Coconut oil's growing reputation as a health food is unearned and undeserved, writes nutritionist Carrie Dennett.

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Many people seemed surprised by last month’s statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) doubling down on its long-standing recommendation to limit food sources of saturated fat — specifically calling out coconut oil. I, myself, was not surprised. I’d known for a long time that coconut oil’s growing reputation as a health food was unearned and undeserved.

The AHA cites recent survey data that 72 percent of Americans rate coconut oil as a “healthy food,” compared with 37 percent of nutritionists. Also not surprising, considering the number of new patients I’ve seen who told me they spread coconut oil on toast or blend it into a smoothie because, “I heard it’s healthy.”

When you consider whether a food is healthful, the first question to ask is, “Compared to what?” Spreading coconut oil on toast instead of butter is pretty much a wash, because they are both almost 100 percent fat, but spreading nut butter on toast instead of coconut oil or butter is a nutritional win because you get the benefit of protein, heart-healthy fats and other nutrients. Similarly, replacing foods high in saturated fat with foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates is recommended by no one.

In the AHA statement “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease,” the authors recommend following an eating plan like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean diet that’s rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. A 2016 meta-analysis of 21 published research papers found that coconut oil — which is mostly (82 percent) saturated fat — generally raised total and “bad” LDL cholesterol more than unsaturated plant oils, but less than butter.

But what about research suggesting that the medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil have health benefits because they are metabolized differently than the long-chain fatty acids found in butter and other animal fats? Unfortunately, that research is based on a specially designed oil containing 100 percent medium-chain fatty acids. Coconut oil contains only 13 to 15 percent. The main fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, straddles the line between medium- and long chain, but behaves more like long-chain fatty acids, which is why it can raise cholesterol levels. Studies of indigenous populations who consume a lot of coconut and have low rates of cardiovascular disease have also been used as evidence supporting coconut oil, but those populations eat coconut flesh or squeezed coconut cream — not the same thing.

Coconut oil’s health halo may be tarnished, but does that mean it’s the devil? Nothing has changed about coconut oil from a month ago. It never was the health food that some advocates made it out to be, but it’s not going to kill you, either. If you enjoy it for cooking, continue to use it. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so it can be used in place of other solid fats like butter or shortening — good news for vegan bakers.

I have a jar of virgin coconut oil in my pantry. I use it occasionally when the coconut flavor specifically lends itself to what I’m cooking, much in the same way I sometimes cook with butter. But for most of my day-to-day cooking, I use extra virgin olive oil. Unlike coconut oil, the healthfulness of olive oil is well tested by both tradition and science. And if your olive oil is good quality and is stored appropriately, it’s suitable for cooking at pretty much any heat you would use in the home kitchen.