Coconut oil vs. butter—thoughts?
I’m engaged in a very in-depth and fascinating debate today with someone I’ve never met. A friend of mine, Rachelle, made a cake, posted a picture on Facebook, and mentioned she didn’t love the frosting. I suggested she try the frosting from my best-ever chocolate cake, which is coconut-oil-based. A chemist friend of hers (we’ll call him M.S.) posted the following comments:
“Food fads are weird and cyclical. Palm oil used to be pure evil, but it gets rebranded as coconut oil and it is in everything. While probably better for you than shortening, I like butter. I [don’t] mean to disparage palm oil users. It actually makes a lot of sense if you want to consume no animal products and like to bake as it is the only naturally occurring solid (at room temperature) vegetable fat. I do mean to disparage people who think the fact that it is new and exotic that it is healthier than butter.”
“I was informed that partially hydrogenated palm oil < pure coconut oil and pure coconut oil > butter.”
“Yes, all true except being better than butter. I mean, it may be but not enough better to be worth anything. Butter has cholesterol and coconut oil is cholesterol free, but butter has less saturated fat. Butter has about twice as many omega-6 fatty acids. Butter is also 20% water 80% fat, while coconut oil is 100% fat. If you use that much more butter (or that much less coconut oil) then it doesn't matter. But it is something to consider when crafting a recipe.”
If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut…
“Well, I better throw in my two cents...but let me preface by saying @MS, *I* don't mean to disparage butter users. :) 1. Healthy alternatives in cooking and baking aren’t “fads.” This isn’t the cabbage soup diet here; it’s chocolate cake. 2. Partially hydrogenated palm oil (read: trans fat) still IS pure evil. But virgin plant-derived oils (including palm and coconut) in their natural forms are, obviously, un-messed with, and contain their full spectrum of nutritious medium-chain fatty acids. 3. Palm oil is derived from either the kernel (seed) or the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm. Coconut oil is derived from the meat or kernel of the COCONUT. There is no rebranding—they are two disparate products. 4. Butter is composed primarily of saturated fatty acids of which eating too much increases one’s risks of heart disease, hypertension, hypercholestemia, arteriosclerosis, obesity, certain types of cancers (incl. breast, prostate, colon, kidney, pancreas, et al.), diabetes, and more. In addition, as saturated fats are particularly tiresome for the liver to break down, the greatest percentage of those fats are converted to storage in adipose (fat) cells rather than being burned by the body for energy. Also, eating butter = ingesting bacteria, dioxins, herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and anything else the cow eats (i.e. GMO corn that its rumen [stomach] is unable to properly digest or assimilate into nutrients in the first place). 5. The saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids, while the ones in butter are long-chain. Medium-chain are metabolized differently than the long-chain saturated fats described above in (4). MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) resemble carbohydrates more than they do fats. They are more water soluble, and as such they don't require bile to break down, and are thus broken down more quickly. They enter the bloodstream faster and are used as an immediate source of energy – i.e., fewer MCTs are converted to body fat than longer-chain fatty acids. 6. A high percentage of omega-6 fats is another big DOWNSIDE of butter. Humans need both omega-3s and omega-6s in their daily diet, yes – but our bodies require them in roughly-equal amounts, a 1-to-1 ratio. Thanks to the prevalence of corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils, and yes, BUTTER, the average American diet provides omega-6s in a 10-TO-1 RATIO to omega-3s. That’s a big, BIG problem for heart health. 7. Yes, coconut oil is 100% fat. So is olive oil, and so are other healthy, “pure” plant oils. I’ll take a tablespoon of oil with 14g of good fats over a tablespoon of butter with 12g bad fats any day. Like I said, no disparaging intended. I am all about people putting into their bodies whatever they choose. I simply feel compelled to inform. :)”
But the good M.S. was not to be silenced that easily! He came back with:
“1) Do dairy cows eat corn? Corn is usually used to finish beef cattle (the last few months before slaughter to fatten them up), but as far as I can tell forage (straw, grass, etc.) is primarily what dairy cattle are fed. 2) I was mistaken about the distinction between the composition of coconut oil and palm oil. I knew they were from different parts of the coconut, but I didn't realize that they differed in their fatty acid composition as much as they do. Coconut oil is far more saturated. 3)Not all the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are medium chain. 77% of the fat in coconut oil are long chain saturated fatty acids (C12 to C18), 15% are medium chain fatty acids (C6 to C10). Compared to butter which is 56% long chain and 8% medium chain (4% short chain, C4). So more of it is medium chain in coconut, but more of it is long chain. This is because coconut oil is more saturated over all (I am leaving unsaturatated fats out of the discussion because it appears that the medium/long chain distinction only applies to saturated fats, but I am certainly open to correction). The stats I found were coconut oil 92% saturated vs butter 68% saturated. 4) Looking up what you said about the health benefits of medium chain fatty acids and I can't really verify any of it (apart from how they are absorbed). There have been animal studies showing that rats burn more energy consuming medium chains vs long chains and can lose weight on a diet of medium chains. There have been studies that the burning of energy translates over to humans, but that hasn't resulted in studies where weight loss has also been shown to be statistically significant. Which makes sense, we are just talking about a 10% difference or so. Would you notice if you got a 10% smaller piece of butter cake vs coconut oil cake? (The difference would be even smaller as I noted above, butter has fewer medium chain fatty acids, but in both butter and coconut oil long chains out number mediums by a substantial margin) 5) What you say about heart disease is biologically plausible, but I couldn't find any studies which bore it out. On the cancer front, I don't see biological plausibility. It really doesn't make sense to say x causes cancer while substituting y does not when you don't specify what type of cancer you're talking about. The causes of cancer, environmental, genetic, etc. is a really really complicated area and every type of cancer is different. Something that prevents one type of cancer may make another type worse (this is what new research on antioxidants is showing). So, I mean, you could be right, but we'd never be able to design a study which showed it due to all the possible confounding factors. Unless the beneficial effect of medium chain fatty acids was HUGE. Or the negative effect of long chain fatty acids was HUGE (see lung cancer and smoking). I doubt eating long chain fatty acids is as carcinogenic as inhaling tobacco smoke 15-20 times a day for 40 years. In conclusion, coconut oil may be healthier, but it is not clear, even if everything you say is true. Which also isn't clear, given the state of the literature. Unless there are some studies I am not aware of.”
