Is coconut oil as a cooking medium good or bad from a health perspective? Almost every Western medical source will tell you that tropical vegetable oils such as palm oil and coconut oil are bad because they are essentially saturated fats – coconut oil, for instance, is made up of 90 percent saturated fat. It is an established fact that saturated fats are bad because they increase the total cholesterol levels in the blood by raising LDL (“bad” cholesterol).
Yet, millions of people in southern India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other many tropical regions have been using coconut in all its forms prominently in their cooking for centuries, with, apparently, no significant ill-effects.
Unchain My Heart
All saturated fats are in fact not the same and just like one distinguishes between types of cholesterol, one needs to distinguish between types of saturated fats too. Unlike most other saturated fats, which consist of long-chain fatty acids, coconut oil is essentially made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). These MCFAs are more easily digested and absorbed by the body than other saturated fats. Further, nearly half of the MCFAs in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is known to boost the immune system.
More research needs to be conducted, before the health benefits (or health risks) of coconut oil can be categorically established. It seems likely that natural coconut oil is definitely not as harmful as other saturated fats could be, and on the other hand, also not the magical health food that it’s being made out to be in some circles.
If you use coconut oil as your sole cooking medium, it’s probably a good idea to vary things by also sometimes instead using rice bran oil, olive oil, soyabean oil or groundnut oil. Make sure you never use hydrogenated forms of any of these oils, though. If you use coconut milk in curries, there’s no reason to stop, but do remember that coconut milk too contains fat (about 17 percent), so the calories add up real quick. All in all, paranoia is unwarranted, but moderation is key!
Ghee: Good for Thee?
Indians relish ghee! No true Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Marwari, Bihari – just about any Indian, actually (barring the coastal folk, who are more into coconut oil/milk) – can resist dollops of the stuff lopped on to chapatis, poured onto rice and blended into biryanis. As for sweets made lovingly in pure ghee – aah, what bliss! With more than two-thirds of ghee being saturated fat, one however needs to question the prudence of the typical Indian diet and the state of the health of the typical Indian who scoffs copious amount of ghee at every possible opportunity.
Pure ghee is what results when butter produced from cow’s or buffalo’s milk is boiled to remove all the milk fat solids and the water. The clear, golden oil that remains after filtering is pure ghee. It has a high smoke point and does not spoil easily. In addition to saturated fat and cholesterol, pure ghee also contains about 25 percent monounsaturated fatty acids.
Ghee is revered in Ayurveda for its medicinal properties and has been used in Ayurvedic prescriptions for centuries. This ancient, traditional system of medicine of India has a lot to say about the beneficial properties of pure ghee. Ghee balances the vata and pitta “elemental energies” (doshas), increases the life force (ojas) and stokes the “digestive fires” (agni). While this sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, the fact remains that Ayurvedic wisdom cannot be dismissed lightly, as its methods and medications have been proven to be effective over the centuries. No doubt though that the proof is empirical rather than the result of meticulous scientific study. There is no reference to any authoritative or credible research conducted in India to determine whether ghee (being largely saturated fat) contributes to clogging of the arteries and heart disease or, as claimed by Ayurveda, really is the wonder food it is made out to be.
Ancient wisdom comes from ancient times, when the world was quite a different place. People in India were physically very active and all the exercise kept everyone pretty much in shape. It’s a different story today, especially in the urban setup where a majority lead a far more sedentary lifestyle than ever before, stress levels are high and diets have gone absolutely haywire. Simple observation is all one needs to realise the alarmingly high levels of obesity in the aforementioned Indian communities, especially among the well-settled (well-settled around the middle, actually!). It’s very likely that all these people have been scoffing copious amounts of greasy, gooey ghee with gusto, regularly.
The Unhealthy Indian
The reality today is that India has become the “diabetes capital of the world”. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the number of diabetics in India was 19 million in 1995, 41 million in 2007, and is projected to rise to 70 million by 2025. These frightening figures are attributed to the increased prevalence of factors such as sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, and unhealthy, high-calorie diets rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and sugar. In addition, coronary heart disease is on the increase too, striking down ever-younger victims, further exacerbated by a genetic mutation that affects one in 25 people in India.
So, regardless of what Ayurveda says, and though it’s unfair to blame everything on ghee, it seems prudent to go easy on the stuff, especially if you’re overweight, have elevated cholesterol or sugar levels, have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure in the family, and live an erratic, stressed-out life. While reasonable amounts of pure, organic ghee might not be harmful, do totally avoid vanaspati, and hydrogenated vegetable oils that are passed off as ghee to the unsuspecting. And most important of all, stay active and get a lot of exercise!
- Val Souza