Coconut oil is a vegetable oil that was first developed commercially in the South Sea Islands and South Asia in the mid 19th century. Today, it is a large exporting industry in the Philippines. The oil, known more commonly as coconut butter, is taken from the copra, which is the dry, inner pulp of the coconut.
During the early part of the 20th century, coconut oil was used in the baking industry in the United States and around the world. With a long shelf life and a low melting point, it was easy to use, easy to keep, and tasty. However, in the late 1950s, scientists, doctors, and ultimately the general population became aware of the health risks of consuming saturated fats. This oil was cast aside as unhealthy, and it became difficult or impossible to find in Western cultures.
Today, ongoing research on coconut oil suggests that about half the fatty acids in it are lauric acid. Lauric acid is touted as being an anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial. Now regarded as a “functional food,” coconut oil is often recommended by doctors to treat people with thyroid and metabolism problems, as well as those with autoimmune diseases.
Much like other commercial oils, coconut oil is processed and sold in a variety of ways. Raw or unrefined oil has been pressed out of the coconut but has not been treated in any way. Also known as “extra virgin,” this is the purest type. Refined oil has been treated to the point that it has no taste or odor. Also available are hydrogenated and fractionated coconut oils.
Coconut oil has many uses outside the baker’s kitchen. It has long been used as a moisturizer, and it can also be used for making other cosmetics, soap, and hair products. In India, it is a common hair styling product, and many cosmetologists agree that raw coconut oil is very healthy for the skin. It has also been used as a lamp oil and as a fuel for generating electricity, and tests are ongoing to find out how useful it might be in the diesel fuel industry.
Although coconut oil is not very expensive, it can still be hard to find in some Western countries. In the United States and Europe, it can sometimes be found in specialty stores, but not in main line grocery stores.