If you’ve turned to coconut oil as your cooking oil of choice at some point in the past week, you’re definitely not alone. Used for centuries in various parts of Asia, this fragrant and flavorful oil has surged in popularity in the United States in recent years, and much of the reason people are so drawn to it is because they believe it’s healthier than other oils. But as it turns out, coconut oil may not be as healthy as you'd think.
We got in touch with a registered dietitian to help break down everything you need to know about coconut oil and help you understand why the "healthy" oil likely isn’t the nutritional superfood it’s often touted as. We’ll start with the most important question:
Is coconut oil good for you?
Coconut oil contains a large amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to health problems including heart disease, stroke, and high cholesterol.
“The higher amounts of saturated fat is the reason why health professionals aren’t recommending we overdo it on this one, says New York-based registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, who runs a nutrition practice called Tracy Nutrition. “Studies upon studies have shown that the long term effects of having a diet high in saturated fat can be detrimental for your health.”
Beckerman adds that diets high in saturated fats have been linked with higher levels of LDL (or “bad” cholesterol), which can increase someone’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Some researchers question the link between saturated fats and heart disease, but the American Heart Association and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans both recommend limiting consumption.
But you don't need to avoid coconut oil altogether. “Cooking with coconut oil can be okay when used in moderation,” Beckerman says. “If you are using coconut oil, please use it sparingly.”
This might mean using it once in a while rather than with every meal, and carefully measuring your serving use to avoid consuming in excess. For a bit of perspective: the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day, and one tablespoon of coconut oil contains around 14 grams of saturated fat. It’s easy to see how you might go overboard and consume too much without even realizing it.
You'll also want to remember that just because coconut oil contains the word “coconut” doesn’t mean that it’s healthy and should be consumed with abandon.
“The word coconut creates a healthy halo effect which has caused some of my clients to go overboard with it and subsequently unknowingly tack on extra weight,” Beckerman says.
How does coconut oil compare to other cooking oils?
As mentioned, one of the areas where coconut oil really stands apart from other cooking oils is saturated fat content. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of coconut oil contains around 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. While olive oil, soy oil, and canola oil all have a similar calorie count, coconut oil differs drastically because it contains 14 grams of saturated fat, whereas these other oils contain 14 grams of unsaturated fat, Beckerman explains.
“We know a high intake of saturated fat is linked to cardiovascular disease and elevated cholesterol, which is why it’s recommended to steer closer to the other types of oil,” Beckerman says.
Should coconut oil be used for cooking?
Unrefined (also known as virgin) coconut oil is a pretty tasty addition to many different foods including vegetable stir fry, eggs, smoothies, and baked granola, due to the oil’s noticeable coconut flavor.
Both refined and unrefined coconut oils have a high smoke point, making them a good choice when you’re cooking foods at high temperatures. Beckerman explains that virgin coconut oil, with a smoke point of 350 degrees, is the best type of coconut oil to use for sautéing and baking. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point of 400 degrees, which makes it a better choice for frying.
“Overall, the best option is to choose organic, unrefined, cold pressed, centrifuge extracted coconut oil,” Beckerman says. “And make sure it’s from a reputable brand that uses transparent and clear labeling—a product that is making obtrusive claims about their coconut oil is likely just smoke and mirrors.”
Up next: The 8 commandments of healthy eating.