Coconut oil, also known as copha, is an oil extracted from fermented and purified coconut milk. It is made up of over 80 percent saturated fatty acids, the highest out of any plant-based oil. Because of its high amount of saturated fat the oil is actually an opaque solid at room temperature but quickly melts when gently heated. The liquid form of the oil is clear and has a mild, sweet coconut taste. Coconuts and coconut oil have been used in tropical regions worldwide for thousands of years and are still widely used there today. However, areas outside of the tropics rarely use coconut oil. This is partially due to accessibility issues and the presence of stronger markets in corn and soybean oil, but the main reason is because of the belief that all saturated fats are unhealthy.

There are several different kinds of coconut oil. First, the oil is characterized as either commercial grade, also known as “copra”, or premium grade. Copra grade oil is made from dried coconuts and it must be refined over several months to make the oil edible. This refining process involves bleaching and deodorizing the oil and destroys nutrients such as vitamin E and antioxidants naturally present in the coconut flesh. The oil also may be hydrogenated, which can introduce harmful trans fatty acids into the oil. Premium grade oil is made by pressing fresh, higher quality coconuts that are no more than a day old. No chemicals are added to the oil and the entire process takes only several days. Premium grade oil is an unrefined oil and retains the nutrients that are present in the oil. It also tends to be more expensive than the commercial grade. Premium grade coconut oil can also be further divided into virgin or extra virgin oil, much like the classifications of olive oil. Extra virgin oil has the lightest taste, viscosity, and shelf life of the two.

Coconut oil and health concerns

Coconut oil is widely believed to be especially unhealthy because of its high level of saturated fatty acids. This was because of early studies that showed that animals fed coconut oil developed higher levels of cholesterol. However, the animals were fed a hydrogenated form of coconut oil that did not contain any essential fatty acids. The increase in cholesterol levels were actually due to a deficiency in these essential fatty acids or due to the trans fatty acids in the hydrogenated oil. Studies with hydrogenated corn and soybean oil that did not have essential fatty acids showed similar results as the coconut oil, even though the former two oils have minimal levels of saturated fatty acids. Additionally, studies done on populations that consume high amounts of coconut oil do not show higher levels of cholesterol levels or heart disease. These reports indicate that the oil is not as unhealthy as previously believed.

The saturated fatty acids that are present in coconut oil are classified as medium chain fatty acids, which are turned into energy much easier than long chain fatty acids that are found in animal products like meat and butter. Medium chain fatty acids are absorbed from the intestines directly to the liver, while long-chain fatty acids must move from the intestines to the bloodstream before reaching the liver. Additionally, medium chain fatty acids have been shown to not raise cholesterol levels or raise the risk for heart disease. One of the medium chain fatty acids is lauric acid, which makes up 50% of all the fatty acids in coconut oil. The body converts it to monolaurin, a molecule that is also produced in breast milk and is a known antiviral and antibacterial agent.

Uses of coconut oil

Coconut oil is not commonly used in the United States and cannot be found in most grocery stores. Specialty and health food stores may stock the oil and it can also be found online. Refined coconut oil has a surprisingly long shelf life, longer than any other plant oil. This is because it contains only a small amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are prone to oxidation and spoilage. The antioxidants in coconut oil also help keep it stable. The oil will keep in a dark cabinet at room temperature for about a year and a half, if not longer. Researchers have tested samples of the oil that are several years old that do not show any signs of rancidity.

The oil is used both in cooking and as a moisturizing agent. It can be incorporated into sauces, dips, marinades, and salad dressings. It can also be used to pan fry meats or vegetables and deep fry foods at temperatures below 350 ° F. The oil is often used to moisturize the skin, hair, and scalp and is used as a base for massage oils. Extracts and chemicals derived from coconut oil are common ingredients in shampoos, conditioners, soaps, and lotions.

panamaus states: "You may want to note that coconut oil is widely used in the US by cinemas to pop their popcorn. This is the reason that theatre popcorn tastes so much better than the kind one would make at home. The fat content of popcorn made with this oil is astronomical! Cinemas generally purchase it in 5-gallon drums from companies that supply movie concessions. :)"

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