Meet Your Ingredients: Coconut Oil

Meet Your Ingredients: Coconut Oil

Too high in saturated fat or the key to a healthy diet? Read more for my breakdown of this controversial oil, as well as when it’s useful in cooking and baking.

The Basics

Widely used in Southern and Central America, Africa, and parts of Asia, coconut oil has become a popular food of debate in the nutrition world. However, before we get to that debate, let’s first take a look at how this tropical oil is made.

While there are technically three types of coconut oil (which we’ll get to later on), the two main ones are refined and virgin.

Refined coconut oil is made from coconut meat that’s been scraped out of the coconut and dried for several days. It often involves additional exposure to heat or chemicals, which increases the smoke point but may have negative effects on the nutritional content.

Virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, is made by cold-pressing fresh coconut meat, and then separating the oil out from the milk and water. While it isn’t processed, virgin oil has a lower smoke point.

Regardless of the type, coconut oil is sold it at room temperature, due to its high amount of saturated fats, which we’ll touch on next.

Nutrition Overview

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains approximately 120 calories, 0 grams protein, and 14 grams of fat – of which 12 g are saturated fats, 1 g monounsaturated, and 0.5 g polyunsaturated.

In terms of percentage, coconut oil is 90% saturated fat, whereas butter is 60%.

However, without getting too technical, the saturated fat in coconut oil does vary slightly from that found in animal products. While most saturated fats are composed of long-chain fatty acids, coconut oil contains a uniquely high amount of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

The saturated content of coconut oil is what makes it such a polarizing topic in the health community.

Solid coconut oil in measuring spoon


The primary argument against coconut oil is its high amount of saturated fat, as the American Heart Association recommends no more than 5% of calories/day from saturated fats. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a little more lenient, recommending no more than 10% of calories coming from saturated fats. As we discussed above, coconut oil is 90% saturated fat, making it a potentially large source of saturated fats in the diet.

So why do some people believe coconut oil is still a healthy option? Pretty much all the proposed benefits of coconut oil are based on the fact that it contains MCTs.

Most saturated fats are long-chain triglycerides, which have been associated with insulin resistance, increased risk of chronic disease, and weight gain. In contrast, MCTs are medium chain triglycerides, which have been shown to be metabolized more quickly resulting in a boost in fat burning and providing the body with quick energy.  

From a brief review of the literature, MCTs have been also been associated with helping to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, regulate appetite, reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, and reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

However, the main questions are: 1. how much MCT oil is needed to have a significant benefit? 2. How much MCT oil is in coconut oil and finally 3. How much coconut oil would need to be consumed to have these benefits?

Coconut oil is only 13-14% MCT, yet most of the studies that are cited as proof of coconut oil’s benefits use 100% MCT oil instead. For example, the most famous study by St-Onge claimed that MCT consumption led to comparable decreased risk of heart disease risk factors as an equal amount of olive oil.

However, the amount of MCT oil used was equivalent to 10 tablespoons of coconut oil per day – that’s 1200 calories and 140 grams of fat per day.  

Additionally, most weight loss studies are short-term and don’t show the long-term effects of consuming a high saturated fat diet (even if 14% of those fats are MCTs).

There have been more and more studies coming out recently showing that the carbon length of the saturated fatty acid chain does affect its health effects. So, there is an argument to be had that not all saturated fats should be avoided; however, I’m not convinced that coconut oil has enough MCTs to make a significant difference in weight loss and metabolism.

Bottom line: Based on the evidence, I’m putting coconut oil into the “sometimes” category. While not as evil as some would have you believe, I also don’t think that coconut oil is a miracle health food. Instead, I recommend sticking with avocado and extra-virgin olive oils for your everyday cooking and baking, and then using coconut oil for special treats when other oils just wouldn’t result in the right texture.

How to select

There are three main types of coconut oil:

  1. Partially hydrogenated, which is high in trans fat and important to steer clear of.
  2. Refined coconut oil, which is made from chemically bleached coconut meat.
  3. Virgin coconut oil, which is made from fresh coconuts, without any added chemicals or using high temperatures.

While I recommend completely avoiding partially hydrogenated coconut oil, when deciding between the other two it comes down to flavor and temperature.

Refined coconut oil has a more mild flavor and can be used for high heat cooking of at least 400oF (some sources even say it can be used up to 450oF).

Unrefined (virgin) has a sweeter, stronger coconut flavor and can only be used for cooking up to 350oF.

How to store

As with most oils, it should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. However, it has a much longer shelf life than other oils as it’s less likely to go rancid.

Opened coconut oil will last about 2 years. Signs that it’s gone bad include mold, dark spots, change in odor, and a bad taste (hopefully you notice it’s gone bad before having to taste it!).

How to use in cooking/baking

Coconut oil is a common butter substitute in vegan cooking, and I’ve found that it more closely mimics shortening in recipes compared to butter. For most recipes, you can sub coconut oil for the fat in a 1:1 ratio.

Thanks to it’s high amount of saturated fats, coconut oil provides a rich, smooth mouthfeel to baked goods (I’ve been told that it makes amazing brownies). When used in its solid form, you’ll end up with flaky crust, which is why you may see it used in vegan pie crusts and pastries.

However, coconut oil can also be used in liquid form. To melt it, you can either place it in a saucepan over the stove at low heat, or microwave in 15-second increments. Melted coconut oil is often used in granola recipes, drizzled over popcorn, and added to vegetables for roasting. It can also be combined with chocolate to create a chocolate shell to cover ice cream or candies with.

As I mentioned above, I still favor extra-virgin olive oil and avocado oil as they’re both lower in saturated fat and high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. However, coconut oil can have its place in a healthy kitchen, especially as a butter substitute in vegan baking and to provide a rich mouthfeel that just can’t be replicated by other oils in certain desserts. One such recipe will be coming your way Friday 😉

What are your thoughts on coconut oil? Share your opinions or favorite recipes in the comments below or by tagging me @TheHealthyToast_RD on Instagram!

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About Kelli McGrane Headshot

I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

About Kelli McGrane Headshot

Welcome to The Healthy Toast!

Here you’ll find realistic healthy recipes designed by a registered dietitian with your busy lifestyle in mind.

Whether you’re a busy professional or new mom, the goal of The Healthy Toast is to provide you with the recipes and nutrition info you need to live your healthiest life, even when life gets crazy. As I’m a firm believer in a whole-foods, non-diet approach, I hope my website shows that good nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. 

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