The lowdown on coconut oil

Coconut oil is hailed as a super healthy alternative food alternative, but how healthy is it compared to other plant-based oils? My Food Bag Nutritionist Emma ‘Edamame’ looks at the pros and cons of coconut oil.

In recent years coconut oil has become increasingly popular, particularly in substitute to its dairy counterpart, butter. Although it is plant-based, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is the ‘healthier’ alternative, which it’s often labelled to be. Let’s look at the lowdown on coconut oil.

There are two different types of fatty acids – unsaturated and saturated fats – which differ slightly in their composition. It’s this difference in composition that mean they act differently within our bodies. Saturated fats are deemed the less healthy option when compared to unsaturated fats due to the effect saturated fat has on our blood cholesterol levels and ultimately, our cardiovascular health. Some of the main sources of saturated fats are dairy, meat, other animal products and coconut.

Under the unsaturated fats umbrella, we have monounsaturated (olives, olive oil, avocados) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (nuts, seeds and their oils, fish (omega-3)), and these are deemed the more healthy types of fats, due to the positive effects they have on our cardiovascular and overall health. For this reason, we should look mostly to the unsaturated fats to provide us with our daily fat needs, and have saturated fats in moderation, and to a lesser extent in our diet.

“…it’s recommended that we continue to use plant oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower or canola/rapeseed rather than coconut oil, as the saturated fat content is so much higher.”

Coconut oil however, is a rich source of these saturated fats, being on average about 92% saturated fat, where butter is on average about 50%, and olive oil is about 14%. For this reason, it’s recommended that we continue to use plant oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower or canola/rapeseed rather than coconut oil, as the saturated fat content is so much higher.

So, why have we heard health claims in relation to coconut oil? There is a number of health claims that are derived from animal or hypothesized studies (these types of studies don’t necessarily relate to humans). These studies also looked at commercially produced specialised oils however, because the studies were referring to fatty acids with a different composition than the coconut oil we use for cooking, we can’t take them for a direct comparison.

Why use coconut oil? Due to coconut oil’s saturated fat content, it is a solid at chilled or room temperature, making it better for certain applications such as baking that requires setting (where butter would be used for non-plant based), where the plant-based alternative such as an olive or seed oil wouldn’t work well for. However, due to the high percentage of saturated fat, we should aim to enjoy foods with high amounts of coconut oil in moderation.

Information from:
1. https://www.nutritionandactivity.govt.nz/sites/default/files/Coconut%20oil%202019.pdf
2. https://assets.heartfoundation.org.nz/documents/shop/submissions/coconut-and-the-heart-evidence-paper.pdf
3. https://assets.heartfoundation.org.nz/documents/shop/submissions/coconut-and-the-heart-position-statement.pdf

Meet the Nutritionist

Emma ‘Edamame’

Our in-house nutritionist Emma ‘Edamame’ was born and bred in mid Canterbury and has the health and wellbeing of Kiwis in mind at all times. As an NZ registered nutritionist (NZ Nutrition Society) with a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science from the University of Auckland, she makes sure we’re all getting our fresh dose of local veggies and our meals are full of nutritious substance – thanks for having our back Em (and our waistlines!). When it comes to New Zealand produce, Emma is a whizz, with fresh berries being her absolute fave. Intrigued to know what food this nutritionist couldn’t live without? Fresh fish and seafood, delivering on both flavour and nourishment. As well as ice cream, especially real fruit ice creams, in the summer time! Life’s all about a tasty balance, right?

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