allegedly...the link I have included has broken since I added it - check out this link to hear him talk about coconut oil on his show.)

At this point, there still isn't consensus on some of the sexier claims made about it: that it has antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral properties. But from the New York Times article, it does look like, if used in moderation, it is a perfectly fine fat to integrate into some of your recipes.

So, why would you want to use it? Vegans like it because it can be used in place of butter in most recipes, so it serves as a great substitute in baking and other "solid fat" applications, like icing. Other cooks like the subtle coconut flavour it brings to dishes, like sauteed greens, roasted sweet potatoes, and popcorn.

They included some interesting recipes with the article:
  1. Coconut oil roasted sweet potatoes
  2. Coconut oil poundcake with almonds and lime zest
  3. Sauteed shrimp with coconut oil, ginger and coriander
  4. Chocolate shell ice-cream topping.
And here are a few I rounded up:
  1. Jamaican veggie patties from one of my favourite recipe blogs, 101 Cookbooks.
  2. Vegan chocolate chip cookies from London Foodie in New York.
  3. Vegan cupcakes from All Recipes. Gets great reviews.
Check out vegan cooking blogs and you will find a lot more.
Ultimately, I think I'm going to use this information to relax a little about cooking with coconut milk, like in Thai curries. Whether or not you want to start using coconut oil in your kitchen, I think you all can make up your own minds!

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