Coconut oil: Friend or foe?

There’s a strong perception that oily foods are ‘bad’ for you. Oil equals fat, and fat in your food means fat on your body, right? Not quite. There are different kinds of fats that your body processes differently, with some like omega-3 fatty acid being absolutely essential for normal body functioning.

It can be confusing trying to remember which fats are good fats and which fats are found in what foods. It doesn’t help that the marketing of certain products can be confusing, with indecipherable labels, conflicting nutritional information, and supposedly ‘fat free’ claims on products which are simply loaded with sugar (not exactly a healthy switch). One of the latest health food fads is coconut oil. Is coconut oil one of these special healthy fats? Let’s find out.

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is an extract from coconut flesh. It’s solid at room temperature, has a very high smoking point (temperature to which an oil can be heated), and has many uses.

Where does coconut oil come from?

The majority of the world’s coconuts are grown in Indonesia, the Philippines and India. In addition, the economies of a number of Pacific island nations are reliant on the coconut trade, such as Samoa and Kiribati. Farmers can be vulnerable to exploitation, so it’s a good idea to do your research if you want to make sure you’re choosing the most ethical coconut oil product.

What is coconut oil used for?

Coconut oil has a wide range of cooking applications. It’s a key ingredient in many South Asian and mainland Southeast Asian recipes. The gentle, sweet ‘coconutty’ flavour matches well with almost any kind of flavour, from savoury to sweet.

As coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it can be used instead of butter or shortening in things like pastries and pies. It’s very popular in vegan cooking as a replacement for butter or shortening, and as a source of richer flavour. Coconut oil is often used to produce alternatives to cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products.

You may actually have been using coconut oil already without even knowing it. Remember classic childhood treats like chocolate crackles? In Australia, hydrogenated coconut oil is sold under the brand name Copha. Yep, coconut oil is why those crackles are just so yum!

The uses of coconut oil extend beyond food. It’s touted as a natural moisturising treatment for skin and hair. It even has industrial uses, but you’re probably not reading this article because you want to put coconut oil in your car.

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Can oils be good for you?

‘Oil’ is a term that generally refers to fats that are liquid at room temperature (i.e. are either a single unsaturated fat or a blend with a high proportion of unsaturated fats), although there are exceptions such as coconut oil. In simple terms, oils are fats.

There are three types of fats – unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are good fats, while saturated and trans fats aren’t such good fats. Trans fats have no health benefits and are 100% bad for you, increasing risk of heart disease even when consumed in small amounts. Saturated fats are more in-between – they increase levels of both types of cholesterol in the blood. The bad type of cholesterol, LDL, leads to fatty build-up in the cardiovascular system.

Healthy, unsaturated fats (found in foods such as olive oil, canola oil, avocados and nuts) can lower risk of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats aren’t just healthy, they’re essential. That means your body needs them but can’t make them on its own. Polyunsaturated fats (found in foods such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, and sunflower oil) are essential for key body functions like building cell membranes, covering nerves, blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation.

Is coconut oil good for you?

While enjoying popularity as a ‘healthier oil’, coconut oil doesn’t really stack up against other plant-based oils. According to Choice, all coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 490kJ, 13.6g fat (11.8g of which is saturated fat), no protein, no carbohydrates, and only negligible amounts of a few nutrients.

It’s particularly a problem that coconut oil contains so much saturated fat. It weighs in at a whopping 90% saturated fat, compared to butter’s 64% and lard’s 40%. While there hasn’t been much research on the health impacts of coconut oil specifically, saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol (the bad type). Coconut oil also raises HDL cholesterol (the good type). However, it doesn’t do this to the extent that unsaturated fats do, and it’s unclear whether the HDL benefits are worth the LDL harms.

How much does coconut oil cost?

Quite a lot. It’s one of the more expensive oils, usually at least $2.00 per 100mL. However, as it becomes more popular, economies of scale have allowed prices to drop. It might become cheaper over time.

Should I coco?

Coconut oil’s health benefits are yet to be proven. It’s certainly a high-kilojoule choice with at best little benefit compared to other oils. It’s also very expensive, so regular consumption will take a big bite out of your wallet.

That being said, it’s tasty and versatile, particularly if you’re avoiding butter and animal-fat shortening. While Miranda Kerr apparently eats it by the spoonful every day, she’s probably not eating much butter, bacon, steak or fast food. Coconut oil is a delicious treat, but don’t treat it like a health food.

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