Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World
Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times
Published: March 1, 2011
¶ A FEW years ago I noticed something odd at the health food store. There, rubbing elbows with the extra-virgin olive oil and cold-pressed canola oil was virtually the last fat I expected to see in such esteemed company: coconut oil.
The last time I checked, coconut oil was supposed to be the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow.
Its bad reputation caused a panic at the concession stands back in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a study claiming that a large movie-theater popcorn, hold the butter, delivered as much saturated fat as six Big Macs. “Theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil,” Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the center, a consumer group that focuses on food and nutrition, said at the time.
So given all this greasy baggage, what was coconut oil doing in a health food store? In fact, it has recently become the darling of the natural-foods world. Annual sales growth at Whole Foods “has been in the high double digits for the last five years,” said Errol Schweizer, the chain’s global senior grocery coordinator.
Two groups have helped give coconut oil its sparkly new makeover. One is made up of scientists, many of whom are backtracking on the worst accusations against coconut oil. And the other is the growing number of vegans, who rely on it as a sweet vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature and can create flaky pie crusts, crumbly scones and fluffy cupcake icings, all without butter.
My curiosity stirred, I brought some home and experimented. I quickly learned that virgin coconut oil has a haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor. It’s even milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, and without any of the bitterness you sometimes get in olive oil.
Its natural sweetness shines in baked goods and sautés, and is particularly wonderful paired with bitter greens, which soften and mellow under the oil’s gentle touch. And the saturated fat in coconut oil makes it a good choice in pastries, whether you avoid animal fats or simply want to pack a little more coconut flavor into that coconut cream pie.
But before I get to the cupcakes, let’s start with the science.