Coconut oil is shown.
Coconut oil can add character to a dish, but you may not want to make it a regular feature of your diet. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Is it a source of good fat, bad fat or both? Should we just avoid it altogether? Can I cook with it?

Welcome to the befuddling world of cocos nucifera, better known as the coconut, and its oft-debated offshoot, coconut oil.

Technically, the coconut is a one-seeded drupe—a fruit with a hard covering enclosing the seed—but it contains components from the fruit, nut and seed families. It provides different edible and drinkable components from the fleshy contents, including coconut water and coconut flakes.

But what about coconut oil? Is it friend or foe? Current research suggests that, for the most part, it may be best to limit your intake of coconut oil.

MCT oil

To help you understand coconut oil, it’s useful to first mention MCT oil.

MCT stands for medium-chain triglyceride. It’s a specific type of fat used regularly in patient health care, given the body’s ability to use it more efficiently than other fats known as long-chain triglycerides, or LCTs.

MCT oils used in health care are formulated for specific needs, often for patients who are unable to tolerate longer-chain fats. While MCT oil is found in coconut oil, it’s in relatively small amounts.

There are three different categories of chain length when it comes to fats: short, medium and long, and they refer to the carbons linked together. Short chains are made up of four to six links, medium chains are six to 10 links and long chains are 12 to 26 links.

Global appeal

While it’s mainly produced in the Philippines, Indonesia and India, coconut oil is a popular ingredient the world over. It’s used in traditional Thai and Indian cooking but the United States remains a leading consumer.

Coconut oil is available online and in stores in a variety of forms—refined, bleached, deodorized or unrefined, also known as virgin coconut oil.

It’s used in pan-frying recipes, given its resistance to oxidation, although it’s not recommended for deep fat-frying because it has a low smoke point that can result in the production of harmful smoke.

Because coconut oil is entirely plant-based, those who prefer vegan or animal-free foods may choose this oil as a replacement for butter or lards in recipes.

Magazines, supplement manufacturers and infomercials often market coconut oil as an MCT oil and wonder product that provides various health benefits. It has been touted as a treatment for dry skin and gum disease, but you should talk to your health care or dental care provider before using it for such.

Why does this matter? There is some debate about the benefits of the MCTs in coconut oil, as some folks have suggested the oil may assist in weight loss or body-building.

Others, however, are less convinced of the ostensible benefits.

According to a 2016 research article in Nutrition Reviews, the main fatty acid in coconut oil can be classified as either a medium- or long-chain fatty acid.

In terms of digestion, “it behaves more like a long-chain because the majority of it (70 percent to 75 percent) takes the longer digestive route to be processed,” the review said.

The report found no support to indicate coconut oil is a healthy oil in terms of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

DASH to unsaturated

In a 2017 advisory on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association said coconut oil is not a recommended oil because of its ability to increase bad cholesterol, which could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The advisory concluded that “lowering our intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease.” Sources of unsaturated fats that are supportive for heart health include extra virgin olive oil, salmon, avocados, unsalted edamame, unsalted nuts, nut butters, ground flax and chia seeds.

Any dietary shift away from saturated fats toward unsaturated fats, then, should happen by moving toward a healthy diet such as a DASH or Mediterranean diet, according to the American Heart Association.

Overall, researchers continue to recommend limiting saturated fats and replacing them with sources of unsaturated fats. This can lower bad cholesterol and help fight heart disease.

And because the fat in coconut oil is highly saturated—and the specific types of saturated fat are not processed like true MCT oils—it’s best to minimize your use of coconut oil.

If you find you’re craving some type of coconut, try some unsweetened coconut flakes—they can boost your daily fiber intake.