Coconut Oil vs. Olive Oil

By Deanna Wolfe, M.S., R.D.N., L.D. – April 1, 2015


Coconut oil is the edible oil extracted from the meat of matured coconuts. Many virgin coconut oils on the market today are produced by first drying out the fresh coconut meat and later pressing the oil out of the coconut. Olive oil is produced by crushing the whole olive (including the stone) into a paste and then extracting the oil from it. Extra-virgin olive oil is extracted during the first pressing of olives.


Nutrition and Health Benefits

Coconut oil and olive oil both contain 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, with both oils containing zero artery-clogging trans-fats. The difference between the two is in the percentage of saturated versus unsaturated fats. Coconut oil is made up mostly of saturated fats, while olive oil is predominantly made up of monounsaturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of total daily calorie consumption, as it raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. However, even though coconut oil is high in saturated fat, about half of the saturated fat is lauric acid—a medium-chain triglyceride—which may improve levels of HDL (or “good” cholesterol) and help build and maintain the body’s immune system. Also, preliminary studies show that medium-chain triglycerides may be more easily digested and converted to energy in the body (great for athletes). However, more research in this area still needs to be done.

Extra virgin olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fats which can lower total cholesterol levels as well as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. The polyphenols found in olive oil function as antioxidants and may help lower the risk of several types of cancer and improve blood pressure. Additionally, new research shows benefits of improved cognitive function, specifically associated with aging, with the consumption of 2–3 tablespoons of olive oil per day.


Cooking and Uses

When cooking with oils, it’s important to know the smoke point of the oil. When oils break down beyond their smoke point, their molecular structure changes and harmful free radicals are produced. The smoke point of unrefined virgin coconut oil is 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil is 320 degrees. Therefore, unrefined virgin coconut oil has a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil. Different olive oils can have different smoke points depending on how refined they are, which is why some olive oil products may list their smoke point closer to 410 degrees. To test an oil’s smoke point on your own, heat your oil in a pan and take note of when it starts to emit smoke—this is the oil’s smoke point. Make sure you use the oil before this happens. Both olive and coconut oils should be avoided when using high-heat cooking techniques like frying. Olive oil is best used for salad dressings, making pesto or hummus, drizzling over vegetables before serving, and for quick sautéing. Coconut oil is great for stir-frying, sautéing, baking (it’s a great substitute for butter), drizzling over oatmeal, or even using as a skin moisturizer.


What to Look For

The quality of the oil makes all the difference. For coconut oil, look for unrefined, organic, virgin, or extra-virgin. Read the ingredient list to look for these keywords as it’s not always clarified on the front of the jar. Trader Joe’s has a great organic virgin coconut oil and so does the 365 brand at Whole Foods. Other great brands include Nutiva and Artisana. For olive oil, look for “extra virgin” on the label, which signifies it has undergone less processing. Also look for a dark glass bottle to lessen the exposure to light—a factor that can destroy the flavor.


My Pick

Olive Oil. This is due to the fact that there are many large, randomized control studies done on olive oil and comparatively fewer studies have been done on coconut oil. A few studies show the saturated fats in coconut oil may be less damaging than other saturated fats, but we are still unsure. Use olive oil with dishes that are cold or cooked quickly and coconut oil for dishes that may need to be baked. There’s research that proves both coconut and olive oil have great health benefits when consumed in moderation, so remember to use all oils sparingly, as they are still high in fat and calories. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can supply just as many, if not more, antioxidants and health benefits.


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