Sometimes touted as a cure-all for everything from weight loss to improving brain functioning, coconut oil is definitely one of the more popular food trends right now. I must begin by mentioning that coconut oil is different from coconut water. Coconut water is that liquid that you see Tom Hanks’ character drinking in the film, “Cast Away” – you know the movie where he’s stranded on an island with only his wits and a volleyball named Wilson to help him survive. When you see him finally crack open that coconut, it’s the liquid that comes pouring out. Coconut oil, on the other hand, is made by pressing the fat from the white fruit or “meat” on the inside of the coconut. So…
Should we cook with coconut oil?
There are definitely some oils we would want to use for cooking at high temperatures and others we would want to use as more of a “finishing oil” – those that should be used when placing the finishing touches on your dish or for things like oil-based salad dressings. Which oil should be used and for what depends upon something called its “smoke point.” Smoke point, just like it sounds, refers to the temperature at which the oil, when heated, will begin to produce smoke. When we’re heating oils, we don’t want it to reach the smoke point. First, it could start a fire. But, when oil starts smoking, its chemistry has changed. Now there are more harmful products in the oil – things called free radicals that will actually increase risk for certain diseases. What we know is that some oils can handle higher temperatures than others. Or put another way, they have a higher smoke point. Those oils with a higher smoke point are the ones we typically want to use when stir-frying, pan-frying, deep-frying, or when cooking at higher temperatures.
Let me give you an example. Here in the states, one of our biggest holidays is right around the corner: Thanksgiving. This holiday comes around every year on the third Thursday in November. This is the day when basically every household in America consumes turkey. Even vegetarians and vegans partake – well, their bird of choice is often “tofurkey” – tofu that has been flavored to taste like turkey and is often found molded into the shape of a turkey roll. Lately, families have been on this kick to deep-fry their turkeys. My father-in-law is in love with deep-fried turkey now. The thinking is that, instead of letting a 12-lb. turkey cook in an oven for 6 hours, leaving the meat dry and tasteless, it would be better to deep-fry it, which takes only about 30-40 minutes, leaving a more tender and tasty bird. Why am I telling you all this?
Here’s the point: you don’t want to fry the turkey in just any kind of oil. Peanut oil is often recommended. Why? Some claim it’s for the taste. While that does have something to do it, there’s another more important reason… can you guess? You guessed it: it has a high smoke point! You can heat peanut oil to deep frying temperatures (about 375°F or about 190°C) and it won’t get to that smoke point; the oil remains very stable even under high heat. In fact, some peanut oils, depending on the brand and the type of processing it went through, can stay stable up to temperatures of 440°F (230°C). Remember, this is a good thing because if it remains stable, we won’t see that increased free radical production. If you were to try and deep fry a turkey with unrefined olive oil, it wouldn’t work. It would reach it’s smoke point at about 320°F (160°C), well below frying temperatures.
Is coconut oil stable under high temperatures like peanut oil?
It can vary by brand and how it was processed, but on average, coconut oil will not reach its smoke point until about 350°F (about 180°C). We typically bake foods in the oven at these temperatures.
This is pretty good, but notice that it's not nearly as high as peanut oil. Stir-frying or pan-frying foods usually requires a temperature of about 375°F (190°C), so it’s possible that using coconut oil for these methods may not be the best option.
Are there any health benefits to consuming coconut oil?
Coconut oil is made up of mostly saturated fat. While still debated among scientists, saturated fat is something that many would advise us to limit in our diets. This is because some studies have found it may increase our risk for certain diseases like heart disease and stroke. But do saturated fats from plant-based sources cause the same amount of harm as saturated fats from animal sources like red meat? We don’t know for sure. Coconut oil also contains lots of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). If you’ve ever heard of MCT oil, this is what they’re referring to. Some researchers have found that these medium-chain triglycerides are treated differently by the body, meaning they may not affect our blood cholesterol levels as much. In fact, when examining the relationship between coconut oil and health, some have found that coconut oil may increase our HDL cholesterol, often called our “good cholesterol.” But what you don’t often hear is that it also raises your LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol,” too. If it raises your good and bad cholesterol at the same time, wouldn’t that cancel each other out? Not necessarily. I wish it were that simple.
What’s the bottom line about cooking with coconut oil?
Cooking with coconut oil is probably better than using butter or lard. But I would still recommend using unsaturated, plant-based oils more often. These are the vegetable oils, oils that come from nuts (yes, peanut oil is a good option). We have a fairly good idea that these oils will likely reduce disease risk. We have much more data to support this.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 75 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily. View the bonus PDF, “Smoke Points of Commonly Used Oils,” here.