If you haven’t figured it out already, I love using coconut ingredients every chance I get. Finding a healthy, versatile and tasty food that I can tolerate is like hitting the jackpot, and coconut has proven to be just that.
Coconut has been consumed for centuries in many cultures and for good reason: the list of coconut oil’s believed health benefits are endless. With anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, coconut has been used for healing and medicinal purposes for generations. It’s rich in fiber and many nutrients, and its unique composition of medium-chain triglycerides has been shown to help support healthy weight management and protect against cardiovascular disease. Some studies show it can also help support liver, kidney, bladder, thyroid, brain, digestive and immune health (just to name a few), but even more striking is the evidence of countries who consume vast amounts of coconut in their diets and have significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease as opposed to more developed countries who have replaced the consumption of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats and have alarmingly higher rates of heart disease.
Aside from its healing properties, coconut also turns out to be quite versatile. One of the most difficult parts of changing my diet was giving up a lot of my favorite guilty pleasure foods which were often made from conventional ingredients like wheat flour, dairy and refined sugar. But now, I never have to feel deprived because coconut can effectively (and deliciously!) replace each one of these. So if you’re wondering about how you can incorporate this versatile ingredient into your own cooking and baking, here is a breakdown of the coconut ingredients I use often and why I love them so much:
This was the first of the coconut products I incorporated into my everyday eating. Prior to using coconut oil, I used extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) for all my cooking needs. And EVOO is good for us, but more so in cold form rather than when heated. When oils (and other fats) are heated to a certain temperature, the molecular structure changes, making them vulnerable to oxidative damage. Compared to EVOO, unrefined coconut oil is more stable and able to withstand higher heat. (There’s no point for me to make any comparisons to “vegetable” or other highly refined oils as I wouldn’t touch those with a ten foot pole anyway, whether in cold or heated form.)
When I learned about the health benefits of coconut oil (and began to research the myths surrounding saturated fat), I started using it in most of my cooking and baking. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I love the subtle flavor and although I’ve heard some varied opinions, I personally feel it is not overwhelmingly coconut-y (yes, I just created that word). I actually prefer it to the taste of olive oil (then again, I strongly dislike the taste of olives), but I still use EVOO in cold form (pouring over salads or previously cooked veggies) so I can enjoy the best of both worlds.
As for that saturated fat in coconut oil? It’s actually made up of medium-chain triglycerides, a group of fatty acids that metabolize in a very different way from other fatty acids, specifically making coconut oil effective in protecting against heart disease and in maintaining a healthy weight (especially addressing that pesky belly fat). I prefer organic, unrefined virgin coconut oil versus refined coconut oil, but there are pro and con arguments on both sides. Whichever you choose, always avoid any versions that are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
Just note that at 76 degrees or lower, it will solidify, so you will need to melt it slightly to get it into liquid form (this is why I always recommend using room temperature ingredients when baking: so your coconut oil doesn’t solidify when you add it to your batter). If the room temperature is above 76 degrees, it will remain in liquid form.
In addition to using it in the kitchen, coconut oil serves a host of other purposes: it can also function as a topical skin moisturizer, lip balm, hair masque, mild sunscreen, and even mouthwash (because of its antimicrobial properties, some believe it can improve dental health). When I faced a horrible bout of eczema after recently withdrawing from prednisone, coconut oil was the only thing that helped heal it (and I tried just about every over-the-counter cream and even prescription cream with no successful results). Seriously, is there anything that coconut oil can’t do? (Plus, it smells yummy!)
(For a list of published studies about coconut oil and medium-chain triglycerides, click here.)
If you’ve been following my blog, you probably already know that I’m a little obsessed with baking desserts. It’s a bit ironic, considering that even natural sugar is not something that should play a large role in Paleo eating. But as I’ve mentioned before, I do not do well with complete deprivation, so if I can find a way to mimic the decadent pastries in which I used to indulge, and do it without wheat flour (which as we all know it one of the worst offenders in the land of food sensitivity), you better believe I’m going to do it (occasionally and in moderation, of course). Coconut flour allows me to do this, and it serves as the base of most of my baking recipes.
You might have noticed by now that a lot of other Paleo baking recipes call for large amounts of almond flour (or other nut flours or nut butters). I personally choose to avoid baking with almond flour because it means consuming too many nuts, and too many nuts equates to too much phytic acid, too much omega-6 and results in inflammation in the body (plus they can be hard to digest). There are always exceptions (like my Paleo granola bars) but for the most part, I try to keep my baking within the coconut world so that I can enjoy my desserts and still feel great (and not land myself in the hospital).
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Just a couple important notes about coconut flour. Firstly, unlike many other flours, it can not be substituted at a 1:1 ratio with other flours. Because of its unique tendency to greatly absorb liquid, it requires more liquid than the average recipe. If you are going to bake with coconut flour, you will need to use a recipe specifically designed for it. Secondly, I highly recommend using Bob’s Red Mill Organic Coconut Flour. I’ve tried other brands and the result is an unpleasant grainy texture. I went back to using Bob’s Red Mill because I’ve never had a bad result with this product. It’s just my personal opinion, but I think it makes a huge difference.
Coconut Sugar and Coconut Nectar
I love using raw honey in many of my recipes, but sometimes it’s nice to have some options that fall lower on the glycemic index. Coconut palm sugar is considered low glycemic and can be used to substitute table sugar at a 1:1 ratio. Coconut nectar is also low glycemic, and I often use it to substitute in recipes that call for honey or other liquid sweeteners. Both coconut sugar and nectar are minimally processed natural alternatives to refined sugar (unlike highly processed agave nectar). But please always remember that just like all other forms of sugar, they should be used occasionally and in moderation.
Coconut milk is a wonderful replacement for cow’s milk, especially in cooking and baking. Rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and lauric acid, it’s a healthy, dairy-free, far-more-easily-digested alternative to cow’s milk. I use it in my cinnamon chocolate chip muffins, my Paleo pancakes and of course, when making the most delicious dairy-free whipped cream.
Lots of people make their own from fresh coconuts, but if you’re slightly challenged in that area (like myself!), the next best thing is a full fat canned version and if possible, using this version by Natural Value: it’s organic, contains no additives (like guar gum, which you’ll find in most other brands) and the cans are BPA-free. This is not the same as the coconut beverage which comes in a carton: that version contains many additives and is not recommended for clean eating.
So for me, all these qualities make coconut a superstar in my kitchen. If grain-free, dairy-free or refined sugar-free eating is new to you, replacing conventional ingredients with coconut may take a little “thinking outside the box” at first, but when you start to reap the healthy and yummy rewards, it will become second nature in no time.
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