I saw tubs of coconut oil going really cheap the other day. I'm pretty sure it is refined, but not hydrogenated. As it's cheaper than the homemade ghee I've been using, I thought I would buy some.
I have two questions though:
From what I can gather, some Paleos prefer to avoid butter due to the dairy association. In my opinion, this is somewhat misguided given that the problem with dairy is the lactose (and possibly casein protein). Butter, by definition, is milk fat with all but trace amounts of lactose and protein removed. I imagine that clarified butter has even less lactose and protein since it's made by separating out the butter fat from the remaining milk solids.
For me, I use coconut oil as a convenience and for variety. Whenever I try to saute with unclarified butter, I usually end up burning it and I don't like the flavor that results. I've never gotten around to clarifying a large batch of butter to keep around or I'd probably use that instead. Also, to my tastes, coconut oil has less of a flavor than butter. I like the flavor of butter but it's nice to some times let the natural flavor of the food being cooked stand out and I find that coconut oil is better for this.
Here are links to the nutrition data for unsalted butter versus coconut oil. Nothing stands out to me in this data to favor one over the other but this data is a little incomplete and I imagine varies drastically based on specific preparations (for example, what's the omega 6:3 profile for butter from grass fed cattle?).
The paleolithic landscape was a lot different from the modern landscape but I have a hard time imagining that my paleolithic ancestors were chomping on any coconuts given the locations where modern coconuts are indigenous. With both butter and coconut oil, you're talking about foods that weren't available to my ancestors until neolithic times and in both cases the fat is obtained by separating out the sugar content. It's hard for me to see a compelling argument for one versus the other but I'm open-minded on the issue!
I think we can risk over-simplifying things by giving the impression that they are nutritionally the same. Their fatty acid profile is very different even if they are both highly saturated. Coconut oil has lots of MCTs, butter is a high source of butyrate, etc. Favoring one over the other would depend on an individual's requirements.
Even if butter wasn't available in paleo times the question still arises as to how similar it is to other animal fats. Then the next question would be: did non-paleo healthy cultures eat large amounts of either fat, and the answer from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (and elsewhere) appears to be yes.
Refined: clarified butter, or ghee, would be refined also. You can't hydrogenate a saturated fat. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat. Trans fats took off in part because everyone was scared of saturated. For coconut oil, it seems people are looking for ones made with the least amount of heat so that non of the oil or nutrients are denatured. This seems like a generally good approach to processed food, but I have no idea how important it really is.
I use both virgin coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter fat) for cooking. Both have fantastic nutritional benefits, so I like to mix it up as much as I can.
Coconut oil is available as virgin or refined. I use the unrefined virgin oil. It retains the natural nutrients and taste fantastic, even right off of the spoon. One of the benefits of refined coconut oil is that it has a slightly higher smoke point since many of the 'impurities' (if that's what they wanna call it) have been removed. I find that interesting, because all the brands of virgin coconut oil I have used taste perfectly pure and melt to a crystal clear water appearance. You would think that cooking in coconut oil would taint the food too much with flavor. Surprisingly, it doesn't. Eggs taste amazing in virgin coconut oil. So do vegetables and meats. To answer the question directly though, refined is not bad for you. But unrefined has many additional benefits that you wouldn’t want to miss out on.
Butter is ok to cook in, but as mentioned in other comments already, the smoke point is lower because of the milk solids. For low to med heat, butter is fine, but you can't cook with it for long periods of time on high heat, or it will eventually burn. This is where ghee comes into play. What a Godsend! Homemade ghee is extremely easy to make, and the cost is cheaper than a quality virgin coconut oil. It is literally just the cost of butter. Personally, I'll go buy 2 pounds of grass fed pasture butter for $10 specifically to make ghee. All you do is melt it in a sauce pan over low-med heat. It takes about 15 minutes before the milk solids completely separate and rise to the top. Scoop off the foamy solids with a spoon and discard it. Do this until all you have is the oil in the pan with some solids at the bottom. It will be bubbling. Let it simmer on low until the bubbling subsides a bit. Turn off the heat and let cool. Pour through a strainer or cheesecloth into a jar and voila! Homemade grass fed ghee! What are the benefits? A very high cooking temp smoke point. You can literally fry things in ghee and take comfort in the fact that the oil is nutritious butter fat and a highly stable saturated fat. The ghee flavor is much more subtle than butter, but still very delicious. Also, ghee doesn’t splatter as much as other oils. It doesn’t make a big mess on your stove or in your oven.
I switch back and forth between coconut oil and ghee, and use only these oils exclusively to cook with.
You really do want to choose virgin coconut oil over refined coconut oil - there are number of scientific studies documenting substantial compromise of the healthful qualities that virgin coconut oil has to offer when it is refined. BTW - refined is NOT the same as hydrogenation - hydrogenation is the process of forcing a polyunsaturated fatty acid molecule into becoming a saturated fatty acid molecule, a.k.a. a fake, synthetic saturated fat that the body is incapable of breaking down or using nutritionally (unlike organic, natural sources of saturated fats). Since coconut oil has very little polyunsaturated fat content (its like less that 2% of the fatty acid profile), it is not commonly hydrogenated - oils high in polyunsaturates like soybean, safflower, canola oil are commonly hydrogenated and should be eliminated from the food supply. I love virgin coconut oil - it was instrumental in helping me survive a restricted diet resulting from a bunch of digestive disorders. It regulated my whacked out blood sugar and was supportive in the healing process. FYI - There is one butter substitute on the market that features virgin coconut oil as the first ingredient - “Melt” is the only butter substitute I eat – it’s really rich and creamy, organic with a great oil blend, and doesn’t have artificial colors, weird chemicals, or garbage oils. It’s the real deal for great taste and optimal nutrition in dietary fat. You can check them out at www.meltbutteryspread.com.
References to virgin over refined coconut oil, Cygnia?
And the ingredients in Melt include, and I quote directly from their website: "...Organic canola oil, Organic Hi-Oleic sunflower oil..." With those ingredients, I will guarantee you that even refined coconut oil is a hell of a lot better for you than Melt.
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