Wonder what the real deal is with coconut oil, or whether coconut water is healthy to drink? We've looked at the research and found the answers.
Credit: Alita Ong

When, earlier this year, it came out that sales of coconut oil were dropping, we felt a little justified in touting that fact. Though the trendy oil has become a staple of diets like Paleo and Keto, we just haven't been sold on the claims that it's a superfood. And readers had strong reactions to the story—some of you were glad someone was finally saying it, while others thought we might have some kind of hidden agenda. 

To be clear, we're not anti-coconut oil: We're cooks first, and believe there's a place for every fat in the kitchen, as long as they are used in moderation. We even include it in recipes when it's called for.

But when, last week, a video of a Harvard professor calling coconut oil "pure poison" went viral, we realized there was still a lot of confusion out there—and not just about the oil, but about every part of the coconut, from the water, to the flakes. 

So we asked readers to send in nutrition-related coconut questions—and then we dug into the research to find the answers. Here you go: 

Since you're Cooking Light I assume you're anti-fat. So your opinion will be different, from, say a Paleo Nutritionist. Am I wrong?

We're not anti-fat, though we do believe in moderation! The truth is, there’s a place for all types of fat in a diet—but we do put an emphasis on healthy fats (nuts, nut butters, avocados, oily fish, liquid oils, etc.) and we encourage you to be at least mindful of your saturated fat intake.

We also aren't anti-Paleo, but we do try to look at the benefits and drawbacks of it, or of any diet trend—instead of just advocating for one over all others. The Cooking Light approach is to look at the research. We’re always going to talk about what science says works instead of honing in on, or giving advice around, one particular diet.

How much sugar do sweetened coconut flakes have over unsweetened? Is it better to use unsweetened and add a bit of extra sugar to the recipe?

The sugar in sweetened coconut flakes can vary brand-to-brand, but, per cup, it’s about 40 grams, or 10 teaspoons. (There are about 48 grams of total sugar in a cup of sweetened coconut flakes and 8 grams in a cup of unsweetened.)

Yes, you could substitute unsweetened coconut flakes in a recipe, but the swap might not be that easy, especially if you're baking. You see, sweetened coconut also adds moisture to a cake, cookie, or cupcake. Swapping in unsweetened coconut, as one of our expert bakers put it, “is the equivalent of adding nuts” to a recipe.

Are coconut flakes also high in saturated fat?

They are. Two tablespoons have 9g of saturated fat, which is nearly half of your recommended daily limit.

But they're tasty.

That's true! So it's sometimes worth it.

What is the difference between light coconut milk and full fat coconut milk?

Similar to dairy, the difference between light (or “lite”) coconut milk and full fat versions is: The fat.

Nutritionally, not much else differs! A cup of full fat coconut milk has around 335 calories and 33 grams of fat, 30 of which are saturated. A cup of light/lite coconut milk has significantly fewer calories (around 139, but it can vary brand-to-brand) and fat (in general about 14g total of which 12g are saturated).

What’s the difference between coconut milk in cans versus cartons—for cooking?

This is a really good question because they’re very, very different.

Despite the fact that both ingredient lists start with coconut milk and water as the first two ingredients, coconut milk in cans is thicker and more viscous. Coconut milk in cartons is much thinner, yet still opaque, and is typically referred to as a “coconut milk beverage” (check the label the next time you’re at the store and you’ll likely see “beverage” in small print).

For cooking, this means the cartons of coconut milk are essentially much more watered down, and the calories reflect that—a cup of coconut milk beverage ranges around 45 to 60 calories and only 4 or 5 grams of saturated fat.

That difference alone will make coconut milk beverages behave much differently in cooking, but also those carton beverages typically have stabilizers (various gums and/or carrageenan) to keep the contents emulsified—and those added ingredients may also play a role in how coconut milk beverages “perform” when cooking.  

What are the vitamins and nutrients in coconut water?

Coconut water naturally contains certain electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium), as well as some carbohydrates and sugars. It doesn’t have any fat in it. The amount of sugar varies because some brands add sugar whereas others just package pure coconut water so be sure to check the ingredient list if you’re seeking one without added sugars.

When exactly should I be reaching for coconut water? Is there an advantage over regular water?

Although coconut water contains electrolytes, you don’t always need those nutrients, or the calories that come with it, to stay hydrated.

Water does a fantastic job at keeping you hydrated for—wait for it—zero calories. Now, if you’re really exerting yourself then coconut water (or another sports drink) would be the wiser choice to help you replete all that you’ve lost sweating it out. However, there aren’t any scientific studies that have found coconut water to be superior to sports drinks. In fact, the research mostly shows that sports drinks are (ever so slightly marginally) better at rehydration than coconut water.

My two cents? Pick whatever drink is most appealing to you because you’re more likely to drink more of it and, thus, stay hydrated, or rehydrate faster. If water is your go-to, then replete your electrolytes with food—a handful of salty pretzels for some sodium, an orange or a banana for potassium works just as well.   

I’ve heard that the saturated fats (which raise your bad cholesterol, right?) are offset because coconut oil has stuff that also raises your good cholesterol. Is that true?

The short answer to your questions? Yes, yes, no.

Yes, saturated fats do raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the stuff that contributes to the buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries, which over time can narrow and stiffen your arteries, raising your risk for heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and other illnesses.

And yes, coconut oil has a few types of saturated fat—the majority of which is this type called lauric acid. Lauric acid boosts your HDL and only slightly raises your LDL cholesterol.

But unfortunately, no, the fact that coconut oil also raises your “good” HDL cholesterol doesn’t offset its high saturated fat content.  The thing is that all evidence suggests that even though the other saturated fats in coconut oil are in the minority, they drive up LDL more than the lauric acid raises HDL. And the net/net, per the American Heart Association, is that because increased LDL cholesterol is a known cause of cardiovascular disease, it’s an oil that they advise against.

In other words, use it sparingly, and save it for when you really want a big flavor impact in a dish.