What Is Coconut Oil? Whether It’s Healthy, How to Use It, and Everything Else to Know

Medically Reviewed
coconut oil and wooden spoon

You can use coconut oil in cooking, baking, and even your beauty routine.

Natalia Klenova/Getty Images

Coconut oil may be the most controversial of all cooking oils. While many nutrition experts warn that its high saturated fat content is a potential artery-clogger, the tropical oil is embraced by followers of the popular ketogenic diet, and is rumored to have benefits as a functional food. So what’s the truth about coconut oil and its place in a healthy diet? This guide explains everything you need to know about this versatile oil.

What Is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is a tropical oil derived from — you guessed it — the flesh of coconuts. In stores, you’ll see both virgin and refined coconut oil. The specific type you’re buying will be indicated on the front label. Virgin coconut oil is less processed than the refined version, and that preserves its sweet tropical flavor. Refined coconut oil goes through more processing, which leads to a more neutral smell and flavor. Because it doesn’t have that telltale coconut taste, you can use the refined kind as a main cooking oil for a variety of recipes. “Refined coconut oil” is now often referred to as “all-purpose coconut oil,” so look for either phrase on the label. Additionally, there is no official USDA designation for “extra-virgin” coconut oil, so that language is often just marketing speak (not to be confused with olive oil, for which extra-virgin is the highest grade and virgin is unrefined).

Like many trendy health foods, coconut oil enjoyed a burst of popularity that has waned in recent years. While retail sales of coconut oil peaked in 2015, they fell by around 30 percent in 2018. That decline is due in part to the continued controversy surrounding the oil's health benefits and risks.

But, spurred in part by the popularity of low-carb, high-fat diets, such as the keto diet, the market for coconut oil is expected to rise again over the next several years, recent forecasts show. Coconut oil is often promoted as a keto-friendly food, although many experts question just how healthy it is.

How to Cook It: Chocolate-Covered Grilled Coconut

Find out how to open a coconut in this delicious recipe for grilled coconut covered in dark chocolate. It's a nutritious dessert you can feel good about!
How to Cook It: Chocolate-Covered Grilled Coconut

Coconut Oil Nutrition Facts, Including How Many Calories It Has

These are the nutrition facts for a 1 tablespoon (tbsp) serving of coconut oil.

  • Calories?104
  • Protein?0 grams (g)
  • Fat?11.5 g
  • Saturated fat?9.6 g
  • Carbohydrates?0 g
  • Fiber?0 g
  • Sugar?0 g
That’s very similar to other oils. For instance, 1 tbsp of olive oil has 119 calories and 13.5 g of fat.

Compared With Olive Oil, Is Coconut Oil a Healthy Fat?

Although coconut oil has a similar nutritional profile to other cooking oils, the main difference lies in the specific types of fats it contains. The majority — 83 percent — of the fat in coconut oil is?saturated fat, the kind typically found in animal products like meat and dairy. In olive oil, on the other hand, only 14 percent of the fat is saturated.

Saturated fat tends to be solid at room temperature and is often considered unhealthy because there is evidence that diets high in saturated fats raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease. Conversely, unsaturated fats, either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, remain liquid at room temperature and are considered healthier because in moderation, and especially in place of saturated fats, they have been shown to have a beneficial effect on heart health.

A single tablespoon of coconut oil nearly meets the American Heart Association’s recommended 13 g per day limit on saturated fat (based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet).

Meanwhile, the same amount of olive oil contains less than 2 g of saturated fat. For that reason, many experts say olive oil is a healthier choice. Because of its saturated fat content, coconut oil has gained a reputation as an unhealthy, artery-clogging oil, and many experts still recommend avoiding it.

But in recent years, some researchers have questioned whether saturated fat is as unhealthy as previously thought, and there's been renewed interest in coconut oil as a potential healthy option.

Possible Health Benefits and Risks of Coconut Oil

The health benefits of coconut oil aren’t so cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a very controversial topic. One Harvard University professor commented that coconut oil is?reines Gift, or "pure poison," in a talk she gave in Germany.?(In the viral video, the professor, Karin?Michels, also says in German that the trendy oil is "one of the worst foods you can eat.")

On the one hand, coconut oil advocates acknowledge that it’s high in saturated fat, which has been implicated in increased?heart disease risk. But they point out that there’s something unique about the saturated fat found in the tropical oil: It’s rich in a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, which may behave differently from other saturated fats.

Why? These fatty acids may have a different impact on cholesterol levels than other saturated fats. One study notes that while saturated-fat-rich coconut oil raises total and?“bad” LDL cholesterol levels?more than unsaturated plant oils, it didn’t do so by as much as butter.

