This post has been updated as of December 2017. It had been part 2 of a 3-part series about choosing healthy oils. Each post now stands on its own. What had been the first part, Choosing Healthy Fats and Oils: What you need to know, explains that according to our biochemistry we need to consume monounsaturated fats like olive oil and saturated animal and tropical fats – coconut and palm oils – and some naturally occurring polyunsaturated oil. As demonstrated by the “Israeli Paradox”, the polyunsaturated vegetable oils we are told to use, almost exclusively, are actually detrimental to our health. I also discussed the health benefits inherent in extra virgin olive oil including why olive oil and/or saturated fat is necessary in order to obtain the full nutritional value of your salads.
What had been part 3, What You Need to Know Before Buying Your Next Bottle of Olive Oil, Olive Oil Fraud, and Israeli Olive Oils, explains about the rampant fraud that exists, and has always existed, in the olive oil industry including kashrut concerns that may occur as a result. I explained how to discern which olive oils are real quality oils.
COCONUT OIL – A SUPER FOOD
If you’re like me, making the effort to moisturize dry skin on a regular basis in the winter doesn’t always happen, until your hands gets so dry that they hurt.
Well, early one winter season I decided that I would start taking better care of myself. I would make liberal use of hand lotion on a regular basis in order to keep the skin on my hands smooth and supple despite the cold weather. I did moisturize a couple of times, but then I forgot about my commitment.
A week or two later, I suddenly remembered about my dry skin and the moisturizing that I was supposed to be doing, but wasn’t. However, when I took a good look at the backs of my hands, I was quite surprised to realize that they were not dry. No wonder I “forgot” about moisturizing. For some reason I didn’t need to anymore. And my elbows and heels were also less dry than they had been. Thinking about this unusual turn of events, I realized that it must be a result of the coconut oil I had begun putting into my hot cereal on a daily basis. I started using the coconut oil at the same time that I decided to take care of my hands and that must be what’s moisturizing and healing my skin from the inside out!
And, the more I continued to use the coconut oil, the smoother and softer my elbows and heels became.
Coconut oil has been consumed safely for millennia
Although modern science is still trying to figure out if, how, and why coconut oil and other coconut food products are healthy, we have only to look at all the many native populations such as those in the Philippines, India, Panama, Jamaica, New Guinea, Samoa, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries who have largely subsisted on coconuts and coconut oil for centuries and enjoyed exceptional health.
Early European navigators visiting the tropical coasts of the Indian and Pacific oceans noted with surprise the outstanding fitness and good health of the indigenous people. The visitors learned that the inhabitants of these regions had been consuming coconut for thousands of years. King Manuel I of Portugal, upon learning from explorer Vasco da Gama of the great role that coconut played in the human economy in coastal west India, wrote in 1501:
“…from these trees and their fruit are made the following things: sugar, honey, oil, wine, vinegar, charcoal and cordage…and matting…and it serves them for everything they need. And the aforesaid fruit, in addition to what is thus made of it, is their chief food, particularly at sea.”
In 1606, the Spanish navigator Torres explored the southern coastline of mainland New Guinea, encountering many native peoples who depended on the coconut as a major food item. He wrote of one group:
“Some of them are brown, well built and robust. They have very little variety of food, only having a few coconuts and roots. Their nourishment is from fish and shellfish.”
Torres thus records that people whose diet comprised coconut, roots (probably yams) and a variety of seafoods were not just surviving on their island, but were strong and healthy.
Several centuries later, coconuts were still considered a good source of quality nutrition. In Australia (page 27):
In the late 19th century, soon after the overland telegraph from Cairns to the tip of Cape York was built, coconut palms were planted in clearings near the line’s repeater stations. Palms were also planted near homesteads on the developing cattle stations in the region. Besides the obvious ornamental attraction of coconut palms, these plantings were part of a government policy of providing an emergency food supply for the occupants of these isolated outposts.
Similar to Weston Price’s studies of native populations, a study was taken of the Vedda population on Sri Lanka just prior to their integration with modern Sri Lankans as a result of their losing their land.
From the Coconut Research Center article Study Shows Heart Disease Absent in Coconut Eating Population (this had previously been on and linked to the Philippine Department of Agriculture’s Coconut Authority website):
The majority of dietary fat in the traditional Vedda population comes from coconut and wild game, both high in saturated fat. Researchers at the University of Sri Lanka department of medicine were interested in how their high-fat diet affected their health, particularly their cardiovascular health. Before the Veddas were integrated into Sinhalese culture and adopted to agriculture and modern foods, the researchers wanted to study their health. What effect did their traditional high-saturated fat diet have on their health? That was the question they wanted to answer.
