Vegans have quietly been relying on coconut oil for years—especially as a substitute for butter in baked goods—but now it's beginning to make its way onto mainstream menus and stirring up considerable controversy. Rumors have been running rampant that the tropical oil revered as a healthy staple is nothing but a trans fat-packed imposter. Here's what we've turned up:
The benefits: Just when we all got used to the idea of "good fats" (unsaturated fats) and "bad fats" (saturated and trans fats), something else enters the equation: Lauric acid, a "good" type of saturated fat. Coconut oil is packed with saturated fat, which is why it's solid at room temperature, just like butter (and why it has a reputation as one of the least healthy options out there). The caveat: "About half the total fat content in coconut oil is lauric acid, which actually raises your cholesterol the most of all fatty acids," says Jesse Schwartzman, a registered dietician and Tier 4 Coach at Equinox. "But it turns out that lauric acid actually raises HDL, the healthy type of cholesterol." Plus, medium-chain triglycerides such as lauric acid are metabolized faster by the liver and, so the thinking goes, are stored less as fat.
The drawbacks: The scientific research on coconut oil is sparse, and no studies have linked coconut oil to weight-loss or lower rates of heart disease. "The jury is still out," says Schwartzman, though the research on cholesterol and Alzheimer's is promising, he notes. Plus, coconut oil is still calorically dense—a tablespoon packs about 120 calories.
The bottom line: Slathering coconut oil on everything probably won't put you on the fast track to a long life or a slimmer waist, but it's not as bad as was once thought. The best way to incorporate it into your diet is to use it as a swap for butter and oil, to keep fat intake reasonable. Try it spread on toast, use it to sautee vegetables, or make like a vegan and use it to replace butter when baking. Look for virgin coconut oil, which is the least processed and doesn't contain trans fats.
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