Health claims and public opinion about coconut oil swing wildly back and forth. Is this faddish fat a healthy superfood? Or is it a toxic poison? We’ve waded through the hype to find out.
Is there any other ingredient with quite as much star power as coconut oil? (Well, maybe kale…)
For a while it seemed like coconut oil could do it all. It tasted rich and indulgent, had a long shelf life, it was vegetarian and “natural,” and it didn’t have the unhealthy reputation of butter or trans fat.
During the golden era of coconut oil, families were baking with the stuff, putting it in their coffee, and even using it as a moisturizer on their kids’ skin.
But then the tides of public opinion started to turn. Nutritionists began speaking out about this oil–a saturated fat–as being no different from other unhealthy saturated fats.
In the summer of 2018, Harvard professor Karin Michels gave a lecture in which she called it “pure poison,” adding that it’s “one of the worst foods you can eat.”
So what’s the real story behind coconut oil? Does this tropical fat belong in your pantry and in the foods you serve to your kids? Let’s dig in to our most current understanding about this popular oil and nutrition.
What Kind of Fat is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a saturated fat made from pressing raw or cooked coconut flesh.
Compared to butter and other saturated fats from animal sources, coconut oil’s fatty acids are arranged in shorter chains, called “medium chain fatty acids.”
Usually you’ll find two main types on the shelf: virgin or cold-pressed oil, and refined oil. Virgin oil is pressed from raw coconuts, has a strong coconutty flavor, and contains high levels of polyphenols that may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Refined coconut oil is bleached and heat-treated, which creates a neutral flavor that some people prefer for cooking. But the heavy processing of refined oil damages the structure of the fatty acids and antioxidants in the oil, creating a strong cholesterol-raising effect. If avoiding unhealthy oils are important to you, you should bypass refined coconut oil.
But Saturated Fat is Bad for Us. Should We Avoid Coconut Oil Entirely?
The short answer is… maybe not. (So maybe there isn’t a clear, short answer!)
It’s true that many nutrition professionals and organizations, including the FDA, recommend limiting saturated fat intake. Large studies have linked saturated fat to health problems like high cholesterol and heart disease.
In the last few years however, the saturated fat picture has grown less clear. A few studies have found that full-fat dairy products (which are rich in saturated fat) correlate with surprising health outcomes like obesity prevention in adults and a lower body mass index in children, compared to populations who drink low-fat or fat-free dairy.
We also know that populations who consume a lot of coconut oil (as in the Phillipines and the South Pacific) have low rates of heart disease compared to Americans.
So the evidence is mixed right now, but our stance is this: fat, as a macronutrient, remains part of a healthy diet for kids and adults. And balancing the types of fat you eat and serve your family is a smart strategy. In this approach, there’s room for virgin coconut oil.
The Bottom Line
The most important steps you can take to set the stage for your kids’ lifelong health is to serve a variety of whole foods daily, including plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Coconut oil is just one piece of the dietary puzzle, and it’s neither a poison, nor a superfood. It makes sense to vary your oils just as you would any other part of your kids’ diet.
So the bottom line is: keep focusing on the big picture, and enjoy coconut oil in moderation.
Recipes Using Virgin Coconut Oil
Toasted Coconut Pumpkin Bread
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie