Jane Says: What’s So Great About Coconut Oil?

Why has coconut oil gone from villain to hero in the culinary world? Our advice columnist investigates.

Because of its high levels of saturated fat, coconut oil is decidedly controversial. (Photo: Ewa Serwicka/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

A number of readers have wondered about coconut oil for cooking, and I’ve been curious, too. After years of bad press for its high saturated-fat content, it’s now being heralded (especially online at sites such as CoconutOil.com) as a miracle cure for a wide range of ailments, a weight-loss aid, longevity booster (go figure!), and a nondairy butter substitute for vegans longing for a delicious piecrust.

It may be all that and a bag of chips, but the evidence so far on whether coconut oil is beneficial or detrimental to overall health is sketchy and contradictory. It’s just as controversial, in its way, as canola oil. And, just for the record, any research that includes testimonials is not science. It’s marketing.

First things first: Coconut oil comes from the meat of nuts harvested from the coconut palm. It is not the same thing as palm oil. Marion Nestle explains in What To Eat that all fats are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, but the proportions vary; fats that have a large amount of saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and comes chiefly, but not always, from animal food products.

Examples include butter, lard, meat fat, solid shortening, and coconut oil. Saturated fat tends to raise the level of cholesterol in the blood.

For years, the party line of the medical establishment has been that saturated fat contributes to heart disease and therefore should be eaten sparingly. But coconut oil’s proponents—who include a number of scientists, nutritionists, and alternative-medicine practitioners—assert that different types of saturated fats behave differently in the body, and that lauric acid, the principal saturated fat in coconut oil, increases the levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) as well as LDL (“bad” cholesterol).

But does that even matter? As recently reported in The New York Times, the correlation between increased HDL levels and a decreased risk of heart disease isn’t borne out by the latest research. What everyone still agrees on, though, is that it’s a good idea to avoid the partially hydrogenated coconut oil (translation: those nasty trans fats) found in packaged foods.

What I’m really interested in is how coconut oil behaves in the kitchen. You can buy it in two forms: minimally processed “virgin” coconut oil, which has a deep, coconutty flavor, and refined coconut oil, which is flavorless. Like the testers at Cook’s Illustrated, I don’t want everything I cook to taste like coconut, but wow—the more intense stuff was fabulous in a South Indian shrimp and vegetable curry ladled over rice, and using it for oven-baked sweet potato fries convinced a near-phobic friend he had nothing to fear from orange vegetables.

Since I can sniff out any trace of rancidity at 50 paces (and have a highly developed gag reflex), what I appreciate most about coconut oil is its stability. It doesn’t develop an off flavor as quickly as many other oils do. That’s one health benefit that’s proven, by the way; rancidity, which happens when oils oxidize, causes carcinogenic compounds to form. (When that happens in an oil, whole grains, or even a box of crackers, cut your losses and toss out the product.)

The bottom line? I’m still not sure whether coconut oil is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it’s earned a place alongside the other oils in my pantry.

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