Is Coconut Oil Healthier Than Butter?

By: Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.  |  Friday, August 17, 2012
All things coconut seem to be über popular these days. (A few weeks ago I wrote about coconut water: is it worth the splurge?
) To that end, more and more I’m hearing about replacing butter with coconut oil—because it’s (allegedly) healthier. The skeptical dietitian in me balked at the notion, but then I thought I ought to investigate. Here’s what I found.
Nutrition breakdown (per 1 tablespoon)
•Coconut oil: 117 calories, 14 grams total fat, 12 grams saturated fat
•Unsalted butter: 102 calories, 12 grams total fat, 7 grams saturated fat
Based on the numbers, butter seems to be the better choice: it’s lower in calories, total fat and saturated fat. Plus, the percentage of fat from saturated fat is lower: 58 percent versus 86 percent.
Related: Is Margarine Healthier Than Butter?
What about the buzz that the type of saturated fat in coconut oil is healthier?
Emerging research suggests that some saturated fatty acids may not be harmful. (What we call saturated fat is actually a mosaic of building blocks called saturated fatty acids, such as lauric, myristic, stearic and palmitic acids.) The main fatty acid in butter is palmitic acid. And palmitic acid appears more likely than others to cause the buildup of fatty plaque in arteries. Lauric acid is the main fatty acid in coconut oil—and research suggests it boosts beneficial HDL cholesterol, but it also raises unhealthful LDL. Excessive LDL is damaging to the heart and arteries because it accumulates in artery walls and can trigger inflammation, eventually leading to a heart attack or stroke. “Coconut oil is slightly less evil than other saturated-fat-rich foods like palm oil and shortening because of its impact on HDL,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.H.A., a distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. “But it still isn’t good for you.”
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So, what’s my takeaway? Until more is known, you’re better off replacing your butter and coconut oil with heart-smart unsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oils. Per tablespoon, olive oil contains 119 calories and 13.5 grams of total fat, of which only 1 is saturated; canola oil contains 124 calories and 14 grams of total fat and 1 gram is saturated. (Find out when you should be using olive and canola oils here.)