According to a recent survey, 72% of Americans think coconut oil is a healthy food.
But despite popular health claims about coconut oil, a report from the American Heart Association recently advised against its use, stating that it increases LDL cholesterol (a cause of cardiovascular disease) and has no known offsetting effects.
"There are many claims being made about coconut oil being wonderful for lots of different things, but we really don't have any evidence of long-term health benefits," said Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
How exactly, then, does coconut oil rank among oils?
"Coconut oil is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of types of fats. It's probably better than partially hydrogenated oils (which are) high in trans fats but not as good as the more unsaturated plant oils that have proven health benefits, like olive and canola oil," Willett said.
"It's probably not quite as 'bad' as butter but not as good as extra virgin olive oil," agreed Kevin Klatt, a molecular nutrition researcher at Cornell University who is studying the metabolic effects of coconut oil.
Klatt cautions that we should not develop too strong of an opinion about coconut oil without more data. "But at the same time, you have to be evidence-based ... and (currently), the evidence reflects benefits for olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds -- so that should be the focus in the diet."