The coconut oil industry is booming as consumers are looking for alternatives to vegetable oils and shortening in baking and sauteing and discovering the benefits of coconut oil for the skin. With a booming market, many companies are trying to separate their own product from the pack with claims about how their oil is processed. From claims that raw coconut oil is most healthful to the economic impact on the local coconut producing communities, it is hard to make sense of it all. I have to admit that in the past I did buy coconut oil entirely based on price because, frankly, I did not see much cause to do otherwise.
When looking at coconut oils with a big price tag, “raw” coconut oil produced by centrifugal extraction stands out. The method rapidly pulls the coconut oil out of the coconut milk and it may prove to provide some benefit to us, but the method itself is young and lacks research showing that rawness actually matters in the context of heat-stable coconut oil. There surely are parts of the coconut we may want to seek out raw, as with all foods, but it is not clear that the oil part of the coconut fits in this category. At $70 per gallon, I put this oil on my “wait and see” list.
Competing for top-dollar coconut oil is an oil produced by hand by a veritable legion of Filipino families. This oil wins the award hands-down for “Best Discovery Story” involving the Shilhavy family from America living in the Philippines, anticipating the big technology crash of “Y2K” (if you can even remember that scare now), milking their own goats, and homeschooling their children. The Wisconsin-raised father and Philippine native mother began making coconut oil on their Filipino homestead for their own family and later discovered an American market willing to pay a premium for hand-crafted coconut oil. To scale their operation, they enlisted a team of Filipino families to produce this oil for them. It remains the only hand-crafted coconut oil available on the market.
Research on Antioxidants in Coconut Oil
Stories are compelling marketing devices, but this hand-crafted method has also begun to be vindicated in research. Asian researchers have taken an interest in the antioxidant content of coconut oil and has found that this traditional method of coconut oil production (as well as another traditional method not available in this market) has a higher content of antioxidants than other methods of oil extraction. Before rushing to replace your pomegranate seed oil with coconut oil, I should mention that coconut oil still is not an antioxidant superstar, but the research gets my attention nonetheless.
First, it is interesting that an oil that uses heat to extract the coconut oil actually has a higher level of antioxidants. The field of antioxidant research is quite new and not fifteen years ago did everyone have this rule of thumb: heat destroys antioxidant vitamins. Heat does destroy vitamin C, for instance, and other vitamins as well. In 2000, after the world had survived Y2K and the Shilhavy family made coconut oil in their kitchen, researchers were surprised to learn that cooked carrots had a higher content of antioxidants than raw carrots (see a summary of the study).
The world of antioxidants is a complex one, it turns out.
Second, the research emphasizes an aspect of coconut oil production that is not widely discussed among producers: The higher antioxidant level in traditionally-produced coconut oil appears to be the result of the coconut milk sitting for hours as it either separates (as it did in the Shilhavy kitchen) or evaporates (as it does in other Filipino kitchens).
Anyone who has made an herbal infusion involving fresh herbs and warm water understands the value of sitting for hours. The goodness in the nettle leaf or raspberry leaf is infused into the water. Likewise, as the coconut milk sits and the oil begins to separate, that oil is infused with the goodness from the rest of the coconut and the oil becomes better for it. Antioxidants are a verified case in point, but there may be other qualities imparted to the oil as well as it sits with the rest of the coconut goodness.
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