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This or That: Butter vs. Coconut Oil

By Lisa D'Agrosa, August 26, 2014 - 4:26pm

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This or That: Butter vs. Coconut Oil

Picking healthy spreads and cooking oils at the grocery store can be pretty confusing. There are many different choices out there, but which is best to pick?

We put two popular fats head to head to find out which is healthier: this or that? Is it healthier to use butter or coconut oil when it comes to fats?

The Winner: It’s a draw, actually.

They were both considered nutritional bad boys at one time for their high content of saturated fat, but both coconut oil and butter have gotten a bit of an image makeover in the past few years, as Joyce Hendley originally reported for EatingWell.

Saturated fat might not be the dietary villain it has been made out to be, according to recent research. And we’re seeing more “Butter Is Good for You” and “Coconut Oil: Super Health Food” headlines than ever. Our take on these fats? They’re not health foods nor are they health fiends. Neither one is basically better or worse than the other, but both make life a little more delicious, so there’s no reason to ban them from your kitchen entirely.

However, we recommend you use both sparingly. Here’s why:

Saturated Fats: Both butter and coconut oil, in terms of nutrition, are loaded with saturated fats. That means:

  • 87 percent of coconut oil’s fats—or 12 grams per tablespoon—is saturated fat
  • and
  • 51 percent of the fats in butter—or 7 grams per tablespoon—is saturated fat

Nutrition guidelines, including the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and those of the American Heart Association, still recommend keeping saturated fat to 7 to 10 percent of total daily calories or less.

That means if you average around 2,000 calories daily, you should limit your intake to just 16-22 grams of saturated fat per day.

Despite a recent review of research that suggested a low-saturated-fat diet doesn’t seem to reduce heart disease risk, not all saturated fats are created equal.

Possible Benefits: Some of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil and butter are medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), which are broken down in the body differently from other fats and may be less likely to be stored as fatty tissue, possibly helping promote weight loss.

Coconut’s main saturated fatty acid is the MCT lauric acid—and research suggests that while it raises unhealthful LDL cholesterol, one of the benefits of coconut oil is that it also boosts beneficial HDL cholesterol, and thus may have a neutral effect on heart disease risk.

Butter also contains a fair amount of vitamins A and D, along with vitamin K2 (a heart-friendly vitamin associated with less buildup of fatty plaques in arteries). And particularly when it comes from grass-fed cows, butter provides a small amount of conjugated linoleic acid, a naturally occurring fat that may have metabolism-revving effects and other possible health benefits.

Less-Healthy Fats: But—in a wonderful example of Mother Nature’s inherent checks and balances—both butter and coconut oil also contain some of the less-healthy saturated fatty acids, including myristic and palmitic acid, which have been linked to higher buildup of fatty plaques in arteries. (Butter’s main fatty acid, in fact, is palmitic.)

Bottom line: Coconut oil and butter are not “nutritional wonders” nor are they evil, and the saturated fat they contain isn’t the whole story.

At least until more is known, you’re better off using either one in moderation and getting the bulk of the fats you eat and cook with from heart-smart unsaturated sources, such as olive and canola oils and fatty fish.

Related: Watch More Grocery Store Face-Offs Between Popular Foods

Which do you prefer: coconut oil or butter? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Lisa D'Agrosa, Health Blog, Diet, Good choices, Health, This or That

Lisa D'Agrosa
Lisa D'Agrosa is EatingWell's associate nutrition editor. She earned her master's degree in nutrition communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and attended the dietetic internship program at Massachusetts General Hospital to become a registered dietitian.

Lisa asks: Which do you prefer: coconut oil or butter?

Tell us what you think:

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