Is coconut oil healthier than other cooking oils?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Coconut oil is all over the grocery store shelves lately. Is it healthier than other cooking oils?

DEAR READER:

I’ve also noticed that coconut oil seems to be catching on these days. I consulted with Walter Willett, the chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, to get his opinion. Here’s what we discussed.

Not all cooking oils are created equal. Some are good for your health, while others promote disease. Here is a side-by-side comparison of several common cooking oils:

Oil (1 tbsp) Monounsaturated (grams) Polyunsaturated (grams) Saturated (grams)
Olive 9.9 1.4 1.9
Canola 8.9 3.9 1.0
Peanut 6.2 4.3 2.3
Soybean 3.1 7.8 2.1
Corn 3.8 7.4 1.8
Walnut 3.1 8.6 1.2
Almond 9.5 2.4 1.1
Sesame 5.4 5.7 1.9
Flaxseed 2.5 9.2 1.2
Sunflower 11.7 0.5 1.4
Palm 5.0 1.3 6.7
Coconut 0.8 0.2 11.8

Unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, provide health benefits. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil and canola oil. Corn oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil are common examples of polyunsaturated fats.

Saturated fats, found in butter and full-fat dairy products, can increase total and LDL (bad) cholesterol — and the risk of heart disease.

Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat, so it would seem that coconut oil would be bad news for our hearts. But what’s interesting about coconut oil is that it also gives “good” HDL cholesterol a boost.

Coconut oil is, obviously, a plant-based oil, and plant-based oils are more than just fats; they contain many antioxidants and other substances. So their overall effects on health can’t be predicted just by the changes in cholesterol levels.

Coconut is a wonderful flavor, and there’s no problem using coconut oil occasionally. But for now, I’d recommend using it sparingly. Other vegetable oils are likely healthier than coconut oil. And though coconut oil may be “less bad” than its high saturated fat content would indicate, there are better options.

If you do choose coconut oil, be sure to use virgin coconut oil. It doesn’t have the unhealthy trans fats that are found in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated forms.

Finally, remember that all cooking oils are high in calories. So when cooking, make sure your drizzle of oil doesn’t become a downpour.

You’ll notice that my advice in this column — as in most of my columns — is not definite. I’m not saying you should definitely avoid coconut oil, but I’m also cautioning against using it a lot. That kind of advice may be frustrating.

But I think you want me to give you my honest assessment of the scientific evidence. And the fact is that, as with many of the questions I get, there just isn’t enough evidence to be conclusive.

To tell definitively whether any food is healthy or unhealthy would require a study involving thousands of people and lasting 20 to 30 years. And every day for those 20 to 30 years, certain people (chosen at random) would have to eat the food, while others would have to avoid it. I think you can see that would be one hard study to conduct successfully.

So I look for what imperfect evidence I can and draw what seem like the most reasonable conclusions. Einstein said it best: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler.”