Q: Some of my friends are raving about the health benefits of coconut oil and coconut milk, and adding them into their diets. I always thought coconut contained a "bad" fat so how can it be good for me?
A: Coconut products are growing in popularity because of purported weight loss and health benefits including fighting heart disease, cancer, and immune disorders. Coconut oil is extracted from the coconut flesh (for information on coconut milk, see Not Got Milk?). Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat and therefore raises cholesterol levels similar to animal fats (butter, lard). However, it contains a unique type of medium chain saturated fat called lauric acid that research shows raises HDL or "good" cholesterol levels, which may lower overall heart disease risk. As a plant food, coconuts also contain disease-fighting phytochemicals or antioxidants. Some research suggests that coconut oil may boost metabolism. However, health researchers agree that studies on coconut products are small and too short in duration to prove a long-term benefit with weight loss or disease.
The American Heart Association and U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting all types of saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories. Coconut oil has as many calories as other fats with 117 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. Eating too many calories from any source can cause weight gain, which increases disease risk. Coconut oil may be a better choice than animal fats and trans fats, but is not as heart-healthy as liquid plant oils such as olive and canola oils that are rich in monounsaturated fats.
That said, coconut oil's structure is similar to butter so that in cooking and baking it does not break down in high heat and produces favorable results (e.g., flaky crusts, crispy cookies), so it may be an option for vegetarian recipes when used in moderation. Look for pure virgin coconut oil that has not been chemically processed or hydrogenated. It is shelf stable for several years if stored in a cool dry place. Topically it is a great moisturizer for skin and hair. Continue to choose low saturated fat liquid plant oils in recipes that do not require very high heat or a specific mouthfeel.