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Coconut oil for cooking: Is it good or bad for you?

The Question

I read coconut oil is the healthiest oil to cook with. Is this true?

The Answer

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Coconut oil has recently been dubbed the "world's healthiest oil." Claims abound about its near-miraculous healing powers. It's reported to dissolve kidney stones, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, boost immune function, promote weight loss, protect against certain cancers and a whole lot more.

The fact is, there's limited evidence to suggest coconut oil does any of these things. All that has been studied in depth is the impact of coconut oil on blood-cholesterol levels – and even those findings aren't clear-cut.

Coconut oil, a tropical oil made from the dried fruit of the coconut palm tree, contains 86 per cent saturated fat. Because diets high in saturated fat raise LDL (bad) blood cholesterol, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the American Heart Association advise limiting sources of it in your diet.

But coconut oil isn't as bad as its high saturated fat content might make you think. Studies suggest that diets high in coconut oil do raise total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, but not nearly to the same extent as butter. Coconut oil also seems to raise HDL (good) cholesterol. (Unlike LDL cholesterol, the HDL version doesn't build up on artery walls.) In one small study, taking 2 tablespoons of coconut oil daily for one week did not significantly raise bad cholesterol but did increase good cholesterol.

Coconut's saturated fat is made up of a unique blend of medium-chain fatty acids, which may offer certain health benefits. (Most fats in our diet are long-chain fatty acids). Unlike long-chain fats, medium-chain ones do not have to be broken down in the small intestine. Because they are smaller, they're absorbed intact and delivered directly to the liver to be used for energy.

Medium-chain fats don't store in fat cells to the same extent as long-chain ones. They also appear to increase calorie burning in the body. Although the fat in coconut oil may promote satiety after eating, there is limited evidence it will help you shed unwanted pounds.

When it comes to your heart, coconut oil is a healthier fat than butter and trans fat, and it's cholesterol-free. Since it comes from a plant, it may contain beneficial phytochemicals yet to be discovered.

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But it's not necessarily healthier than unsaturated oils such as extra-virgin olive, grapeseed, canola and safflower oils. When substituted for animal fat in your diet, unsaturated fat will do a better job of lowering elevated blood cholesterol than coconut oil. And, depending on which oil you use, unsaturated ones can deliver vitamin E (for example, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower), omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (canola, walnut) and phytochemicals (extra-virgin olive).

Bottom line: While I don't agree that coconut is the "world's healthiest oil," there's no reason you shouldn't cook with it if you like it. It has a high smoke point, which makes it well suited for high-heat cooking. But it shouldn't replace all the oils in your pantry.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct (www.bodysciencemedical.com).

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