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What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil (sometimes referred to as copra oil) is an edible, multi-purpose oil. As it is rich in vitamin E, fatty acids and antimicrobial properties, it is often used as a topic retreatment for a number of medical conditions including eczema and psoriasis. For this same reason, it appears in the ingredient list of many beauty products and is a great oil to cook with at home.
What is it made from?
Coconut oil is extracted from the flesh (or kernel) of matured coconuts that have been harvested from palm trees. This can be done via a number of methods, which - along with the soil and location the plant is grown in - determines how it tastes and what it is called. Most of us are familiar with two types in particular:
Refined coconut oil
Refined coconut oil is ‘dry milled,’ meaning the coconuts have been baked prior to the oil being extracted. It is also ‘bleached’ to kill off any microbes, insects or dust particles. This results in a clear oil with a mild flavour and a subtle tropical aroma – perfect for use in beauty products (e.g. shampoos and conditioners) or for those who aren’t a fan of a strong coconutty flavour in their food.
Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 177°C. It is a great option for sautéing and baking, although it’s not suitable for frying.
Unrefined coconut oil
The unrefined version (also known as virgin coconut oil) is much less processed. It’s extracted from fresher, younger coconuts via ‘wet milling’ and undergoes no bleaching. Because of this, it has a bolder flavour and is richer in nutrients. It also has a shorter shelf-life and is more expensive.
Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 200°C, making it more suitable for frying. Both varieties melt at 24°C and are typically solid when stored at room temperature.
Is coconut oil healthy?
When coconut oil is baked and bleached, it reduces the number of polyphenols and medium-chain fatty acids it contains. These are what give it it’s antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits, which is why unrefined coconut oil is usually deemed the healthier option.
In addition, coconut oil is a medium-chain saturated fat. This means it’s metabolised faster than other forms of saturated fat, such as those found in animal products, making it a quick source of energy.
One study out of the University of Cambridge found that coconut oil raises the good HDL cholesterol in the blood – a factor that’s been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, it contains lauric acid, a triglyceride that fights pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and yeast. Because of this, some experts believe coconut oil may reduce inflammation and improve immune and cognitive function.
Still, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend moderate consumption as saturated fats can negatively affect cholesterol levels: “Replace high-fat foods which contain predominately saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil with foods which contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads nut butters/pastes and avocado.”
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What are the best substitutes for coconut oil?
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
- Almond oil
- Avocado oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Walnut oil
1. Olive oil
Olive oil is extremely versatile and rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. It comes in two varieties, Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and Virgin Olive Oil.
EVOO is made from the first press of the fruit, making it packed with antioxidants. It has a green hue and a robust olive tang to it. Virgin olive oil is derived from the second press and is usually yellow or champagne in colour, with a much lighter flavour.
Olive oil has a smoke point of 210 °C, making it ideal for general cooking.
Best for: sautéing, frying and salad dressings.
2. Sunflower oil
Made from the pressed seed of the sunflower, this oil is light in flavour and light amber in colour. It is low in cholesterol and rich in oleic acid, vitamin E, vitamin K, phytosterols and monosaturated fatty acids. Sunflower oil is a designated high heat oil, meaning it can withstand temperatures up to 230°C.
Best for: frying and emulsifying in sauces and dressings.
3. Almond oil
Almond oil is an excellent source of vitamin E (one tablespoon contains 5mg or 26 percent of an average adult’s daily requirements.) It is also low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fats.
Almond oil has a nutty taste, making it the best option for dishes with complementary flavours. It has a high smoke point (216°C) and is suitable for pan-frying and in baked goods.
Best for: cakes, cookies and muffins.
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4. Avocado oil
Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp of the fruit and almost 70 per cent of it consists of oleic acid. It also contains high levels of carotenoids, lutein, vitamin E and phytosterols.
It has a pleasant, grassy flavour, buttery texture and is more neutral in taste than olive oil, especially once cooked. It is ideal for grilling, baking and sautéed dishes as it has a smoke point of 271°C.
Best for: grilled meat and vegetable marinades.
5. Hemp oil
Hemp oil all boasts an impressive 10g of protein per 2Tbsp serving and supplies the body with all 9 essential amino acids. At just 5-7 per cent of saturated fat, it is an exceptionally good source of essential fatty acids. It is much richer than most other oils, with its translucent green colour and an interesting earthy taste.
Hemp oil loses most of its nutritional value when heated, so is best used straight out of the fridge or at room temperature.
Best for: salads and dips.
6. Grapeseed oil
Grapeseed oil is predominantly made up of polyunsaturated fats (like omega-6s and omega-9 fatty acids). Plus, it is cholesterol-free and contains very little saturated fat.
It emulsifies well and has a light, crisp flavour making it an ideal choice for salad dressings that won’t separate when chilled. It also works well for frying and sautéing thanks to its moderately high smoke point of 205°C.
Best for: creamy dressings and roasted vegetables.
7. Walnut oil
Walnut oil is made from ground walnuts that are dried and then cold pressed. This golden-brown oil is a great source of poly and monounsaturated fats, omega 3’s and antioxidants. It’s thick in texture and has a light nutty taste, although it can become bitter when exposed to heat. Because of this, it’s best saved for cold dishes.
Best for: salad dressings and dips.
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