Coconut fruit and oil have a long history as a dietary staple in native cultures in Polynesia, Hawaii, Malaysia, and the Philippines. And you may be surprised to hear that coconut oil also enjoyed great popularity in the U.S. throughout much of the 20th century, when it was widely used in the baking industry. According to the authors of The Coconut Oil Diet, “Coconut oil’s long shelf life and low melting point made it easy to use and keep. And if that had not been enough to hold coconut oil in good graces, it also tastes delicious and smells divine.” All this was until coconut was dubbed a villain by the medical establishment and the fat-phobic popular media.
Now, fortunately, coconut is making a comeback, and kosher consumers are among the beneficiaries. In their book Eat Fat, Lose Fat, nutrition experts Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon write that Jewish cookbooks included coconut oil as an ingredient in many baked goods, “especially those that were to be served with meat.” According to Rabbi Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Jewish cookbooks from as early as the mid-1800s had recipes featuring coconut in puddings, tarts, macaroons, pies, and cakes.
At first, medical science consented to this state of affairs. In the 1950s, epidemiological studies showed the lowest rates of heart disease in the world among the people of Sri Lanka, who, the researchers noted, ate copious amounts of coconut oil. But starting in the mid-1980s, coconut oil began to fall out of favor. As researcher Dr. Bruce Fife says in his book, The Coconut Oil Miracle, “The media were stirred into a frenzy, warning the public about a newly discovered health threat: tropical oil. Coconut oil, they proclaimed, was a saturated fat and would cause heart attacks.”
The problem is that many researchers were overlooking the real culprits: the sharp rise in Americans’ sugar consumption; their reliance on refined, processed grains, and nutrient-poor convenience foods; and their steady intake of hydrogenated oils and trans-fats. All of these have since been strongly linked to heart disease.
Coconut oil was not the problem, but it became guilty by association, because it contains saturated fat. Mainstream medicine and nutrition practice have had a huge problem with saturated fat in general (there’s much debate on this topic, but that’s a topic for another article), and coconut oil was like the baby in the bath water. As Fife writes, “To most people, saturated fat is saturated fat – an evil substance lurking in foods, waiting for the opportunity to attack and strike you down with a heart attack.” In actuality, there are vast differences in the types of saturated fat and their biological properties. Coconut oil happens to be a very healthy type.
The secret of coconut oil is its medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are digested and utilized differently. They are not packaged into lipoproteins, and do not circulate in the bloodstream like other fats, but are sent directly to the liver, where they are immediately converted into energy, just like a carbohydrate. But unlike carbohydrates, MCFAs do not raise blood sugar. Regarding the energy-boosting properties of these fats, the Everything Coconut Diet Cookbook tells us to “think of MCFAs as gasoline used to quickly ignite a fire.”
Another unique benefit of coconut oil is that it is antiviral. Fifty-two percent of coconut oil is comprised of a specific MCFA called lauric acid. This compound is a precursor to monolaurin, a highly antiviral and antimicrobial natural substance. Research has shown that monolaurin kills viruses by dissolving their “lipid envelopes,” which help them enter host cells in the body. Other MCFAs with huge health benefits include caprylic acid, known to have an antifungal effect; and capric acid, which, like lauric acid, is antimicrobial. Coconut oil is also considered to have antioxidant properties, thanks to its phenolic compounds, which protect cells from damage and keep them working properly.
There’s plenty more to say on the benefits of this health-enhancing food. Many studies have been done on the health-boosting properties of coconut oil. Most of the recent research studies are listed at coconutresearchcenter.org. Two areas worthy of special attention are Alzheimer’s disease prevention and cardiovascular health. Also, emerging research is showing that for people who have chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or thyroid disease, therapeutic doses of coconut oil may help improve their health and increase energy levels.
Here’s a list of coconut products that are available with a reliable hechsher. (Please consult your local Orthodox rabbi or kosher certifying body with any questions.)
Coconut oil is the nutritious oil extracted from fresh coconut meat. It is rich in MCFA and phytonutrients. When buying coconut oil, look for virgin coconut oil, obtained through cold-pressing instead of chemical extraction.
