I shuffle through pictures on my computer and smile at a coconut-covered bunny cake I made for Easter. And I wonder — based on what we know and don’t know about coconut fat — do I embrace or kiss my coconut friend goodbye?
Probably neither, according to a variety of reputable sources.
According to the Library of Congress, most (almost 90 percent) of the oil derived from coconuts is the saturated variety — the type of fat that tends to raise blood cholesterol levels.
About 46 percent of the fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a “medium chain”-length fatty acid that raises the good “HDL” cholesterol levels in the blood as well as the “bad” LDL levels. This is why some believe coconut oil may be beneficial for heart health. But wait.
About 30 percent of the fat is composed of myristic and palmitic acids — considered to be detrimental saturated fats in terms of their affect on serum cholesterol levels.
A small percentage (about 3 percent) of the fat in coconut oil is stearic acid — a “neutral” saturated fat that tends to be neither good or bad for blood cholesterol levels. (By the way, about a third of the saturated fat in beef and cocoa butter is the neutral stearic acid.)
Coconut oil also contains about 9 percent of healthful “unsaturated” fats (oleic and linoleic fatty acids) that are also found in abundance in oils such as canola and olive oil.
Food labels clump all the saturated fat content of a food into one category — the healthful as well as the beneficial. And herein lies the confusion.
For example, even olive oil — considered a “good” fat — contains a small percentage of palmitic acid — a saturated fat that can be detrimental to blood cholesterol levels. And lean beef — often considered a source of “bad” fat — actually contains a lower percentage of detrimental palmitic and myristic fatty acids (about 25 percent) than does coconut oil (30 percent).
As for coconut oil, experts from the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Center conclude: “You should limit these oils since their effects on cholesterol are not fully understood. You can use coconut oil in cooking on occasion if you like the flavor. Vegetable oils such as canola, olive, soy, or safflower are recommended for day-to-day use, however.”
Alas, in terms of heart disease, coconut oil may not be the “miracle fat” some had hoped for. And we are wise to remember that various mixtures of “good” and “bad” exist in all foods. That said, Mr. Bunny cake is here to stay ... but only for special occasions.
— Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California.