Vancouver dietitian Nicole Fetterly likes to have virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil handy in her kitchen.
Although olive oil is her fat of choice, the mother of two finds that coconut oil gives a nice sear on fish. She also uses it sometimes for baking instead of butter.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with butter, but I might use it if I was making something with coconut to give it a more coconutty flavour,” Fetterly told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Coconut oil is 90 percent saturated fat, and because of that, it had a bad reputation in the past.
Saturated fat has long been thought to raise cholesterol levels, which causes heart disease. Since American scientist Ancel Keys hypothesized decades ago that dietary fats are correlated to cardiovascular problems, reducing fat intake has been a health-care goal.
But according to Fetterly, the tune is changing about saturated fat.
“We can’t say conclusively anymore that saturated fat is linked to heart diseases,” the food and nutrition expert said.
Writing in the British Medical Journal in 2013, cardiologist Aseem Malhotra argued that the link between saturated fats and heart problems is a “myth”. “Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk,” Malhotra wrote. “Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective.”
Results of a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 showed that there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat increases risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disorders. The analysis covered 21 studies involving 347,747 people.
According to Health Canada, fat is an important nutrient that provides energy, assists in the absorption of vitamins, and helps the body grow. But according to the federal agency—which categorizes fats as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”—not all fats are the same. The good ones are unsaturated fats like olive oil and fish oils. The ugly ones are trans fats, which are created when liquid unsaturated vegetable oils are turned solid for the manufacture of processed foods like cookies, crackers, and margarine.
Saturated fats found in coconut oil, meats, and dairy products fall in between as bad fat.
In Canada’s Food Guide, the health department recommends including only two to three tablespoons of unsaturated fat in the daily diet.
Fetterly thinks that Canada may change its view about saturated fats in the next decade, as the U.S. could take a different stance on cholesterol when it releases its new five-year American dietary guidelines this year.
A scientific report released in February 2015 by the American government’s influential Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee abolished the then current limit on cholesterol intake of 300 milligrams or less per day. The paper stated that “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.”
The nutrition panel also noted that “dietary advice should put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat.”
“In low-fat diets, fats are often replaced with refined carbohydrates and this is of particular concern because such diets are generally associated with dyslipidemia,” the American committee reported, referring to an imbalance between good and bad cholesterol.
Noting that saturated fat is “still a nutrient of concern for overconsumption” in the U.S., the committee recommended limiting consumption of saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories.
In 2013, businessman Paul Gill founded Naked Coconuts, a Vancouver-based company that imports virgin coconut oil from the Philippines. Gill told the Straight by phone that his favourite way of using coconut oil is in the morning: “I put it in my coffee and I swirl it in and it’s a great creamer.”
In the two editions of their 2000 book Becoming Vegan, dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina wrote that coconut oil is “neither a menace nor a miracle food”. “Coconut oil should be regarded like any other oil: a concentrated food that provides a lot of calories with limited nutrients,” the authors stated.
Melina told the Straight by phone that coconut oil is a “reasonable oil to use”.
As a dietitian, Fetterly said, she tends to recommend olive oil, although other types of fat sources like coconut oil and butter have a place on the table too as long as everything is consumed “in moderation”.