Coconut flour is the finely ground, dried coconut that is left over after the oil is extracted. It is low in carbohydrates, high in fiber, and gluten-free. It can be used to make gluten-free brownies and other baked goods, or it can replace up to 25 percent of the flour in a recipe to add more fiber and protein to the finished product.
Coconut milk is made by pureeing coconut meat with water and then straining out the pulp. Coconut milk is available in cans, aseptic tetrapaks, and cartons in the dairy section of supermarkets. Note that canned coconut milk is usually called for in recipes for soups and sauces. The milk in shelf-stable and refrigerated cartons is thinner. They come sweetened or unsweetened and can be used instead of dairy milk in recipes for baked goods, like quick breads, or as a nondairy milk substitute to pour over cereal.
Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside young, green coconuts. Rich in minerals, especially potassium, it is sometimes used as a natural electrolyte replacement. My son, who is on the track team at Yeshiva University, likes to drink this when he runs.
Shredded coconut (also known as desiccated coconut) is dried, unsweetened coconut that is finely ground and intended for use in cookies, cakes, breads, and other recipes.
There are many other wonderful kosher coconut-based products, such as coconut vinegar, coconut sugar, coconut yogurt and kefir, coconut nondairy ice cream, and coconut amino acids, which are a soy sauce substitute. Here are some tasty, easy-to-make recipes to get you started using coconut oil.
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Coconut Cranberry Nut Bread
Wow, this recipe uses four different kinds of coconut products! Modified from recipe found in the Everything Coconut Diet Cookbook.
1/2 c. coconut oil, melted
1/2 c. coconut milk (see above for recommended brands)
1/2 c. coconut palm sugar (such as Wholesome Sweeteners)
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2/3 c. sifted coconut flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 c. dried cranberries or raison or other dried fruit
1/2 c. pecans, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil, coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Sift together coconut flour and baking powder. Combine wet and dry ingredients; stir in dried fruit and pecans. Pour batter into well-greased 9-inch loaf pan and bake for 1 hour.
The next two recipes are modified from the book Coconut Oil, by Cynthia and Laura Holzapfel.
Pacific Rim Rice
Here’s a rice pilaf with a tropical feel. (With our typical summer weather in Baltimore, it seems, oh, so appropriate!)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 – 4 T. coconut oil
3/4 – 1 tsp. curry powder
3/4 c. hot vegetable broth or stock
3/4 c. coconut milk (in the aseptic cartons, such as So Delicious or Trader Joe’s brands)
1 1/2 c. brown basmati or Texmati rice or a blend such as Lundberg brown rice and wild rice blend
1/4 tsp. salt
1 – 2 c. pineapple or mango chunks, fresh or frozen, defrosted or canned, drained
1/4 – 1/2 c. chopped cashews
In a 3-quart saucepan, sauté onion and bell pepper in coconut oil over medium heat until onion is golden brown. Stir in curry powder for 1 minute, and remove from heat. Slowly add hot vegetable stock, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add coconut milk, rice, and salt. Lower heat, cover, and return to a simmer. Cook until there’s no more liquid visible at bottom of pan when you tilt it, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in pineapple and cashews, and let sit for 10 minutes, allowing the remaining moisture to be absorbed.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Coconut
The authors write that this is an “easy recipe with uncommonly good flavor.” I am in total agreement.
4 medium sweet potatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
2 – 4 T. coconut oil
1/2 c. orange juice
1/4 – 1/2 c. shredded coconut
1/4 – 1/2 tsp. salt
Peel sweet potatoes, cut into quarters, and place in a medium saucepan. Cover with water and simmer until soft. While sweet potatoes are cooking, sauté onion in coconut oil until golden brown. Drain the sweet potatoes and mash. Stir in the sautéed onion, orange juices, coconut, and salt.
Lauren Mirkin, CNS, LDN, LCPC, is a licensed nutritionist and professional counselor. She provides nutritional counseling at the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center at Green Spring Station. Contact her at 443-326-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.