In the past decade, coconut oil has been touted as the holy grail of healthy cooking. But last week the ingredient was brought down a notch by the American Heart Association's latest report. According to a recent review of existing data on saturated fat, the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory found that lower intake of dietary saturated fats — including coconut oil — is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
So, is coconut oil actually bad for you? What do other nutritionists say? And what can you do as the consumer? Let's break it all down.
The Argument Against Coconut Oil
The fundamental argument of the American Heart Association — that dietary saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, which is a cause of cardiovascular disease — isn't a new one. What is new is that coconut oil is highlighted (in addition to other culprits like butter, lard, and palm oil).
The review from the American Heart Association found no distinction between coconut oil and other high-saturated-fat items like beef fat, palm oil, and even butter. Even more startling is the concentration of saturated fat in coconut oil: a whopping 82 percent. That's higher than what is seen in pork lard (39 percent), beef fat (50 percent) and butter (63 percent).
"Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil," the American Heart Association said in its advisory.
3 Dietitians Weigh In
Dr. Maryam Dadkhah, a registered dietician and nutritionist, agrees. She says there's no research showing that coconut oil is better than saturated fats from animal sources: "It is still a saturated fat so it still contributes to your bad cholesterol and to your heart disease."
But Robin Foroutan, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says coconut oil can be cardio-protective, can reduce inflammation, and contribute to brain health.
"Yes, coconut oil is a saturated fat, and saturated fat can raise LDL in some but not all people," Foroutan says. "But there is no link between coconut oil and heart disease. Not to mention the concept of genetic individuality makes it really difficult to generalize advice against coconut oil. The fact remains that different types of saturated fatty acids have different effects on the body — you can't lump them all together and expect the conclusion to be accurate."
Finally, Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, tells Kitchn that coconut oil is neither a major concern in an otherwise healthy diet nor a significant health benefit in an unhealthy diet.
What Can You Do as the Consumer?
What does all this mean for the average person? Depends who you ask. Dadkhah's advice is simple: Just replace it with a vegetable oil that is scientifically proven to improve your health.
Foroutan, on the other hand, says there's no reason to omit it entirely from your diet. Instead, be sure to check the type of coconut oil you're using.
"If you're going to use coconut oil, be sure to buy raw, cold-pressed, unfiltered coconut oil in glass to gain it's inherent health benefits," Foroutan said. "Refined coconut oil may have different effects on the body, and the benefits observed in research was generally seen with raw, cold-processed coconut oil."
Dadkhah and Foroutan do agree on one thing: Don't overheat coconut oil. The ingredient is only stable up to 350°F, so it is essential not to surpass the smoking point.
As for how much you should be consuming, moderating is key. St. Pierre, who specifies that coconut oil is not a "superfood," recommends limiting intake to one to two tablespoons a day. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to no more than five to six percent of your total daily calories.
What are your thoughts on coconut oil? Do you cook with it?