Coconut oil is a common source of fat in the diets of many traditional cultures where the coconut palm grows. It's used in the United States and other industrialized nations as a cooking oil that is valued for its high smoke point, which makes it one of the best oils for frying and other high temperature cooking. It remains stable up to 350 degrees F. It is also used as a healthful alternative to butter in baked goods. It has become increasingly popular for cosmetic purposes, often added as an ingredient in commercial products, but sometimes applied directly to the hair, skin and lips. Coconut oil is also used as a massage oil and added to baths to soften the skin.
The oil comes from the meat of coconuts from the Cocos nucifera palm. It is either expelled directly from the dried meat of the kernel or else separated from the milk in a more traditional process of allowing the milk to settle and skimming the oil off after it rises to the top.
There was a coconut oil scare in the U.S. in the mid-20th century due to claims that its high saturated fat content makes it a dangerous, artery-clogging fat, but it is now known that it is the hydrogenation of oils -- and the trans fatty acids they produce -- that is linked to disease. Virgin coconut oil does not contain trans fatty acids, but the coconut oil used in commercial products is often hydrogenated. Hydrogenated coconut oil contains fewer trans fatty acids than common hydrogenated oils like corn and canola due to its lower levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Oil labeled virgin coconut oil is minimally processed without high heat or chemicals. It retains a mild coconut flavor and aroma which is complementary to many rice and vegetable dishes and baked goods. Refined coconut oil is more processed and has no flavor or aroma. It is usually preferred for use in commercial foods, and is the form found in most cosmetics using coconut oil. Refined coconut oil is also sold for home cooking for those who prefer an oil without a coconut flavor.
Coconut oil is famous for its high content of lauric acid, a rare medium chain triglyceride (MCT) that is abundant in mother's milk. About half the oil in coconut oil is comprised of lauric acid. For this reason it's a common addition to infant formulas. Many of the health claims surrounding coconut oil have to do with the antimicrobial and antiviral activities of lauric acid. Most of these claims have not been rigorously tested, but coconut and its oil are frequently recommended as part of health-supporting regimens. At least one treatment plan for Crohn's disease includes supplementation with coconut macaroons!