One randomized clinical trial looked at the health result of consuming about 1.75 ounces of extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or extra-virgin olive oil daily for four weeks. Much as previous research has shown, butter upped LDL levels more than coconut and olive oils. Coconut oil also increased?HDL?levels more than butter or olive oil. While this wasn’t a study on weight loss (so no one was told to, say, cut calories), the researchers noted that no one in the groups lost (or gained) weight or belly fat by adding any of these fats.

Concerns about coconut oil’s saturated fat prevent many experts from recommending it. Indeed, top nutrition and health researchers have recommended that people replace saturated with unsaturated fats to reduce heart disease risk.

Likewise, a review and meta-analysis on the health effects of coconut oil suggest that people avoid it because of its high levels of saturated fat, which they found raise?LDL cholesterol significantly more than other types of (nontropical) cooking oils, making you more prone to conditions like heart disease.

Someone could jump to the conclusion that if saturated fat isn’t all that bad,?and?coconut oil’s fatty acids may even be health-promoting, they have?carte blanche to eat it, as some past research has suggested.

The facts as they stand are that the effect of coconut oil on health isn’t quite clear.

The reality may be that when placed in the typical standard American?diet?(dubbed the SAD diet), coconut oil may behave differently. The entirety of your eating habits may matter more than whether or not you include this oil. Baseline heart disease rates may be lower in South Asian cultures, which frequently consume coconut oil, and that may not be the case if the oil is included in?any?diet, research suggests.

“Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet,” the authors of one review wrote.

Another plus of coconut oil is that it remains stable under heat, meaning it’s not as likely as other oils to oxidize and create harmful compounds like free radicals during cooking.

Different types of coconut oil are suitable for different cooking methods. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F) — meaning you can heat it up to that temperature before it begins to smoke and oxidize; refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, of 400 degrees F, allowing you more leeway.

Is Coconut Oil Good for Weight Loss?

Medium-chain fatty acids like lauric acid are quickly broken down by the body and converted into energy, which is why the oil is often included in weight loss diets. A few small studies suggest that it may benefit your waistline, but, in moderation, it doesn’t have any measurable effect on?BMI one way or another. And long-term effects on weight loss aren’t known. Plus, just because something may be metabolized quickly doesn’t mean you can have a field day. Coconut oil still contains calories, and eating more than your body needs will likely result in weight and fat gain.

Overall, research has been underwhelming and inconsistent.

But one study did find that supplementing with coconut oil for eight weeks reduced belly fat better than safflower, chia, and soybean oils in women who had obesity.

In one small study, men with obesity consumed 1 tbsp of either coconut or soybean oil per day while eating the same number of calories. After 45 days, there were no changes to the body composition in either group, though those eating the coconut oil increased their HDL levels.

Another small randomized controlled trial in men with metabolic syndrome found that substituting about an ounce of virgin coconut oil for existing dietary fat did not affect waist circumference at the end of the study.

Ideas for Cooking and Baking With Coconut Oil

It’s okay to include coconut oil in your dietary oil rotation, but you should lean more heavily on unsaturated fats that have consistent science behind their benefits, like olive oil. In general, aim to stay within the saturated fat limits for your diet.

When cooking, you can use coconut oil in stir-fries, with eggs, in baked goods, or for popping popcorn — just remember to choose virgin or refined according to your taste preferences. Some people also stir coconut oil into their coffee for a morning boost. Eating it cold is another option; spread a small amount of the more flavorful virgin coconut oil on toast, or consider adding a dollop to a smoothie for the satiating fat.

Want to learn more? Here are five recipes to try that use coconut oil.

Fat Bombs?These famous keto-friendly cocoa-based treats from Chocolate Covered Katie use a base of coconut oil.

Whole Wheat Coconut Waffles?This breakfast staple from Cookie and Kate uses minimal sugar but still maintains a nice sweetness.

Thai Chicken Curry?Serve this creamy curry from Healthy Recipes Blog atop brown rice.

Vegan Butternut Squash Soup With Coconut Milk?Sip on this nourishing soup from Coconut Mama — serve with a slice of whole-grain bread for dipping.

Coconut Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies?Yes, you can bake with coconut oil, and this recipe from Gimme Some Oven is chewy perfection.

How to Use Coconut Oil in Your Beauty Routine

Beyond cooking, coconut oil really shines as a beauty product. You can use it on your hair as an in-shower mask to boost moisture, or smooth a bit on dry hair to tame frizz. In addition, one study suggests that the oil’s antimicrobial properties may support scalp health to treat dandruff.

On skin, coconut oil can be used as a lip balm or as a body moisturizer.

