Natural Foods Education  Jennette Turner

Healthy Food and Nutrition Publications


Increasing Health and Immunity with Tropical Oils

By Jennette Turner

You may have noticed some new oils available at the Wedge recently: coconut and palm. These products might arouse suspicions in some minds, but don’t let a history of bad publicity fool you. The fact is that tropical oils are good for you and provide unique benefits not found in other oils. Plus, they’re tasty!

For a long time, researchers theorized that saturated fat intake in the U.S. was related to an increase in heart disease. While studies showed that artificially saturated fats (hydrogenated oils, margarines, vegetable shortenings) do, in fact, increase the risk for heart disease, (and for cancer and diabetes, too), naturally saturated fats (tropical oils and animal fats), have not been found to be harmful. And the countries with the highest palm and coconut oil intakes (Costa Rica and Malaysia) have the lowest rates of heart disease.

Despite these facts, the American Soybean Association (ASA) has campaigned relentlessly to promote the belief that all saturated fats cause disease, and that polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, are healthier – even those that have been hydrogenated.

In the mid 80’s, a consumer activist group called “Center for Science in the Public Interest”, sponsored in part by the ASA, launched a PR attack against the naturally saturated tropical oils, coconut and palm, claiming they were “artery clogging fats” that caused disease. (Let’s note that science is not immune to commercial interests.) A majority of people get health information from advertising, and soon everyone “knew” that tropical oils were bad for you.

Because any product containing coconut and palm oils was attacked for being unhealthy, the food industry switched to soybean oil. Movie theaters started making popcorn in soy oil. Restaurants, including the fast food chains, made the switch too. Unfortunately, the oil that replaced our healthy tropical oils was partially hydrogenated, which, as noted, contributes to the risks of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Misinformation about tropical oils led to an increase in the consumption of disease-causing hydrogenated fats, and it also kept people away from the health promoting benefits of coconut oil.

Most of the fats and oils we consume are made up of primarily long-chain fatty acids, though butter and other animal fats also have small amounts of short and medium-chain fats. Two-thirds of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids. These fats are immediately converted to energy by the body – they burn fast and don’t store well, which is why they’re sold as energy supplements for athletes. Medium-chain fatty acids can be metabolised without bile or pancreatic enzymes, too, which is why they’re used in IV fluids to feed people in hospitals, and helpful to those with compromised fat digestion. As a bonus, medium-chain fatty acids help speed up your metabolism, which is why they are recommended on some weight loss diets.

Coconut oil is also the best source of lauric acid, a particular medium-chain fatty acid. The only other foods that contain significant quantities are palm oils and mother’s milk. Lauric acid has anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, and anti-carcinogenic properties. This acid protects the baby’s undeveloped immune system, and is added to infant formulas for this reason. If a breastfeeding mother consumes coconut oil, the amount of lauric acid in her milk increases, benefiting her baby’s immunity.

In lab tests, lauric acid has inactivated the measles virus, herpes simplex virus, hepatitis C, pneumonia, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It’s also inactivated heliobacter pylori bacteria (the cause of ulcers), chlamydia, and the staph and strep bacterias. Lauric acid has even been proven to reduce the HIV load in people with AIDS. A delicious way to fight infectious diseases!

Coconut oil is 80-90% saturated, so it’s very stable and great for cooking. You can use it for baking, just as you would butter – it’s a one-to-one substitution, and a great one for vegans. You can also use coconut oil for scrambling eggs or making stir-fry, either by itself or mixed with other oils such as olive oil or sesame oil. Try using it to make popcorn!

Palm oil is another nutritious naturally saturated fat. It contains anti-oxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin E, and, like coconut oil, palm oil is also a good source of medium-chain fatty acids. It’s great to cook with, too; it has a distinctive flavor that marries well with different spices.

Palm oil is extremely versatile, and is used in food production all over the world as cooking oil, bakery shortening, and confectionery fat. Palm oil is also used in hundreds of other products including soap, lipstick and moisturizer.

Palm oil is a very productive crop, and requires significantly less fertilizers and pesticides than other common oilseed crops such as soybean, rapeseed (canola), and corn. Palm oil is native to West Africa, but is now also cultivated in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. It has become a real bumper crop for many developing countries, where it provides needed income and employment.

Despite these benefits, the palm oil industry has been criticized by conservation groups because tropical rain forests are often cleared to make room for palm plantations. Thousands of plant and animal species are threatened with extinction as a result. For example, the island of Sumatra has lost over 4.5 million acres of lowland forest each year for the past fifty years. That forest is almost all gone now, and with it habitat for endangered tigers, elephants, and orangutans.

But there is reason for hope. Concerned consumers and businesses can influence the palm oil industry. For example, Switzerland’s largest retailer, Migros, worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)* to develop a set of environmental criteria to be met by their palm oil suppliers. And four of the largest banks in The Netherlands have agreed to restrict financing for palm oil plantations in Indonesia on environmental grounds.

Individuals can make a difference, too, by purchasing environmentally friendly products. The palm oil carried by the Wedge (made by Jungle Products) is sustainably harvested from wild native forests in West Africa. And though oils are not a Fair-Trade certifiable product, the Jungle Products company is committed to paying workers a living wage and dedicates 10% of their profits to scientific research and socio-economic development.

Now that the Wedge is carrying both palm and coconut oils, we have the opportunity to include these beneficial oils in our diets. And good health can be delicious!

Jennette will be teaching Delicious Tropical Oils for Health on Sept. ???. She can be reached here.

*You can learn more about the World Wide Fund for Nature, the world’s largest independent conservation organization, at

Coconut Oil Roasted Yams

Too hot to turn on the oven? Use your covered grill instead! Heat the grill to 400°, and make sure to use a baking dish that can be exposed to flame.

4 medium yams, peeled
4-5 T. coconut oil
½ - 1 tsp. salt
OPTION: ½ tsp. chili powder

1. Slice yams into ¼ inch rounds. Spread them on a baking sheet greased with coconut oil (it’s fine if they overlap). Sprinkle the oil over the yam slices. Using your hands, make sure each slice is coated with oil. Turn the slices over and make sure the other sides are coated as well.
2. Sprinkle the yams with salt and chili powder, IF using.
3. Bake at 400° for 40 minutes, stirring once during cooking, until yams are tender.

Makes 4 servings

Palm Oil Fried Spiced Chicken

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 4 pieces.
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 T. red palm oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, mix salt and spices. Lightly coat the chicken pieces with the mixture.
2. Warm the palm oil in a skillet. Add the onions and saute for 3-4 minutes.
3. Add the chicken and garlic to the cooking onions and cook for 3-5 minutes on each side, until lightly browned and thoroughly done.

Makes 4 servings

Jennette Turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launched Dinner with Jennette (, to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. She can be reached at / 612-374-6039

Enig, Mary: Know Your Fats, Bethesda Press ©2000

Erasmus, Udo: Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Alive Books ©1986, 1993

Fife, Bruce: The Coconut Oil Miracle, Avery Publishing ©1999, 2004

Watson, Ronald R. (ed.): Nutrients and Foods in AIDS, CRC Press ©1998

Ascherio, A. and W.C. Willett, “Health effects of trans fatty acids” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66, 1997

Geliebeter, A. “Overfeeding with medium-chain trigycerides diet results in diminished deposition of fat” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 37, 1983

Francois, C.A., Connor S. L., et al “Acute effects of dietary fatty acids on the fatty acids of human milk” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 67, 1998

World Wide Fund For Nature:

Center for Research on Lauric Oils:

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