Is Coconut Oil Good For You?
Many praise this high-fat oil as a healthy choice, but is coconut oil really a healthy option for cooking?
What Is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is made from extracting the fat from the inner kernel or "meat" of the coconut. It's then sold as unrefined coconut oil, which has a coconuty flavor, or further processed into refined coconut oil which is odorless and has a high smoke point that's good for frying. For more info on the differences between the two, check out our story Refined Versus Unrefined Coconut Oil: What's the Difference?.
Unlike most plant-based oils, this fat is predominantly saturated, making it solid at room temperature.
Since it can "behave" like butter (also solid at room temperature) it's popular as a vegan replacement for butter in recipes — and in foods that might otherwise have had trans fats. With its high smoke, it is ideal for high-heat cooking methods like frying.
Saturated Fat Basics
According to the American Heart Association, American Medical Association and USDA, we should limit our saturated fat to 7 to 10% of our daily calorie intake — this includes eating tropical oils such as coconut, which contains 92% saturated fat (one of the highest sources of saturated fats around). The American Dietetics Association promotes replacing most saturated and trans fats (e.g. margarine) with unsaturated fats such as olive, walnut and peanut oils.
Benefits of Coconut Oil: Yes or No?
Like all oils, coconut oil contains about 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon — a concentrated dose of calories that calls for moderation no matter what.
Most old-school nutrition experts slam coconut oil because of its sat-fat content. Pro-coconut oil advocates, meanwhile, argue that the oil is easily absorbed because it’s a medium-chained triglyceride (I won't go on about the science). However, there’s strong evidence that suggests the various fatty acids found in coconut oil, including lauric, palmitic and myristic acid (all medium-chained triglycerides), raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and total cholesterol. Moreover, tropical regions use coconut oil as a staple, but they don't have a higher heart disease rates when compared to areas that primarily use olive oil. Thing is, these tropical regions also don’t eat as many packaged processed and fatty fried foods as Americans
Studies released over the past 25 years show an overall pattern that coconut oil increases the risk for heart disease. Despite a few studies to the contrary, it is well substantiated by decades of scientific research that saturated fats can have a negative impact on heart health by increasing the "bad" LDL cholesterol levels.
How Much Coconut Oil Should You Eat?
If you have heart disease or it runs in the family, you shouldn't use coconut oil as your cooking oil because it's already in many packaged and restaurant foods. Stick to unsaturated oils such as olive, canola, peanut or walnut. But even use those sparingly (remember: all oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon).
For everyone else, it's okay to use coconut oil sparingly. Think about replacing other highly saturated fat foods such as butter and whole milk with extra virgin coconut oil, and be mindful to not go over 10% of your total calories. Avoid refined and hydrogenated versions, which have trans fats.