Nick Roumel: Coconut oil and its many interesting uses

 I am a hard-core olive oil and butter user. I will occasionally use nut oils – peanut for frying, walnut or sesame for flavoring – but I stick to butter and oil not only for taste, but for health benefits. So what’s all this fuss about coconut oil?

Coconut oil is basically the meat of the coconut pod, extracted by either a wet or dry method. It can be used for frying, baking, and even for skin care. The coconut “water” found inside the pod can be drank unadulterated and is also said to have positive attributes.
Recently coconut oil’s benefits have been praised by friends, nutritionists, charlatans, and other assorted snake oil sellers. I have been suspicious of food fads since barely surviving the 90’s – “The Oat Bran Decade” – with my intestines intact. So I set out to write this hard-hitting expose: is coconut oil worth the hype? 
Among those serious, hard-core nutritionists promoting its benefits is Dr. Oz, who has sprung to inexplicable fame after guest appearances on Oprah and Larry King. His website boasts of the anti-oxidant attributes of coconut oil, to help slow the aging process, prevent dementia, and as an aid in skin and hair care. 
Others promote its use for massage, and it’s even rumored to be useful as a certain … lubricant. (Now you know why certain people go around smelling like a piña colada). One of the coco-nuttier fads out there is “oil pulling,” in which you’re supposed to swish coconut oil around in your mouth for twenty minutes to pull toxins out of your body.
The curious comeback of coconut oil was examined by New York Times food writer Melissa Clark, who reminded readers that it was nearly hounded out of existence in the 90’s. At the time, it was widely used for theatre popcorn, but then its colossal saturated fat numbers were exposed. Yet sales have resurged in recent years, attributed in part to vegans who have used it as a baking substitute. 
Ms. Clark, experimenting with coconut oil, enjoyed the “haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor” in baking and frying sweet potatoes and certain vegetables. She also re-examined the scientific data, concluding that the worst dangers of coconut oil were attributed to the partially-hydrogenated stuff, used in theatre popcorn, as opposed to virgin coconut oil.
The problem is that even the virgin product has the highest percentage of saturated fat of any cooking oil – 92%. There is no comparison, nutrition-wise, with extra-virgin olive oil, which has only 8% saturated fat, and higher “good fat” numbers (mono- and polyunsaturated, as well as much sounder research backing its heart-healthy claims. Even butter is significant lower in calories, total fat and saturated fat than is coconut oil.
Coconut oil’s research is usually anecdotal. One study I found concludes that it is so good for you because the South Pacific Tokelauans, who eat much of it, are healthy. But I have to wonder how closely their lifestyle, and other control data, otherwise parallels our western, urban ones. 
I’ve occasionally enjoyed foods made with coconut oil, especially at my favorite vegan emporium, and I’m more than happy to savor the occasional piña colada. Otherwise, this old dog is sticking with his olive oil and butter. Unless someone wants to fly me to the South Pacific, to visit the Tokelauans.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor.

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