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Everyone has heard of the Mediterranean Diet, right? People living in countries such as Italy and Greece use olive oil for all their cooking and baking needs and tend to be in better health than us Americans. Well have you ever heard of the South Pacific Diet? No, not the South Beach diet, the South Pacific diet. Ok, so I just made that term up and here’s why. Just like in the Mediterranean, people of the South Pacific, think Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, have for generations used a naturally occurring oil for all of their cooking and baking needs. And they too, tend to be in better health than Americans. Of course we’re talking about coconut oil cooking! So let’s look at these two oils, olive and coconut oil, and see how they match up.
Olive oil has two standards, virgin and extra virgin. Both varieties come from crushing and pressing fresh olives. The result, as everyone is familiar with, is a light to medium golden yellow color and fresh aroma. The taste profile of olive oil is mild and smooth making it perfect for salads and pasta dishes. Health wise, olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fats, such as oleic acid, and doesn’t contain trans fat or cholesterol.
Coconut oil is new to many people but it is much like olive oil. Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the meat on the insides of the coconut through a cold-expeller press. The coconut oil is a stark, bright white color and has a fresh coconut smell. The taste profile of coconut oil is light and sweet, with subtle hints of actual coconut. The flavor is wonderfully versatile in both savory and sweet dishes. What surprises most people is that coconut oil can change between a liquid and solid state very easily. Whenever the temperature is above 76 degrees Fahrenheit, coconut oil will be liquid. Below 76, coconut oil is a solid. Coconut oil differs from olive oil, in that most of the fats in coconut oil are saturated fats, such as lauric acid, but coconut oil benefits from not having trans fat or cholesterol.
The question must be answered, which is healthier for me: olive oil or coconut oil cooking? Well the answer isn’t clear cut. Both coconut oil and olive oil contain 120 calories per tablespoon. All of the calories in both oils come from fats. Again, neither of the oils contain trans fat or cholesterol. The one glaring difference is the saturated vs unsaturated fat contents. Saturated fat was once considered bad for you but research is now being conducted to suggest that plant-based saturated fats, like coconut oil, may not have the same negative effects of animal based saturated fats, like butter. Another smaller known difference between coconut oil and olive oil is the smoke point. Unrefined olive oil has a lower smoke point than unrefined coconut oil and thus isn’t the ideal oil for higher temperatures. Oils can break down beyond their smoke points which starts to change the molecular structure and integrity of the oil.
Overall, coconut and olive oil are very similar yet still very different. Don’t give up your olive oil but don’t ignore coconut oil either. Looking at the people who have been using coconut oil for generations can lead us to believe that there may be some link between eating natural unrefined oils and your health, ie the South Pacific and Mediterranean diets. While olive oil is good for cold dishes, like salads, coconut oil is great for stir fry and also for baking. How will you use coconut oil recipes in your kitchen?