Recently, many “experts” are saying that coconut oil may boost your weight-loss efforts, improve your heart health, and fend of chronic diseases from Type 2 diabetes to Alzheimer’s.
But before you ditch all other oils, let’s take a look at what the research says.
What Is Coconut Oil?
To create coconut oil, food manufacturers remove the “meat,” or white stuff, from a matured coconut and use machines to press the liquid from the meat, says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That liquid, also known as coconut oil, is largely composed of saturated fat. In fact, 84 percent of its kilojoules come from saturated fat.
For comparison’s sake, 14 percent and 63 percent of olive oil’s and butter’s kilojoules, respectively, come from saturated fat.
But all of that saturated fat might not be a bad thing. After all, mounting research suggests that saturated fat is neither harmful for your weight-loss efforts or heart health, says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia.
And the majority of coconut oil’s saturated fat is composed of medium-chained triglycerides (MCTs). Compared to long-chain triglycerides (LCT), which are found in other vegetable oils, MCTs are easily digested in the body, and may come with some serious health benefits, he says.
For instance, in one McGill University study of overweight men, those who ate a diet rich in MCTs lost more body fat than those who ate LCTs from olive oil. Though more research is needed to determine if coconut oil, specifically, can aid weight loss.
And in a 2013 European Journal of Nutrition study, consuming MCTs was found to temporarily, but substantially, boost people’s metabolic rates.
However, some of the loftier claims that MCTs fight Alzheimer’s disease or improve heart health may be premature if not overblown, says Wesley Delbridge, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But, all superfood health claims aside, the fact that coconut oil contains primarily saturated fat gives it a definite advantage in the cooking department: It holds up at relatively high temperatures, White says.
All oils and fats have a “smoke point,” a temperature at which they oxidize, or essentially burn. Once oils hit that point and begin to let of blue-ish smoke, it’s a sign that any antioxidants in the oil are getting zapped and potentially cancer-causing free radicals quickly form.
While every oil’s exact smoke point varies based on means of production and brand, coconut oil tends to have a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil, butter, and some unrefined oils from nuts and seeds like safflower, walnut, and flaxseed oil, according to White.
But, canola oil (especially refined and high oleic acid), refined safflower oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, and refined peanut oil have a higher smoke point than coconut oil, which is why they are often used for frying, he says.
How to Cook With Coconut Oil
While the studies don’t suggest eating coconut oil by the spoonful or stirring it into your coffee—one tablespoon still contains about the same number of kilojoules as other cooking fats—the oil can be a healthy tool in kitchen. Especially if you’re stir-frying, sautéing, or preparing foods that could use a dose of tropical flavour.
While coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil, can have a slight coconut flavour, most people describe the taste as sweet or nutty. That makes it ideal for whipping up foods like stir-fry, seafood, and desserts.
But omelettes and spaghetti? You might want to stick with grapeseed or olive oil.
And to the oxidation point: As long as you’re not cooking your food on high heat for a long period of time, you’re fine, says Jaime Mass, R.D., a dietician based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Wisps of smoke are fine. Plumes, as you may have guessed, aren’t.
The bottom line: The greater the variety of non-hydrogenated fats you incorporate into your diet, the better, according to the American Heart Association. That includes coconut oil as part of the variety—not as the sole source.