New comparative ‘study’ of cooking oils omits the most essential one of all

Posted by
October 28, 2014


coconutOften, what’s left out of a food-related “study” speaks volumes about what the ulterior motive behind it might be.  And in some instances, what’s missing is actually what consumers really need to know most.

A case in point is a recent study of cooking oils published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and done in, of all places, Tunisia.

Now it just so happens that Tunisia is, and I quote, “the most important olive-growing country of the southern Mediterranean region.” In fact, “over 30% of its cultivated land is dedicated to olive growing.” And that info comes straight from a website maintained by the Republic of Tunisia’s Ministry of Industry and Agriculture — the first one that comes up the moment you Google “Tunisia” and “olives.”

When you put Tunisia together with “coconuts” or “coconut oil,’ however, it’s a different story entirely. While there are apparently some coconuts grown there – and some coconut oil produced (it is, after all, a place with palm trees) – the only references to it are found at websites for individual companies or exporters.

I mention this as a likely explanation for why, in the study of the quality, stability and fatty acid composition of a “range of frying oils” led by Mohamed Bouaziz from Tunisia’s Universite de Stax, that “range” was limited to olive, corn, soybean and sunflower oils, but apparently did not include coconut oil. And for why olive oil was (naturally) determined to be the most stable of all those seed-based oils for frying.

While I have no doubt that conclusion was correct as far as the study went, here’s how it was interpreted in a headline at the website of Food Navigator, a leading voice in the industry: “Olive oil may be best option for frying food, say researchers” (which is a little bit like the old game of “Gossip,” in which a message gets distorted or exaggerated when conveyed from one person to another).

Now, olive oil, as you’re probably well aware, is an essential component of the so-called “Mediterranean Diet,” which is often touted as the healthiest way to eat. And that’s not anything we wish to dispute, although it should be emphasized that not all olive oils are created equal, and that even the kind we’d most recommend you use – organic extra virgin – should be checked out for quality and authenticity, as we noted in a previous blog.

But what has been totally overlooked in this latest “study” is the fact that coconut oil – and in particular, unrefined extra virgin coconut oil – is now regarded by some leading health authorities to be the best oil that can be used in any form of cooking, since, unlike olive oil, it’s the kind that’s most impervious to the effects of high temperature.

The difference is perhaps best described by Dr. Joseph Mercola, who notes that “of all the available oils, coconut oil is the oil of choice for cooking because it is nearly a completely saturated fat, which means it is much less susceptible to heat damage,” whereas “by heating virgin olive oil to over 200 to 250 F, you are running the risk of creating oxidized oil that can do your body more harm than good.”

A culinary culprit no longer

But, hey, shouldn’t that “saturated fat” business make it a cardiovascular no-no? That’s what was once widely believed (and a notion that some “experts” still hate to let go of given the many years they’ve spent trumpeting it).

A couple decades ago, for example, Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (often referred to as the “Food Police”), was quoted as saying that “theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil.”

But that was then. As we now know, it’s the trans-fats found in partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, that are the real culprits in the clogging of arteries, as even the Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged in proposing to take them off the “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS list. And most of the studies on coconut oil, according to Dr. Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, were actually being done with a partially hydrogenated variety, which remains semi-solid at room temperature. So if that theater popcorn was indeed Godzilla, it wasn’t by virtue of being  popped in coconut oil per se, but because the coconut oil used had been partially hydrogenated.

Having been cleared of that erroneous ‘bad rap’, coconut oil – especially the extra virgin kind – is now being widely hailed as an actual hero of heart health (as are other forms of saturated fat, such as butter) that’s rich in beneficial medium-chain triglycerides and increases the “good” type of cholesterol (HDL) while lowering amounts of the “bad” kind (LDL). In fact, inhabitants of locales in the South Pacific who regularly consume large amounts of virgin coconut oil have been found to be remarkably free of heart disease.

It’s also about 50 percent lauric acid, which kills pathogens and helps prevent bacterial, viral and fungal infections, and has been shown to help promote weight loss, to name a few of the other health benefits associated with it. And to “sweeten the pot,” it has an extremely pleasant flavor and fragrance that enhances the appeal of any food you might fry or bake with it.

So the next time you see news about a study that proclaims some particular substance to be the “best” one out there, but doesn’t cover all the options,  you might ask yourself this question:

“Where, exactly, are these people coming from?”


Bill Bonvie is the author of Repeat Offenders, a collection of previously published essays.