Even better, there are science-backed reasons to apply coconut oil topically. A past double-blind study compared virgin coconut oil with olive oil as a moisturizer for people suffering from?atopic dermatitis, or eczema?(an inflammatory skin condition with symptoms like redness and itchiness) and found that coconut oil reduced symptoms better than olive oil. Coconut oil was also superior in clearing?staphylococcus aureus (or a staph infection)?from the skin (in 95 percent of cases) compared with olive oil (in 50 percent of cases), suggesting that the tropical oil has antifungal and antiviral properties.

Parents can be confident about slathering it on their kids’ skin, too. According to an earlier study, in children with atopic dermatitis, participants who used virgin coconut oil for eight weeks experienced more relief of skin dryness than those who used?mineral oil. In fact, 93 percent of those using coconut oil saw a moderate or excellent improvement, while 53 percent of those using mineral oil did.

Bottom line: If you have a jar of coconut oil in your kitchen, you may want to keep one in your bathroom, too.

Common Questions & Answers

Is it healthy to eat coconut oil every day?
Coconut oil is rich in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol and heart disease risk. The average person should limit the amount of saturated fat to 13 g per day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains nearly 10 g of saturated fat. Make sure your total saturated fat consumption from coconut oil and other sources (meat, dairy) falls within this limit.
Is coconut oil good for keto?
Coconut oil is considered keto friendly, and many people consume it while on the diet. The oil is high in fat (about 12 g per tablespoon) and contains no carbohydrates.
Does coconut oil reduce belly fat?
There is inconsistent data to suggest that coconut oil can be useful for weight loss or reducing belly fat. What’s more, coconut oil is rich in calories, and overconsuming calories can cause weight gain.
Is coconut oil good for cooking?
Absolutely. Refined (or all-purpose) coconut oil has a neutral flavor and high smoke point of 400 degrees F, making it a good choice for cooking or baking.
What is the difference between virgin and nonvirgin coconut oil?
Virgin coconut oil has a distinctive taste and a lower smoke point than refined coconut oil, so it doesn’t hold up as well in higher-heat cooking.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Organic Refined Coconut Oil.?Nutiva.
  • Dewey C. The Sudden Collapse of Coconut Oil, 2015’s Favorite Superfood.?The Washington Post. March 7, 2018.
  • Basic Report: 04047, Oil, Coconut. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 2019.
  • Basic Report: 04053, Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 2019.
  • Saturated Fat.?American Heart Association. November 2021.
  • Advisory: Replacing Saturated Fat With Healthier Fat Could Lower Cardiovascular Risks. American Heart Association. June 15, 2017.
  • Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, et al. Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans.?Nutrition Reviews. April 2016.
  • Khaw K-T, Sharp SJ, Finikarides L, et al. Randomized Trial of Coconut Oil, Olive Oil, or Butter on Blood Lipids and Other Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Healthy Men and Women.?BMJ Open. March 2018.
  • Sacks FM, Lichtenstein AH, Wu JHY, et al. Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.?Circulation. June 2017.
  • Dayrit FM. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil.?Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. January 2015.
  • McCarty MF, DiNicolantonio JJ. Lauric Acid-Rich Medium-Chain Triglycerides Can Substitute for Other Oils in Cooking Applications and May Have Limited Pathogenicity.?Open Heart. July 2016.
  • Dayrit FM. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil.?Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. January 2015.
  • Coconut Oil for Weight Loss: Does It Work??Mayo Clinic. December 2020.
  • Keis K, Persaud D, et al. Investigation of Penetration Abilities of Various Oils Into Human Hair Fibers.?Journal of Cosmetic Science. September–October 2005.
  • Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM. A Randomized Double-Blind Controlled Trial Comparing Extra Virgin Coconut Oil With Mineral Oil as a Moisturizer for Mild to Moderate Xerosis.?Dermatitis. September 2004.
  • Organic Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil for Hair.?Nutiva.
  • Uses of Coconut Oil (Besides Food).?Carrington Farms. March 26, 2015.
  • Verallo-Rowell VM, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Novel Antibacterial and Emollient Effects of Coconut and Virgin Olive Oils in Adult Atopic Dermatitis.?Dermatitis. November–December 2008.
  • Strunk T, Pupala S, Hibbert J, et al. Topical Coconut Oil in Very Preterm Infants: An Open-Label Randomised Controlled Trial.?Neonatology. February 2018.