The study examined 207 adults 20-83 years of age. A detailed medical history was taken of each subject, which included level of daily physical activity, dietary and smoking habits, and any adverse symptoms, with special emphasis on the presence of cardiac chest pain. A complete physical examination and blood analysis was performed with special attention to the cardiovascular system.
… Despite the fact that 39 percent of the men smoked, only 3.8 percent demonstrated elevated blood pressure, which is much lower than in the Sinhalese population.
… In summary, there was absolutely no evidence of heart [disease] among this population. This is not surprising, similar studies of coconut eating populations in other parts of the world have produced the same results.
Coconut is not only important for the Veddas, but for all Sri Lankans. The Sinhalese also enjoy coconut, which is used in many of their traditional dishes. In fact, coconut oil provides the primary source of oil in their diet, or so it did until recent years.
Unfortunately, as the article concludes, with the loss of their native diet and adoption of Western foods, these people are no longer enjoying the good health they once had.
What Makes Coconut Oil So Wonderful?
There are a number of beneficial properties, some of which are unique to coconuts and coconut oil, which make it extraordinarily healthy, including the following:
Coconut oil can stand up to cooking and baking at higher heats than other oils. Coconut oil, which is 92% saturated with over two-thirds of the saturated fat in the form of medium-chain fatty acids (often called medium-chain triglycerides) are both very safe for baking and frying at high temperatures. The high degree of saturation ensures that they will not oxidize and form free radicals like polyunsaturated oils do in the presence of heat (thus making polyunsaturated oils harmful for use in cooking and baking).
Coconut oil is easy on the digestive system. Unlike long chain fatty acids which need to be emulsified by bile salts, medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are absorbed directly from the small intestine into the portal vein and sent immediately to the liver. This makes coconut oil a quick source of energy as well as the preferred fat for people who have digestive issues. Coconut oil is easily digested by people who can’t digest other fats or have gall bladder problems and are good for premature babies that have undeveloped digestive systems.
Coconut oil kills disease causing germs. Coconut oil contains an abundance of lauric, caprylic, and capric acids, which are antibacterial, antiprotozoal, antifungal, and antiviral. These oils are changed to monoglycerides in the body which have been found to be effective germicides. Of particular importance is lauric acid which is also found in abundance in mother’s milk to protect infants from infection. The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin which has the effect of destroying lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, measles, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Monocaprin, made in the body from capric acid, also has antiviral effects against HIV and possibly against herpes simplex, chlamydia, and other bacteria.
The following are a few benefits of using coconut oil and coconut products, including topical uses:
- As an antioxidant – coconut oil contains vitamin E and polyphenols
- Supports weight loss
- Supports the thyroid
- Heals wounds
- Moisturizes the skin
- Supports healthy and vibrant hair (has high affinity for protein and is able to penetrate hair shaft)
- Clears head lice
- Acts as a sunscreen
- Protects the liver from alcohol damage
- Is anti-inflammatory
- Helps to stabilize blood sugar
- Cures dandruff
- Important ingredient in parenteral nutrition (for patients receiving food through IV)
- Helps to reverse symptoms of Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s Disease, and is thought to reverse symptoms of other neurological disorders as well.
- Helps preterm babies – preterm babies given a coconut oil massage had faster weight gain and growth compared to those given mineral oil massage.
Buying Coconut Oil in Israel
Coconut oil is solid at temperatures of about 75° F (about 26° C) and liquid at temperatures above that. Unrefined coconut oil is white when solid and clear when liquid. Refined coconut oil has a yellowish tinge when solid and a more yellow color when liquid.
It’s most preferable to use extra virgin coconut oil, organic if possible, to make sure that you get the maximum health benefits from the freshest and best quality of coconut. Good quality coconut oil is not inexpensive (I think we pay about 85 – 90 NIS for a kilo (2.2 lbs). However, when considering how much money we pay for nutritional supplements (especially here in Israel) then the cost of coconut oil is really nominal for so healthful a product.
Never use hydrogenated (מוּקשֶׁה – mook’she) coconut oil since that contains health-damaging trans fats. Be aware that the coconut oil in packaged goods may be hydrogenated. Always check the nutritional contents before you buy to make sure there are no trans fats.
There are many brands of coconut oil sold in health food stores here in Israel. Most of the coconut oil sold is unrefined and comes from Sri Lanka or the Philippines. Refined coconut oil is less expensive than virgin coconut oil. The quality of the coconut may be inferior, it has fewer nutritional benefits than unrefined coconut oil, and depending on the refining process used, there may be chemical residue in the oil. If necessary, however, I would choose refined coconut oil over any polyunsaturated oils for the reasons discussed here.