Though I wasn’t trying to start a debate this sprawling, and clearly this guy is hella smart and I have zero animosity towards him, I responded anyway:
“1. Organic dairy cows may be given grass, to at least some degree, but overall a diet of hay, corn silage, soybeans, alfalfa, and protein supplements is what is fed to industrial dairy cows (plus the usual array of antibiotics, etc). (Also, the “last few months” of beef cattle’s lives is pretty close to “the majority” of their lives.) 3. Granted 4. True, human studies are harder to come by than those on rodents, and human trials are admittedly small-scale. (Seems to be the case for all too many things...) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2739575?dopt=Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12800105?dopt=Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14608053?dopt=Abstract http://www.springerlink.com/content/02ngg2413wm2w630/?p=b15b9325833647369012d5e19a06ac9d&pi=1 Anecdotal at best, you might say, but evidence adds up over time (as does weight loss – the same way eating a mere 100 fewer calories per day translates to roughly 10 lbs lost over a year’s time). I’m not saying that MCTs are the BEST thing you can eat. Clearly there is SO much more to a healthy diet than sat fat (this applies to  below, as well). I would absolutely say that a person eating a Tbsp of butter per day is far better off than someone consuming a cup of coconut oil per day (caloric content aside, even). I think if people choose to include butter as part of a healthy diet, it can be done – moderation in everything. In equal amounts, though, if a person were to choose one of these two fat sources to utilize, I personally advocate coconut oil. The health benefits over butter, though they may not be as staggeringly sweeping as one would like to see proven, are still enough for me to give it full preference. (Plus, I like the taste better! Of course that counts for something in all this.) 5. Certainly, there is more to cancer than one single thing like omega-6 consumption. I hope I didn’t make it sound like that was the be-all/end-all to cancer. But generally speaking, cancer being so closely linked to inflammation, and omega-3 fats being anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fats generally promoting inflammation (this, I guess, is why our bodies prefer them in equal ratios), I think it is one important factor to consider in the question of cancer. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17607361 http://foodforbreastcancer.com/news/low-omega-6-to-omega-3-ratio-reduces-breast-density-and-may-lower-breast-cancer-risk http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050802123505.htm Again, anecdotal, and there’s infinitely more to be researched in this realm. I’m not supposing that these handful of links I’m throwing out there “prove” anything or solve the issue in its entirety. Just some examples. For me, it comes down to: Coconut oil has more benefits to our body, generally, than butter does. and/or Butter has more negative health effects and relations, generally, than coconut oil does. There’s no perfect food, and a thousand other things to consider in diet, but as far as this question, my vote goes to coconut. But to each his own! PS—Your supposition about tobacco being worse than butter is something with which I agree wholeheartedly. I applaud you for your thorough investigations. I’m not a scientist (and I’m told YOU are! Which is awesome), just a layperson with an intense interest in this stuff, so I won’t claim to be THE authority on all this...though my opinions are “strong,” to put it lightly. Just, like I said, MY two cents...or at this point more like two dollars, but no matter. :)”
So now, we wait to see what/if he replies.
Any thoughts? Additions? Contributions? Corrections? Helpful links?
M.S. responded thusly…
“Interesting studies. They are small, but compelling given the level of control. I admit I didn't know what I was talking about regarding coconut oil. And I never intended to equate a perfectly acceptable vegan cake recipe with the cabbage diet. My apologies and thanks for the opportunity to reduce my ignorance. :)”
Now that is sportsmanship!
My closing comment:
“No apologies necessary! Thank YOU for prompting me to articulate/refine/exercise my knowledge on the subject. Challenge is energizing to the intellect, which can only be a good thing in the end. And no worries about the cake, haha! Especially since the health aspects of coconut oil are only a secondary reason I use it in that frosting (the main reason being that with its low melting point of 75 degrees, the frosting stays gooey at room temp). Let me also mention, since I realize I didn’t specify anywhere above, that I personally use only organic, virgin oils of all kinds. Many modern processing methods can have a hugely deleterious effect on what may have started out as a healthy, virtuous product. So allow me to conclude by saying that if I were forced to choose between butter from organically-raised, grass-fed cows, or oil from genetically-modified, pesticide-laden soybeans, I would say: pass me the butter! I suppose the crux of my stance is that I just never put myself in that position. :) Anyway, cheers to intelligent debate!”
All in all, a very rewarding conversation on both sides, I’d say.
And a ridiculously perfect segway into my next post! You’ll see…