The Skinny on Coconut and Palm Oils
Sara German, RD, RN
Avera Sacred Heart Hospital
Google “health benefits of coconut oil,” and you’ll get more than seven million results. It has recently been championed by Dr. Oz as “a heart-healthy food that can keep your body running smoother.” According to his website, coconut oil assists with weight loss, moderates blood sugars, manages cholesterol, and helps with aging. It’s not the only tropical oil getting positive press: Dr. Oz recently championed red palm fruit oil as one of the top miracle foods of 2013, reporting that it helps you live longer, fights belly fat and heart disease, and even reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. At fourteen dollars a jar, it’s certainly one of the more pricey options out there, but is it worth the expense?
But wait, there’s more to the story
While coconut and palm fruit oil have some vocal supporters, many health organizations urge caution. Unlike other plant fats, tropical oils are high in saturated fat, the same kind of fat found in animal products like butter, the skin on poultry and the fat around your t-bone steak. Coconut oil is much higher in saturated fat than butter, while palm fruit oil has just about as much. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends limiting foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil and canola oil, to help improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. But proponents of tropical oils maintain that their unique properties mean they should not be lumped into the same category as animal fats. What does the research say?
Searching for evidence
It’s true that the saturated fat in coconut and palm fruit oils is not exactly the same as the saturated fat found in animal products. Fats come in different sizes – short, medium and long – and tropical oils have more of the “medium” kind. This means they are processed differently in the body. Additionally, red palm oil contains a form of vitamin A, an important nutrient that is missing from the diet of many people around the world. One thing to note: palm kernel oil is not the same as palm fruit oil – it contains much more saturated fat, and has questionable health effects.
Although these differences exist, how important they are is still unknown. Some studies suggest that the kind of saturated fat found in coconut and palm fruit oil may not raise LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels like the saturated fat found in animal products does. On the other hand, tropical oils don’t appear to lower LDL cholesterol as much as other plants fats do; studies are conflicting. In countries where coconut oil and palm fruit oil are produced, many people have a high intake of tropical oils, without necessarily having an increased risk of heart disease.
Red palm fruit oil may have anti-inflammatory properties. It has been used successfully to combat vitamin A deficiency in several countries, but this is typically not a problem in the United States. Coconut oil could possibly assist with weight loss. Effects on Alzheimer’s, immune function, and a host of other medical conditions have not been adequately researched. Unfortunately, most of the available are studies 1) short and small (results may not apply long term or with most people), 2) conducted on rats (obviously not the same as people), or 3) observational (which can’t be used to prove anything). The bottom line: there is still a lot of research to be done.
A registered dietitian’s take on the subject
The jury is still out on coconut and palm fruit oils. Emerging evidence seems to indicate that they might not be that bad for you – there could even be a few health benefits, and they are probably better for you than, say, butter or stick margarine. However, these are absolutely not miracle foods. Incorporating these oils into your diet won’t harm you, but it also won’t make you lose ten pounds in a month or ensure you live past one hundred. Other oils, specifically olive oil and canola oil, have a lot more research backing their health benefits. If you are looking for ways to lower your cholesterol, very good evidence shows that replacing equal amounts of saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat (found in nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils other than tropical oils) will help do this.
How does this play out in my personal baking? Depending on what I’m making, I choose my fats preferentially like this: olive oil > canola oil > coconut oil > butter. I don’t use tube margarine, but if I did it would go between canola oil and coconut oil.