  • Evangelista MT, Abad-Casintahan F, Lopez-Villafuerte L. The Effect of Topical Coconut Oil on SCORAD Index, Transepidermal Water Loss, and Skin Capacitance in Mild to Moderate Pediatric Atopic Dermatitis: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Clinical Trial.?International Journal of Dermatology. January 2014.
  • Virgin Coconut Oil Market Size in 2022: 2.3% CAGR with Top Countries Data, What Is the Expected Addressable Market Value of Major Virgin Coconut Oil Over a 5-Year Period? MarketWatch. April 2022.
  • Neelakantan N, Hoong Seah JY and van Dam RM. The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors. Circulation. January 2020.
  • Saxena R, Mittal P, Clavaud C, et al. Longitudinal Study of the Scalp Microbiome Suggests Coconut Oil to Enrich Healthy Scalp Commensals. Scientific Reports. March 2021.
  • Vogel CE, Crovesy L, Lopes Rosado E, et al. Effect of Coconut Oil on Weight Loss and Metabolic Parameters in Men With Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Food & Function. July 2020.
  • Nikooei P, Hosseinzadeh-Attar MJ, Asghari S, et al. Effects of Virgin Coconut Oil Consumption on Metabolic Syndrome Components and Asymmetric Dimethylarginine: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrition, Metabolic & Cardiovascular Diseases. March 2021.
  • Clegg ME. They Say Coconut Oil Can Aid Weight Loss, but Can It Really? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. October 2017.
  • Oliveira-de-Lira L, Couto Santos ED, Fabrício de Souza, et al. Supplementation-Dependent Effects of Vegetable Oils with Varying Fatty Acid Compositions on Anthropometric and Biochemical Parameters in Obese Women. Nutrients. July 2018.
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Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Organic Refined Coconut Oil. Nutiva.
  2. Dewey C. The Sudden Collapse of Coconut Oil, 2015’s Favorite Superfood.?Washington Post. March 7, 2018.
  3. Basic Report: 04047, Oil, Coconut. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 2018.
  4. Basic Report: 04053, Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 2018.
  5. Saturated Fat. American Heart Association. March 24, 2017.
  6. Advisory: Replacing Saturated Fat With Healthier Fat Could Lower Cardiovascular Risks. American Heart Association News. June 15, 2017.
  7. Ask the Doctor: Coconut Oil and Health. Harvard Health Publishing. December 4, 2017.
  8. Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, et al. Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans. Nutrition Reviews. April 2016.
  9. Khaw K-T, Sharp SJ, Finikarides L, et al. Randomized Trial of Coconut Oil, Olive Oil, or Butter on Blood Lipids and Other Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Healthy Men and Women. BMJ Open. March 2018.
  10. Sacks FM, Lichtenstein AH, Wu JHY, et al. Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.?Circulation. June 2017.
  11. Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. March 2014.
  12. Dayrit FM. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. January 2015.
  13. Lappano R, Sebastiani A, Cirillo F, et al. The Lauric Acid-Activated Signaling Prompts Apoptosis in Cancer Cells. Cell Death Discovery. September 2017.
  14. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. Structured Lipids: An Overview and Comments on Performance Enhancement Potential. Food Components to Enhance Performance: An Evaluation of Potential Performance-Enhancing Food Components for Operational Rations. 1994.
  15. McCarty MF, DiNicolantonio JJ. Lauric Acid-Rich Medium-Chain Triglycerides Can Substitute for Other Oils in Cooking Applications and May Have Limited Pathogenicity. Open Heart. July 2016.
  16. Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, et al. Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans. Nutrition Reviews. April 2016.
  17. Dayrit FM. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. January 2015.
  18. Can Coconut Oil Help Me Lose Weight? Mayo Clinic. June 26, 2015.
  19. Keis K, Persaud D, et al. Investigation of Penetration Abilities of Various Oils Into Human Hair Fibers. Journal of Cosmetic Science. September–October 2005.
  20. Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM. A Randomized Double-Blind Controlled Trial Comparing Extra Virgin Coconut Oil With Mineral Oil as a Moisturizer for Mild to Moderate Xerosis. Dermatitis. September 2004.
  21. Organic Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil for Hair. Nutiva.
  22. Uses of Coconut Oil (Besides Food). Carrington Farms. March 26, 2015.
  23. Verallo-Rowell VM, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Novel Antibacterial and Emollient Effects of Coconut and Virgin Olive Oils in Adult Atopic Dermatitis. Dermatitis. November–December 2008.
  24. Strunk T, Pupala S, Hibbert J, et al. Topical Coconut Oil in Very Preterm Infants: An Open-Label Randomised Controlled Trial. Neonatology. February 2018.
  25. Evangelista MT, Abad-Casintahan F, Lopez-Villafuerte L. The Effect of Topical Coconut Oil on SCORAD Index, Transepidermal Water Loss, and Skin Capacitance in Mild to Moderate Pediatric Atopic Dermatitis: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Clinical Trial. International Journal of Dermatology. January 2014.
Show Less