— Cathy Spence, Beaumont, New Mexico
A: My opinion is that we don't yet know. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, and that's why it's gotten a bad rap. But recently, saturated fats have been getting a second look because it turns out they're not all the same. The saturated fatty acids—palmitic acid and myristic acid—that are abundant in butter, cream, and some meats have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease. However, coconut oil contains lauric acid and stearic acid (also found in dark chocolate), and these seem to behave differently in the body; early research suggests they don't raise heart disease risk.
But I have yet to see any convincing evidence that coconut oil can decrease your heart disease risk (or that it can boost your immune system or help you lose weight—two other common claims). Ongoing research may prove otherwise, but until the results are in, don't make it a point to consume coconut oil. And I wouldn't substitute it for oils we know are beneficial, such as olive oil and canola oil.
There is one positive outcome from the renewed scrutiny of coconut oil: It will almost certainly prove to be healthier than trans fat, which has led some food manufacturers to begin using it as a replacement.
David L. Katz, MD, is director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and president of the nonprofit Turn the Tide Foundation.