Which is really healthier, olive oil or coconut oil?
In the great 'which fats are healthy fats' debate, it sometimes feels like olive oil comes out as second best to coconut oil, which has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent years. Whilst olive oil is still the 'healthy' oil of choice for many, more of us than ever before are using coconut oil for cooking and baking. But which oil is actually healthier? We decided to find out.
The similarities and differences
Both olive oil and coconut oil contain 120 calories per tablespoon. The good news is both are also cholesterol and trans fat-free. But with that said, what are the differences? The answer lies in the saturated and monounsaturated fat levels. Whilst 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains 78% monounsaturated fat (11g), the same quantity of extra virgin coconut oil contains just 6% monounsaturated fat (0.1g). Coconut oil contains 92% saturated fat (13g) per tablespoon compared to olive oil's 8% (1g).
We know saturated fat is bad for us - it's bad for our hearts, in particular, but there are studies which suggest the type of saturated fat found in coconut oil could be less harmful to our health than other fats - it may even be beneficial.
Studies carried out on animals have revealed that the saturated fat found in coconut oil can improve LDL and HDL cholesterol levels - although the effects on humans are a bit more complicated and still to be determined by further research (1). It is possible that coconut oil affects blood lipids differently than other sources of saturated fat. Coconut oil can raise total and HDL cholesterol in comparison to palm oil and beef (2) yet a diet rich in coconut oil results in lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol than a diet that's rich in butter (3). Yet another reason to swap out the butter in your baking!
The bad news
Sadly, research which supports claims that coconut oil can reduce the risk of or even cure Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other ailments is sparse and further considerable research is needed. More research could also help to determine whether coconut oil really does benefit HDL cholesterol levels. Because coconut oil contains a blend of fatty acids and other nutrients, it's important not to become hung up on just its saturated fat content. It can form part of a healthy diet when used alongside other cooking oils in small quantities, or used to replace butter in baking.
Using coconut oil and olive oil
Both coconut oil and olive oil are good oils to add to your diet in comparison to some other, more processed oils. Although coconut oil contains more saturated fat, the main type of fat it contains is lauric acid, one of the fatty acids found in breast milk, which could have anti-inflammatory properties.
In comparison, 25% of the fat found in extra virgin olive oil is monounsaturated, or 'heart-friendly' fat which can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and is a source of the antioxidant vitamin E, which can reduce inflammation. Although both oils have a variety of uses, bear in mind that coconut oil's smoking pont is 350 degrees Fahrenheit, whilst olive oil's smoking point is 280 degrees Fahenheit. For cooking at moderate temperatures (such as frying an egg, for example), coconut oil is the most suitable. When cooking with olive oil, keep more expensive extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and seasoning, and use less expensive olive oil for cooking. When baking, switch olive oil for coconut oil - it adds a nicer flavour!
So what's the deal - is coconut oil healthier than olive oil? Read many 'clean eating' blogs and you'll often see coconut oil labelled as the 'world's heatlhiest oil' when the truth is, we actually don't know that much about how it impacts our bodkes. Coconut oil could increase good cholesterol in our bodies, thanks to the medium-chain fatty acids it contains. Whilst long-chain fats (the kind we find most in our diets) need to be broken down by the body before they can be absorbed, medium-chain fats are absorbed intact and sent straight to the liver to be used as energy. Medium-chain fats aren't stored in fat cells in the same way as long-chain fats and they could even increase calorie burning and promote a feeling of satiety (feeling full) after eating - great if you're trying to lose weight.
But coconut oil shouldn't be a total replacement for all the other oils in your diet - as with anything, variety is the key to a healthy, diet. Extra virgin olive oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil and rapeseed oil are all healthy unsatured fats which contain vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and phytochemicals. But added to a varied, healthy diet, coconut oil is great to use. So when it comes down to it, neither olive oil or coconut oil is vastly healthier than the other - so we recommend using both in your diet to reap the benefits each oil offers.
READ THIS NEXT: Get more good fats in your diet