Coconut Oil Versus Palm Oil

Coconut oil and palm oil are tropical oils that are widely used in commercial food preparation. Although both have high saturated fat levels, they pose less of a health risk than once thought. And they tend to last longer than many other vegetable oils. Here's how they compare.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a heavy, nearly colorless oil that is produced from the meat of coconuts harvested from the coconut palm, a tree that grows in many subtropical and tropical regions of the world. Most commercial grade coconut oils are made from copra, the dried kernel (meat) of the coconut, which is subjected to a series of refinement, purification, and bleaching steps. There is also virgin coconut oil, made from fresh coconut meat (non-copra), without the chemicals or high heat used to produce standard "refined" coconut oil.

Coconut oil is typically used in blended oils and shortenings where it imparts a subtle coconut flavor to dishes. It is popular for making hash browns, popcorn, and other snack foods. Other uses include infant formulas and non-dairy creamers. The smoke point of coconut oil is 351 °F, considerably below that of high temperature frying oils such as peanut oil.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, a plant that is native to Africa but now grows in many other tropical regions, especially Central and South America. It is not the same as palm kernel oil which is derived from the kernel (the seed) of the oil palm. Palm oil is reddish in color due to an abundance of carotenoids and along with coconut oil, it is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats. It is a very popular oil due to its stability, ability to blend well with other oils, resistance to oxidization, and relatively low cost.

Palm oil is used mainly as a food ingredient for products such as baked goods, margarine and ice cream. In fact, many processed foods have palm oil as an ingredient. It is also used for salad oils and as a general purpose cooking oil. It is popular for frying noodles, potato chips, doughnuts, etc. It can be used as a cheap substitute for butter in pastry dough and baked goods because it is solid at room temperature due to its high saturated fat content.

Health Considerations

Both coconut and palm oil contain high levels of saturated fats: coconut oil contains as much as 92 percent saturated fat and palm oil up to 50 percent. Although most nutrition experts do not consider these oils to be as healthy as say, olive oil, they probably are not harmful in small quantities. Furthermore, not all saturated fats are created equal. For example, lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut oil is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of high-density to low-density lipoprotein in the blood.

Research in recent years indicates that saturated fats from tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil pose less of a health risk than animal-based fats and that they can be a healthy addition to a varied and balanced diet.

Shelf Life

Coconut oil and palm oil have a natural resistance to oxidation, and hence rancidity, due to their high saturated fat content. This stability makes these excellent oils for high temperature cooking and allows them to last for 1-2 years without turning rancid.