They used to say that coconut oil was unhealthy. Health experts said it was a saturated fat, which raised our cholesterol level. Now dieticians and nutritionists are hailing coconut oil, which they say raises good cholesterol over bad. As a result it’s popping up everywhere from smoothies to beauty treatments, vegan butter to cooking oil. But is it really as healthy as they say, or just a fad? Actually, not all coconut oils are the same, according to Cornell University’s Tom Brenna. He’s a professor of nutritional sciences in their College of Human Ecology. The kind found in a health food store smoothies is not the same as the partially hydrogenated gunk that inhabited junk food three or more decades ago. The virgin coconut oil you find nowadays wasn’t available back then. The healthful benefits have all been derived from studies testing virgin, refined coconut oil, not the other kind.
Claims have coconut oil preventing illness, helping with weight loss, even staving off Alzheimer’s. Not so fast, says Kristin Kirkpatrick MS, RD, LD. She’s the manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. She says, “It has properties that are promising, but we need a lot more research before we can say this is the superfood of 2014.” In one study using laboratory mice, coconut oil helped preserve cortical neurons according to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. But one study does not a rule make, and we don’t know if it will have the same property in humans, even if other studies show the same result. Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat. But it’s the kind that counts. This is the type that contains lauric acid which increases HDL or good cholesterol. It’s easy to digest and so is a good choice for athletes. Still, experts say, we don’t know its effect on the heart. Feel free to cook with it occasionally. But most dieticians say stick with olive oil as your go-to oil, which has proven heart health properties, among a variety of other benefits.