I recently read an article that discussed some of the health ramifications of reducing saturated fat intake. The real message I took from the article is that we cannot demonize an entire nutrient, such as fat, saturated fat, or carbohydrates. Our bodies need these nutrients in an appropriate balance. Different food sources of these nutrients can also have surprisingly different health risks/benefits.
A great example of this is coconut oil. Despite the name “oil”, coconut oil is actually a solid at room temperature. This makes it a common substitute in vegetarian and vegan baking for butter. With a higher smoke point than many vegetable oils, coconut oil can also be used for frying.
When I was in school, all of my textbooks used coconut oil as the example of a vegetable oil that is not good for you. Coconut oil is 91% saturated fat, compared to olive oil which is 14%. Even compared to butter, coconut oil seems bad: 86 g of saturated fat in 100 g of coconut oil versus 51 g of saturated fat in the same amount of butter.
However, not all saturated fats are created equal. The saturated fats in coconut oil are comprised of different fatty acids than those of butter, lard, and other solid fats. These fats are absorbed differently in our body and therefore can act differently. They can increase both HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). Research is inconclusive at this time on whether the overall impact is positive or negative.
So, should you start using coconut oil in all of your baking and cooking? Not necessarily. Coconut oil should not be considered a health food. If you are replacing other solid fats with coconut oil, it should be fine. I definitely would not recommend replacing healthier oils like olive oil or canola oil with coconut oil. And remember that fat in any form should be consumed in moderation.
If you are considering switching to coconut oil, be aware of a few things. First, coconut oil may give a slightly sweet or coconut-y taste to your final product. That can be great if it is for a dessert, but not so great if it is for a savory dish. Second, it has a lower melting point than butter, so you may want to chill doughs using coconut oil. When I made cookies with coconut oil, they were much flatter. Lastly, coconut oil also tends to be a little more expensive than butter.
Bottom line: Using coconut oil over butter is mostly a matter of personal preference. But it should not be over-consumed or replace healthier, unsaturated fats.
Have any nutrition questions? Need help with meal planning or a special dietary need? Send your questions to me at kimberlykmarsh(at)gmail(dot)com, and I will answer them in upcoming posts!