Although it’s been more than five years since coconut oil began its meteoric rise in the U.S. marketplace, the confusion about it has not waned a bit. “Should I switch to coconut oil?” is consistently one of the most common questions that come across my desktop — not surprising given that you could throw a dart at the Internet and hit a claim about the oil’s amazing healing power. Mostly, there has been a paucity of good science on it, but a meta-analysis (a systematic review of the existing research) published this year in Nutrition Reviews has shed some light on the topic. I spoke with the lead researcher, Laurence Eyres, chairman of the Oils & Fats Specialist Group at the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, for further insight.

The study found that coconut oil, which is 92 percent saturated fat, raises LDL (bad) cholesterol less than butter does, but significantly more than unsaturated plant oils do. So when it comes to heart health, Eyres puts it plainly: “It would be dangerous, and rather silly, to replace your extra-virgin olive oil with coconut oil.” There — that question is answered. But there are plenty of details and nuances where that came from, so read on.

Coconut oil has a lot going for it from a culinary perspective. It has a lovely, distinctive flavor that gives dishes a sumptuous tropical taste. It is solid at room temperature, a quality central to many recipes. But unlike most other solid fats, it is vegan, so it appeals to the ever-growing legion of plant-based eaters. Also, like other saturated fats, it is very stable in heat, so it is good for stir-frying and sauteing. (Contrary to a common myth, monounsaturated fat such as olive oil is also quite stable in heat, and good-quality olive oil is excellent for high-heat sauteing. Polyunsaturated oils such as corn oil are less stable in heat, and nut oils should not be heated much at all.)

But one of the biggest things coconut oil has behind it right now, unfortunately for the consumer, is a lot of marketing hype that makes it out to be a miracle food. “There is nothing wrong with coconut oil in moderation, but it is not a cure for everything or a wonder fat,” Eyres says.

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