In Israel Poliva sells two types of refined coconut oil. The first is hydrogenated (מוּקשֶׁה) with a melting point of 34°C). If you’re inclined to buy refined coconut oil, make sure you buy the second one which is liquefied (נוזלי – nōzli) and has a melting point of 24° C. Most of their business is commercial, which means you may have to buy in large quantity (perhaps split it with a friend) although recently they have begun catering to the consumer, as well.
Easy Ways to Include Coconut Oil and Coconut Milk in Your Diet
To gain benefit from coconut oil it should be consumed and/or used topically on a daily basis since the effects are cumulative. Recommended consumption is anywhere from 2 – 4 tablespoons per day. Some people may initially experience abdominal discomfort, bloating, or diarrhea when they start using coconut oil. If you are not used to consuming that much oil, you might want to start with a lesser amount and see how your body reacts, slowly increasing your intake as your body gets accustomed to it.
I had been putting coconut oil into my tea along with some honey (always buy non-heated honey – in Israel look for לא מחומם –lo me’chumam) and, thanks to Wellness Mama‘s suggestion, I have started putting it in my coffee.
Coconut oil can be used for frying vegetables, latkas, and other foods. As a matter of fact, potatoes thinly sliced and salted are delicious when fried or baked in coconut oil. A lot of other vegetables are good with coconut oil – experiment with a variety to discover your family’s tastes.
My friend Shoshana S. mixes coconut milk into her pureed pumpkin for a delicious pumpkin soup. I often make sweet potato soup using coconut milk, some cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. I probably use three or four sweet potatoes, 2 tsps. (approx.) of cinnamon and about half as much of the other spices. You can add some water for a thinner soup. Coconut milk perks up other soups as well; I often use it as a portion of the liquid in my fish soup.
Fish, rice, and chicken are good with coconut milk. Use coconut oil mixed with a bit of olive oil, so it doesn’t solidify in the batter, in cake recipes.
Try this Chicken in Coconut Sauce, a recipe from Claudia Roden’s wonderful cookbook (which makes a super gift), The Book of Jewish Food, An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. It’s filled with the history of diaspora Jews and the foods they ate. The following is a recipe from the Bene Israel of India. (I’ve taken the liberty of making it more Weston Price friendly.)
- 4 medium onions, about 1 lb (500g), coarsely chopped
- 4 tablespoons coconut oil or sesame oil*
- 6 garlic cloves, crushed
- Juice of 2 1/2 inch (6 1/2 cm) piece of ginger, crushed, or the grated piece
1 tsp. turmeric
- 6 chicken pieces – thighs and breasts (boneless if you like, leave the skin and fat on for additional health benefits and to retain moisture)
- Sea salt
- White pepper to taste
- 1 lb. (500g) new potatoes, cut in thick slices
- 1 can of unsweetened coconut milk (make sure it is not “lite” coconut milk, without additives if possible)**
- 1 1/4 cups boiling water
- 3/4 cup (100 g) cashew nuts or split almonds (crispy nuts if possible)
- 2 Tbsps. raisins
In a large pan, fry the onions in oil till soft and golden, stirring occasionally. Because there is so much onion, that takes a long time, and it is best to start with the lid on (which steams them). Add the garlic and saute for a few minutes. Then add the ginger and turmeric and stir well.
Put in the chicken pieces and season with salt and white pepper. Cook 5 minutes and turn over the chicken pieces. Add the potatoes and coconut milk and enough water to cover – about 1 cup (250 ml). (You might want to cut back on the liquid since the chicken fat will add moisture and flavor as it melts.) Adjust the seasoning. Then simmer for 30 – 45 minutes, or until the chicken and potatoes are very tender. Add the cashew nuts or almonds and the raisins and cook a few more minutes. Serve hot.
* Sesame oil can safely be used for frying because it contains unique antioxidants that are not destroyed by heat. However, the high percentage of omega-6 militates against exclusive use.
** Lately I have been buying the Arroy D brand in cans with white labels. It has no additives except water (the green labeled can has a higher percentage of water than those with the white labels). As per Weston Price guidelines, boxes are not recommended.
Sources and resources:
13 Evidence Based Medicinal Properties of Coconut Oil
Why You Need Fats
What Are the Health Benefits of Coconut Oil?
Coconut Oil In Coffee? The 6 Amazing Benefits Of Adding Coconut Oil To Your Morning Brew
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