STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Is coconut oil a healthy food? - certainly is promoted as one. Survey a broad group of Americans and 72 percent say, yes, coconut oil is healthy. Talk with some nutritionists, and they say, no, it's not. NPR's April Fulton reports.
APRIL FULTON, BYLINE: Let's get one thing out of the way. Fat is not the enemy. Fat helps us feel fuller longer and stay satisfied. Eating some fat can actually help us snack less and potentially lose weight. But there's something pretty important about fat to consider - what kind of fat we're eating and how much.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)
MARY DONKERSLOOT: I'm going to saute my onions in extra virgin olive oil here.
FULTON: I'm in the kitchen with Mary Donkersloot.
DONKERSLOOT: It's my favorite oil for sauteeing.
FULTON: Donkersloot is a nutritionist in Beverly Hills. She's using olive oil because it's high in monounsaturated fat.
DONKERSLOOT: In terms of calories, all fats are the same. Butter, coconut oil, olive oil, they all have the same number of calories. But they're different when it comes to your health.
FULTON: And when it comes to health, Donkersloot is no fan of coconut oil because it has lots of saturated fat, which is associated with an increase in the risk of heart attack and stroke.
DONKERSLOOT: You know, a tablespoon of coconut oil has about 12 grams of saturated fat, whereas olive oil has two. Butter comes in the middle there around 7.
FULTON: So just one tablespoon of coconut oil contains most of the saturated fat many Americans are supposed to have in one day. That's not leaving any room for yogurt or meat. And forget dessert. Still, a lot of people think coconut oil is different.
DONKERSLOOT: Adding fat to your diet in this idea that it's going to bust your belly fat - no, not going to happen.
FULTON: Studies just haven't borne it out. While some preliminary research shows that coconut oil raises the levels of good cholesterol, it also raises the levels of bad cholesterol. Dankersloot says there are many options.
All right. Let's go check out the oils at the store.
FULTON: We drive to Jayde's, a local gourmet market near her house. Here the oil aisle looks a lot like the cereal aisle with tons of choices.
DONKERSLOOT: Wow. This is quite a beautiful array of oils. Here's grapeseed, walnut, almond oil.
FULTON: And bottles and bottles of olive oil.
DONKERSLOOT: How about this pumpkin seed oil? Never heard of it.
FULTON: So how do you choose? First, look for the oils with the lowest amount of saturated fat. Alice Lichtenstein directs the cardiovascular nutrition lab at Tufts University. She basically looks at how our diets affect our hearts. Since the 1960s, Lichtenstein says, well-controlled clinical trials have shown that too much saturated fat can be a problem.
ALICE LICHTENSTEIN: So that would be things like coconut oil, palm oil or palm kernel oil and then animal fat. So that would either be meat fat or dairy fat.
FULTON: Those studies also show that if we replace those types of fat with unsaturated fats like corn oil, sunflower oil or olive oil, we'll reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and be healthier. Lichtenstein has seen a lot of fad diets come and go.
LICHTENSTEIN: Why things like coconut oil somehow slipped under the radar is a little bit unclear. But it's not consistent with any of the recommendations that have occurred over the past 30, 40, 50 years.
FULTON: So it's OK to use coconut oil, just don't use it all the time. What you want to do is shift the ratio more towards unsaturated fat and away from saturated fat. And that means more olive, flax and canola oil and less coconut oil and bacon. When it comes to your diet, it's all about the balance. April Fulton, NPR News, Los Angeles.