Vegan Health: Coconut oil is a natural cooking ingredient, but health experts caution about saturated fat

 

Nearly two decades after coconut oil fell out of favor with consumers, it’s made a return as a popular food trend, touted online as a health food for everything from chronic disease to weight loss.

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People have embraced the tropical oil for the flavor and texture it adds. But dietitians say it should be consumed in moderation.

The Duluth Grill has been busy preparing a new raw food and vegan menu that will incorporate coconut oil into recipes for some of the items — including a vegan sugar cookie paired with a vegan chocolate avocado sorbet.

“It adds great texture,” said Duluth Grill manager Louis Hanson. Although it’s slightly more expensive than other oils, it’s very mild in flavor, he said.

The new menu items are an effort to stay up-to-date with current trends, but also to experiment with different ingredients.

“Part of it is to keep us entertained” — and that benefits the customer’s satisfaction with the menu, said Hanson, who also heads the Arrowhead Professional Chefs Association.

Hanson also uses coconut oil at home for to create homemade chips and fries because of its high smoke point — the temperature the oil starts to burn. Coconut oil can withstand higher cooking temperatures compared to olive oil with its low smoke point and butter that burns quickly when heated, he said.

“It’s a really nice product,” he said.

Coconut oil lost its popularity after the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a scathing study in 1994, when the center said seven out of 10 movie theaters were still making popcorn in coconut oil. The study, “Popcorn: Oil in a Day’s Work,” analyzed popcorn made in coconut oil at 12 movie theaters and found that the amount of saturated fat in a large-size popcorn, without a butter topping, was the equivalent of six Big Macs.

Registered dietitians at St. Luke’s say no studies concretely support the health benefit claims about coconut oil.

“It has the highest amount of saturated fat of all oils,” said Karen Johnson, a registered dietitian nutritionist at St. Luke’s.

No more than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fat, although the recommendation is 7 percent for people with heart disease, Johnson said.

St. Luke’s registered dietitian nutritionist Brenda Schwerdt said she understands that coconut oil has a great texture and great flavor, “but it is a fat you’re eating.”

Coconut oil has the same number of calories as other oils and isn’t as heart healthy as other oils, Johnson said. It raises both HDL (“good”) cholesterol along with raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but the bad cholesterol increase is a concern, she explained. That increase will in turn increase a person’s risk for heart disease, strokes and any cardiovascular disease, she said.

Some claim that coconut oil can help people lose weight because it’s a medium-chain triglyceride — and that burns calories faster. However, coconut oil isn’t a 100 percent medium-chain triglyceride and it doesn’t contribute to weight loss, she said.

Olive oil and canola oil, which contain more monounsaturated fat, can be substituted for coconut oil, but they’re also still fats, Schwerdt said. Johnson added that the people still need to be conscious of the calories they’re consuming with olive and canola oils.

Monounsaturated fat is best because it raises HDL cholesterol without affecting the LDL cholesterol, Schwerdt said. Saturated fats, like butter or lard, are solid at room temperature and monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, are liquid at room temperature, she explained.

People can do away with oils entirely in recipes, substituting fruit, bean or vegetable puree or applesauce in foods, like black bean brownies, Schwerdt said.

Ultimately, people need to cook healthy food in ways that they’re going to stick with.

“If it’s practical, you’ll do it. If it’s a chore, you don’t do it,” Johnson said.boardboardboardboardboard