Is it worth going coo coo for coconut oil?

Coconut oil isn’t anything new, but it has become increasingly trendy over the last several years. While proponents tout its real and imagined health benefits, detractors caution that coconut oil is a saturated fat, and saturated fat has been linked to heart disease.

Who’s right, and who’s wrong? As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The original bad press about coconut oil started decades ago, based on studies that used partially hydrogenated coconut oil. Hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which are very bad for our health. You won’t find trans fats in the virgin coconut oil on store shelves, but you will find almost 90 percent saturated fat. That’s the source of the current bad press.

The debate rages on what exactly saturated fat means for our health. The answer may depend largely on what we eat instead of saturated fat. If you fill the calorie gap with hydrogenated oils or refined carbohydrates (sugar and white flour), that’s not good. If you swap saturated fat for olive oil, which is rich in healthful monounsaturated fats, that is good.

To add another layer to the debate, not all saturated fats are built from the same types of fatty acids. Different saturated fatty acids may have different effects on our blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

In general, saturated fats raise both the good and bad types of blood cholesterol. However, coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which a few human research studies suggest is better at raising the “good” HDL cholesterol. A few studies have also suggested that coconut oil may aid in fat loss, specifically around our waistline.

All these studies have been small and relatively short, so more research is needed to confirm these findings.

For comparison, the health effects of olive oil (including its ability to raise HDL cholesterol and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol) are supported by numerous large, long-term studies.

Removing health from the equation for a moment, what are the merits of coconut oil? The oil is solid at room temperature, so it can be used in place of other solid fats such as butter or shortening. This makes it a great addition to the kitchen for vegan bakers and others who don’t eat dairy products.

While you can buy unscented coconut oil, many brands have a wonderful aroma and flavor that particularly lends itself to baking and Thai cuisine.

Coconut oil is often said to have a high smoke point. The truth is that at 350 degrees, it’s not much higher than the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil (320 degrees). So don’t use it for high-heat cooking. When you heat oils past their smoke point, they start to degrade, which is really unhealthy.

Here’s the bottom line: While there is some promising research about the potential health benefits of coconut oil, nothing is conclusive. If you enjoy coconut oil and find it a useful addition to your kitchen, use it in place of other saturated fats, not in addition to them.