Victoria Flight considers herself a sceptic, but her 15 years as a GP have taught her it is always wise to put aside prejudice, collect the data and evaluate the facts. However, when a friend asked her to take a look at coconut oil as a potential cooking oil, Flight's initial response was decidedly sceptical.
"I knew it as a saturated fat and thought 'What's going to be good about that?'. But I had a lot to learn."
The story of coconut oil goes back thousands of years. Where coconuts grow it was accepted the oil was beneficial for skin and scalp problems, as well as its use in cooking.
Flight has been intensely interested in nutrition for many years. She is currently completing a postgraduate fellowship on nutrition and environmental medicine through the Australian Council of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine, and although she was aware there were several scientific studies into the nutritional benefits of coconut oil, she admits her knowledge was sketchy.
"Thank goodness for the internet," she says. "It led me to the work of United States research doctor Mary Enig, a pioneer in the study of the health benefits of coconut oil, and then on and on and on to further studies and other researchers."
She now believes that coconut oil has a place in modern pantries and is soon to join Blue Coconut, a commercial enterprise producing coconut oil. "Being involved in a business has been a challenge. My husband and I owned The Clinic [the medical practice in the CTV Building]. I wasn't at work on February 22 because I was still recovering from an accident and was working part-time. The earthquake changed everything."
She is still a GP, but her intent to reveal coconut oil as a "good product" dovetails with her studies in nutrition. She wasn't too far into her research when the structure of the oil caught her attention.
"Coconut oil is high in a type of saturated fat called lauric acid which has significant antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Lauric acid belongs to a group of fatty acids called medium- chain triglycerides.
"Medium-chain fatty acids or triglycerides are not usually stored as body fat whereas long-chain triglycerides - found in virtually all other oils - are, as they can be deposited in the fat cells.
Medium chain triglycerides are a healthy type of saturated fat," she says.
Blue Coconut Oil is produced from coconuts growing wild on the island of Santos in Vanuatu. The coconuts drop, are picked up by hand and the "meat" is extracted and dried to make copra. The copra is pressed and the oil is shipped to New Zealand in drums and then refined. Citric acid is the only chemical employed in the refining process. The oil is certified as European pharmaceutical grade and can be consumed raw or cooked.
According to Dr Mary Enig: "Coconut oil is a functional food, which is defined as a food that provides a health benefit over and beyond the basic nutrients". According to Dr Victoria Flight: "People should eat what feeds them. There is a great deal of excellent research showing coconut oil is a healthy food".
Her belief in the oil's benefits are such I wonder she doesn't recommend a spoonful of it as a daily dose. Someone at Blue Coconut does. A promotional leaflet includes the advice that "the maximum recommended adult dose per day is three tablespoons as part of a balanced diet" and "it is advisable to build up to this dose over a few days".
Thank you but no thank you. I am however interested in its cooking properties. I am informed that coconut oil is so robust it has a shelf life of two years and that it still tastes great and has no unhealthy oxidised fats in this time, even when left in the pantry. Although it liquefies at 25 degrees Celsius, its chemical qualities do not change and it can be returned to its solid state by refrigerating.
I can't speak for the two years timeframe, but after five weeks of cooking with coconut oil, I can't argue with claims that it gives a crispness to roasted or fried food, does not leave a greasy mouthfeel, has no taste or aroma of coconut and a little goes a long way. Initially, I kept it in the refrigerator, but for most of the time it has been at room temperature. It was a real success in a duck confit refrigerated for about 10 days before re-heating the leg portions to golden crispiness.
So, yes to cooking with coconut oil. I leave its health benefits to those who know what they are talking about.