We have been told, me included, for many years now that liquid oils are healthier than solid fats. This means replacing butter and margarine with canola and vegetable oil in baked goods, and stir-frying with olive oil or grape seed oil. And of course olive oil is the miracle liquid of the century; with healthy monounsaturated fats that we are told will prevent heart disease. I am writing today to tell you that liquid oils are not always the perfect fat and in fact can in some cases be quite harmful. Furthermore, I want to give you another option; coconut oil.
Coconut oil is indeed extracted from a plant (comes from coconuts) and it is solid at room temperature. So does it belong with the solid fats that we have deemed so bad? Or is it more like the liquid oils which are also derived from plant sources? The answer lies in the science.
THE SCIENCE: The reason animal fats are solid at room temperature is the same reason coconut and palm oils are solid at room temperature; they contain a high number of saturated fatty acids in their make-up, meaning there are very few double bonds and many hydrogen atoms saturating its carbon structure. Lack of double bonds makes these fatty acids able to stack on top of each other, so they are more compact and therefore solid. Liquid oils on the other hand have a higher number of unsaturated fatty acids, meaning they have more double bonds in their carbon structure. These double bonds are loose, they can easily spin around and rearrange their positions, which discourages a compact form and therefore the fats that contain these act liquid at room temperature.
These unsaturated fatty acids are in lay terms called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The double bonds they contain not only make them act liquid, but also make them more susceptible to environmental changes, particularly exposure to oxygen and heat. When liquid oils are exposed to oxygen for an extended period they will oxidize, meaning the oxygen reacts with the double bonds and the fat, including the food it is in, will go rancid. Similarly, when liquid oils are exposed to high heat, the double bonds react by spinning faster and faster, changing configuration and forming what we call trans fats. You may have already heard the negative literature on trans fats; these are more likely than other fats to contribute to heart troubles. The other problem with heating liquid oils is their sensitivity to heat causes multiple chemical changes to the fats structure, which turns a once heart-healthy fat into a toxic and potentially harmful one. Certain nutrients present in these oils are damaged with heat, including vitamin E, polyphenols and other antioxidants, contributing to the overall toxic change. The destruction of the fat chemical structure and nutrient profile is irreversible and therefore any health benefits it may have originally had are also gone forever.
COCONUT OIL: Coconut oil is milky in color, a bit sweet and nutty in flavor. It mostly contains saturated fatty acids, which is why it is solid at room temperature. This means there is little or no risk that this oil will go rancid, or convert to trans fats or other harmful substances. However coconut oil does differ from animal plants in a significant way; it contains medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) as opposed to longer chains found in animal products. Due to their small size, MCFAs are more easily digested and since they do not require special transport like other fats they are also easily absorbed. Because of this, nutrients found in the coconut oil are more available to the body, they do not directly contribute to blood cholesterol levels, and they put little strain on the organs.
MCFAs are used as immediate energy for the brain and body. They are utilized first for fuel as they are easily broken down in cells mitochondria. Another great perk is it provides us with energy without releasing insulin, since it contains no carbohydrates. This means maintaining insulin sensitivity of cells and not contributing to fluctuation of blood sugar as intake of carbohydrates do.
PLUS! External use of coconut oil has shown improvement to skin as a moisturizer, anti-aging and anti-fungal agent, and for healing of cuts and bruises.
You would be doing yourself a favor to switch from liquid oils to coconut oil when it comes to cooking with heat. Reserve your olive, grape seed, walnut, avocado, and other fun and flavorful oils for drizzling cold over salads, veggies, dips, and other dishes; and if you have already read my article on soybeans, you will hopefully not include soybean oil to this list!
Brenes M, Garcia A, Dobarganes MC, et al. Influence of thermal treatments simulating cooking processes on the polyphenol content in virgin olive oil. J Agric Food Chem 2002 Oct 9;50(21):5962-7.
Gomez-Alonso S, Fregapane G, Salvador MD, et al. Changes in phenolic composition and antioxidant activity of virgin olive oil during frying. J Agric Food Chem 2003 Jan 29;51(3):667-72.
Fife, Bruce. Coconut Oil and Medium-Chain Triglycerides. Coconut Research Center. http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/article10612.htm
Dr. Mercola, http://products.mercola.com/coconut-oil