Q. Is it better to cook with coconut oil or olive oil?
A. In terms of health impacts, it is better to cook with olive oil.
Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat, nearly meeting the daily limit of about 13 grams that the American Heart Association recommends. High saturated fat intake has been tied to increased levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.
Furthermore, olive oil, a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, contains beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
“Between the two, olive oil is a better choice, since monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet,” said Annessa Chumbley, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the A.H.A., in an email. Earlier this year, the organization issued an advisory that firmly reiterated its guidance to consumers to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to help prevent heart disease. Consumers were also urged to keep in mind the bigger picture of an overall healthy eating pattern.
While some research has linked the main type of saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, to increased levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, it still appears to raise LDL cholesterol. Yet, coconut oil may be a better choice than some other sources of saturated fat. A large, recent study found that lauric acid didn’t appear to raise heart disease risk quite as much as other types of saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, which is substantial in butter.
Proponents of coconut oil point out that it is rich in phytochemicals that have healthful antioxidant properties. While it’s true that extra-virgin coconut oil, like extra-virgin olive oil, contains phytochemicals, most of the coconut oil on the market is refined and provides few of those antioxidants, said Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But even if the coconut oil you are using is extra-virgin, “the saturated fat effects outweigh any beneficial effects of the antioxidants,” he said.
But of course, we don’t eat fats or cholesterol or antioxidants — we eat food. So while coconut oil certainly isn’t the magic bullet some claim, there’s no need to avoid it completely, especially if it is used instead of butter or shortening in baked goods or to impart flavor in something like a curry dish. As a general rule, though, cooking with olive oil is the better choice for overall health.