As soon as a food is dubbed a “superfood,” everyone thinks: X food is one of the healthiest foods out there! I should buy a bunch of X! I should eat X all day, every day!
While the more-superfoods-equals-a-healthier-me mindset is perfectly OK for some foods, like blueberries and kale (since adding more produce to your diet is almost always a good idea), with others, like coconut oil, it’s wise to do a little more research before you start adding it to every single meal.
Coconut oil’s health halo has been the talk of the town, featured in many celebrity diets and skin-care routines. Scientists, however, are a little more skeptical of these buzzworthy coconut oil claims.
What many people may not realize is that coconut oil has a whopping 11 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. To put that in perspective, that’s about 80% saturated fat—a percentage that’s more than that in butter, beef fat, or lard.
Eating too much saturated fat can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood. This type of cholesterol contributes to fatty buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
But before you sprint to the kitchen and toss out your jar of coconut oil in a fit of betrayal, it’s important to know that not all fats are created equal—and that goes for saturated fat too. (Check out this list of healthy fats that you can actually feel good about eating.)
About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is a kind called lauric acid, which is actually a healthier type of saturated fat than others. Studies have shown that most of the lauric acid you eat is transported directly to the liver, where it is directly converted to energy rather than being stored as fat. Lauric acid has also been shown to have have antimicrobial properties, which means it has the power to kill certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi. *Apologizes to coconut oil for the harsh judgement*
Lauric acid may also slightly boost “good” HDL cholesterol, which stops “bad” LDL cholesterol in its tracks and takes it to the liver where it’s broken down and removed from the body. Find out more about what your cholesterol numbers mean.
Still, lauric acid makes up only half of the saturated fat in coconut oil, and the mini boost in HDL cholesterol is not likely to counteract the effects of the heart-unhealthy LDL cholesterol.
The takeaway: It’s OK to cook with coconut oil, but like any foods that are high in saturated fat—such as beef, cheese, or half-and-half—use it in moderation.
For what it’s worth, there are other oils that have way less saturated fat, like olive, avocado, canola, or corn oils. Next time you cook, give those heart-healthier oils a try instead.