Remember the days walking down the supermarket aisle to purchase cooking oil when you basically had just a few choices — like olive oil, corn oil or canola oil?
Nowadays the selection appears endless, making it rather challenging to choose — especially since some oils are associated with health claims almost too good to be true. Coconut is one oil that’s surrounded by health claims. And because of this, it’s also surrounded by a wealth of controversy. Let’s take a closer look.
[READ: Surprisingly High-Fat Foods.]
One tablespoon of coconut oil is around 120 calories — similar to other oils. However, it’s predominately made up of saturated fats, 80 to 90% to be exact. Saturated fat has been found to increase low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels (aka “the bad cholesterol”) and, according to the American Heart Association, puts you at a greater risk for heart disease.
However, the structure of the saturated fat in coconut oil differs from those found in animal products, as it consists of medium-chain triglycerides (aka MCT), versus the long-chain triglycerides found in butter, bacon and other animal-based fat. The importance of this is that MCT oils, specifically lauric acid found in coconut oil, has been associated with an increase in HDL, or high-density lipoprotein (aka “the good cholesterol”).
It’s important to note, though, that not all varieties of coconut oil are created equal, and that those called virgin or unrefined will typically have more MCTs and lauric acid than those that have been overly processed.
1. Coconut oil is good for your heart.
Here’s where one of the biggest controversies plays out. Even though there is some research to support that MCTs may increase HDL cholesterol levels, other research found an increase in LDL cholesterol levels as well.
One scientific review, published in 2018, stated “that even though coconut oil has a relatively high MCT concentration, it should still be considered a saturated fat, and its consumption should not exceed the USDA’s daily recommendation (less than 10% of total calorie intake).” That would be about 1.5 tablespoons of coconut oil.
Another earlier review paper from 2016 concluded that virgin coconut oil showed promise in lowering cardiovascular risk. However, most of the studies included in this review were conducted on animals, not humans.
2. Coconut oil plays a role in cancer treatment.
One study, consisting of 60 female participants with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy for six cycles, found that consumption of virgin coconut oil helped improve their quality of life during treatment. And another study, which looked specifically at tumor growth, found that lauric acid (found in coconut oil) had the potential to hamper tumor growth in regards to colon cancer cells, but coincidentally not breast cancer cells.
3. Coconut oil may decrease the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
This has been an area of research with promising results. One small study of 44 patients with Alzheimer’s found that those individuals who received 20 ml (1.3 tablespoons) of coconut oil twice a day for 21 days showed cognitive improvement compared to those who didn’t. Another pilot study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed that those patients following a Mediterranean diet including coconut oil also improved cognitively.
4. Coconut oil may aid in satiety and weight loss.
This is where it gets a little tricky. One study compared consumption of coconut oil, a 100% MCT oil and a vegetable oil to participant’s food intakes throughout the day. Those who consumed the MCT oil were found to have an overall lower intake, concluding that coconut oil does not have the same effects as MCT oils. Similar to this research, a review paper concluded that studies that have showed satiating benefits used MCT oils exclusively, and in specific regards to coconut oil, more long-term clinical trials need to be conducted.
How to Store It
Most virgin or unrefined coconut oils come in solid form and can be safely stored at room temperature in the pantry with a shelf life of two years. If you prefer, you can store in the refrigerator, but keep in mind that it will become firmer in texture. Alternatively, if it is placed in a room that’s warmer than 76 degrees, it will start turning to liquid, but it’s still safe to consume.
How to Cook With Coconut Oil
Coconut oil remains stable under heat and is best used over a medium heat for sauteing and stir-frying, yet not recommended for deep-frying. Virgin coconut oil has a coconut-like taste, whereas refined varieties are neutral in flavor. Either can be enjoyed similarly to other cooking oils in baking, salad dressings, sauces and marinades.
The verdict is still out. If you’re taking coconut oil solely for the health benefits, you might be disappointed and may even be putting yourself at risk for elevating your LDL levels. However, if you want to include it as one of many cooking oils you enjoy in moderation, go for it.
More from U.S. News