Coconut oil is everywhere these days – in our food and in our health and beauty products. Some like coconut oil for its high smoke point, some like its flavor, while others are touting it as a superfood cure-all.
Although it’s been part of island cultures for thousands of years and western culture for centuries, this tropical oil is not without controversy. The main source of skepticism toward coconut oil stems from the fact that it’s a saturated fat.
“Saturated fats are something you don’t need in the body,” said Hy-Vee Registered Dietitian Alyssa Gehle, “You want those monounsaturated fats like you find in olive oil, canola oil, salmon, and avocados. Coconut oil is unique, because it’s an oil with saturated fats that come from a plant.”
Coconut oil packs 117 calories, 14 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat, and contains no vitamins or minerals. But, unlike animal-based saturated fats, coconut oil does not have cholesterol.
According to Gehle, some people use coconut oil as a butter substitute on their toast or in baked goods, “It tends to make your baked goods a little softer. I know when people use it in cookies, they’re very soft and moist. And again, you’re not getting the cholesterol that you would with the butter.”
Coconut oil is big in the beauty industry right now, too.
“Skin-wise, it’s got a lot of those fats and oils, so it’s going to make your skin smoother. It’s going to make your hair shinier,” said Gehle.
Products like OGX Coconut Milk Shampoo and Olay Simply Nurture Beauty Bars can be found in drugstores. And for those with more of a DIY ethic, there are countless websites that sing the praises of the coconut and list its many uses – including reportedly improving oral health through a process called oil pulling.
Oil pulling is an ancient practice, in which a person swishes a tablespoon of plant oil (like palm or coconut) in their mouth for 10-20 minutes. This is supposed to kill bacteria, whiten your teeth and even improve hangovers. Oil pulling has been a popular topic in the blogosphere and most of the information out there is highly anecdotal. This has led the mainstream dental community to show either neutrality or little enthusiasm for the practice, emphasizing that although oil pulling can’t hurt, it shouldn’t replace regular brushing and flossing.
Whether you’re a coconut skeptic or coconut believer, like anything packing 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, it’s important to exercise moderation.