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March 10, 2013

Cooking with coconut oil

— By KATHY SMITH

There have been many claims lately about the health benefits of coconut oil. Its newfound popularity, however, may not be based on existing knowledge and research that causes nutrition experts to recommend using coconut oil, like other fats and oils sparingly.

When choosing fats, unsaturated fats are the healthier choices, while saturated and trans fats are considered less healthy, because they raise LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. The amount of LDL cholesterol can be controlled by replacing saturated and trans fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Coconut oil, unlike other oils, doesn’t follow the rule of being more liquid than animal fats at room temperature, Rather, it is fairly solid because coconut is 92 percent saturated fat, a higher percentage than butter or lard. The resulting flaky texture and its naturally sweet and nutty flavor are two reasons that it is preferred by some bakers. Coconut oil should be used sparingly because it is considered to be a high saturated fat.

Becky Hand, a registered dietitian writes, “We now know the different types of saturated fat can affect the body differently. Previously, all saturated fats were considered the same, but research now shows that the saturated fats in coconut oil are somewhat different from the saturated fats in meat and butter and therefore may affect the body differently.”

Animal fats found in lard, meats and dairy products contain cholesterol that can raise blood cholesterol. Since coconut oil is plant based, it is cholesterol free. Researchers don’t know for sure that this makes coconut oil a good fat for your heart. Some studies show that some types of saturated fat might lower risk factors for heart disease and other studies the exact opposite.

Until we know for sure, it is best to be cautious and keep your total saturated fat intake at or below 7 percent of your daily calories. This recommendation comes from the American Heart Association.

Until more specific research on coconut oil is done and the claims are supported, it is wise to use foods like coconut oil with a high fat content in moderation.

Sources: Ohio State Cooperative Extension Service, Nutrition Concepts and Controversies and Dole Food Company.

Kathy Smith is a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for Parker County. Contact her at (817) 598-6168 or kl-smith@tamu.edu.

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