Is coconut oil a healthy fat or "pure poison" as one Harvard professor said recently? Here are the facts.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
New Africa/Shutterstock

If you've got a Costco-sized jar of coconut oil in your pantry and use it in practically everything, you may have been a little alarmed by news last week that a Harvard University professor is calling it "pure poison". How could something so hyped up as a healthy staple be branded as something so bad? Is coconut oil good for you and your kids?

The big issue with coconut oil is that it's very high in saturated fat—even higher than butter or lard. Saturated fat is the kind of fat linked to higher cholesterol levels, and elevated cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease.

What's still being debated is whether coconut oil raises cholesterol levels. Half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is a fat called lauric acid, which doesn't seem to boost "bad" LDL cholesterol levels as much as other kinds of saturated fats do--and may even raise "good" HDL cholesterol. It's also important to note that coconut oil is harmful when it's hydrogenated, a process that creates trans fats. But the type of coconut oil sold in stores that people use for cooking and baking is not hydrogenated.

Yet in an advisory released last year, the American Heart Association specifically recommended against using coconut oil. After analyzing more than 100 studies, they say the science confirms that the oil does indeed raise "bad" cholesterol. They also argue that there are no proven coconut oil health benefits, unlike oils like olive that are shown to be good for the heart.

The AHA still recommends that kids, like adults, eat a diet low in saturated fat and get most of their fat from foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. They also warn that plaque buildup in the arteries can start in childhood and then progress as kids grow into adults, putting them at higher risk for coronary heart disease, the number-one cause of death in the U.S.

While the debate goes on, here's my advice:

  • Use a variety of fats for cooking and baking. Coconut oil is versatile for cooking and baking since it can be used as a solid or liquid. But continue to use oils like olive, canola, and avocado too. That way you not only get a variety of flavors, but a variety of fats, including the healthy poly- and monounsaturated kind.
  • Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation of having your child screened for high cholesterol between ages 9-11. Even if your child isn't at risk because of family history, getting a baseline can be helpful down the road.
  • Continue serving lots of foods that are proven to be heart-healthy, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains like whole grain bread and brown rice, nuts and seeds, and fish.
  • Watch out for coconut oil's health halo. Cupcakes made with coconut oil aren't suddenly "clean", and swapping out butter for coconut oil doesn't make brownies a superfood.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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