Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coconut, Not Your Average Oil

When I have a little time on my hands, whether I am feeling stressed or bored or just in need of a task, I bake. One of my favorite ingredients to use is coconut. The rich sweet flavor, the soft chewy texture if it’s inside a baked good, and especially the nutty toasted crunch after it’s been baked and sprinkled over cakes, ice creams, or just about anything else you can think of. There are a lot of varieties of coconut sold at stores: flaked, whole, shredded, flour (good for people with wheat flour allergies), raw, unsweetened, dried, milk, and the most unusual type which I have been hearing about recently: coconut oil.

Claiming to be a “miracle cure” everyone has seemed to be raving about it from a new diet to an unbeatable moisturizer, Jennifer Aniston has supposedly been known to swear by it as well as professional international sports teams for multiple aspects of the oil's promising effects. Coconut oil promises a lot, but is it enough to withstand the dangers to your diet?

According to the Coconut Research Center based in Colorado, scientists are aware of the saturated fat content but are also aware of the more substantial positives found in the oil, like fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Used for centuries in Asian and Pacific cultures, they call it the “Tree of Life” for its many remarkable uses. Both food and medicine, coconut oil goes beyond what Americans describe as “dietary oil,” used to prepare foods and for taste without all the calories, dietary oil is a type of oil used for its natural fatty acids and often marketed as a weight loss supplement.

The researchers from the Center urge us to take another look at coconut oil, beyond its dietary purposes. Around the world, traditional alternative medicines have been using this oil to treat a myriad of symptoms and conditions, “asthma, baldness, bronchitis, bruises, burns, colds, constipation, cramps from menstruation, dysentery, earache, fever, flu, gingivitis, gonorrhea, jaundice, kidney stones, lice, malnutrition, nausea, rash, scabies, skin infections, sore throat, swelling, syphilis, toothache, tuberculosis, tumors, typhoid, ulcers, upset stomach, and wounds,” among others. In Western medicine, however, studies have shown that scientists have had some luck in proving coconut (in certain forms) may be a healing substance in the lab.

The possibilities are endless, from killing bacteria and parasites, to boosting the immune system and the body’s energy, acting as an antioxidant, as well as having a lower cholesterol content than other oils, it seems science knows something we don’t. A new study recently conducted and presented by Drs. Gilda Sapphire Erguiza, from the Philippine Children's Medical Center and Daniel Rauch, from the New York University Langone Medical Center, found that children diagnosed with community-acquired pneumonia healed faster while on normal antibiotics when also given a dose of coconut oil according to their weight, though researchers have more to investigate as to why this effect took place.

On the opposite side of the crowd, nutritionists and the health-conscious weigh in on why coconut oil shouldn’t be a part of a regular diet. Just look at the numbers: Coconut oil has a whopping 117 calories per tablespoon and with the artery-clogging qualities of a saturated fat to boot. Coconut oil on its own has 87 percent saturated fat compared to a juicy burger that contains merely 38 percent. With most American diets already high in fats and saturated fats, adding additional oil on top of all the rest probably won’t be good for your overall health.

The fatty acids in foods are measured in length that tells of the danger to our bodies: short, medium, and long. Most fatty acids we consume are of the long variety and essentially it takes our bodies longer to break them down and metabolize within our system. Most of the long-chain varieties are what we consume—98 to 100 percent—from plants and animals daily. Coconut oil is medium-chain or known as MCFA. Some nutritionists warn about the high saturated fat content of coconut oil but advise to use caution and think about what we are substituting it for within our diet in order to keep a balance and keep our heart in check.

Whatever your choice, for or against the “miracle cure” of coconut oil, remember that everything even supplements and natural remedies should be used in moderation no matter how healthy they may seem and to always consult a doctor before trying anything new so as to prevent future complications. I always knew I loved coconut, but I didn’t know it could be for more than just taste.

By: Lara Endreszl

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