Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Nutrients, Benefits, Downsides
If you’re in search of a healthy everyday cooking oil, you may be comparing coconut oil and olive oil.
Olive oil is a non-tropical oil renowned for its impressive fatty acid profile and research-backed health benefits, and extensive research on it is continuing.
In fact, it is a fundamental component and key source of healthy fat in the Mediterranean diet — a pattern of eating associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (
On the other hand, coconut oil is a tropical oil. It has been a staple for thousands of years in diets and traditional medicinal practices of people across West Africa, Sri Lanka, and other parts of South Asia (
Researchers haven’t studied coconut oil as extensively as non-tropical oils, like olive oil. However, emerging research is uncovering some health benefits of coconut oil, in particular, its potential to reduce the risk of heart disease (
Current research suggests olive oil is the healthier choice, but each of these oils has different benefits and features.
This article highlights the similarities and differences between coconut oil and olive oil, as well as their health benefits and potential downsides. It also explores why olive oil is likely better for your health.
Different types of olive and coconut oils can have different chemical compositions and health effects.
Both coconut oil and olive oil are available in refined or unrefined forms. This refers to how much the oils have been industrially processed and changed from their natural states.
Here are the common types and what they mean.
Cold pressed and virgin oils
Virgin oils are unrefined oils obtained from fresh coconut kernel or olive fruits (
The gold standard for unrefined oils is extra virgin oil made by mechanical extraction only, where the meat from the fresh coconut or the whole olive fruit is pressed to extract their oils. This is also called cold pressed (
This type of extraction means that the oils were not processed using chemical solvents or exposed to high temperatures — techniques frequently used in the making of refined oils.
Virgin and extra virgin oils retain the most flavor, aroma, and chemical and therapeutic properties of the coconut and olive fruits (
Refined coconut oil is made from the dried coconut — also called copra — by crushing and pressing the dried meat of the coconut to extract the oils (
Manufacturers purify the copra by heating it to high temperatures and using additives.
Likewise, refined olive oil undergoes additional processing and exposure to high heat that reduces the natural flavors, aromas, and levels of health-promoting compounds in the final olive oil product (
As a result of this greater processing, refined oils are more tolerant to high temperatures and may be better choices for deep-frying (
Pure or regular coconut and olive oils are a combination of virgin and refined oils — offering some benefits of virgin oils, such as flavor, aroma, and nutrients, along with the temperature-tolerant properties of the refined oils.
Pomace olive oil is another, albeit cheaper, type of olive oil made from the leftover pulp of the olive fruit after the virgin oils have been extracted (
Pomace olive oil has the lowest concentration of organic compounds of all olive oil products but continues to be investigated in scientific research for its potential health benefits (
Various light, hydrogenated, fractionated, or organic edible coconut and olive oils are available for purchase and are often a blend of refined and virgin oils in various ratios.
Both coconut oil and olive oil are available in refined and unrefined forms or as a mix. Unrefined or virgin oils retain flavor, aroma, and beneficial nutrients, whereas refined oils undergo more processing and are more heat tolerant.
Here are the main health benefits of olive oil and coconut oil.
Olive oil is the main fat in the Mediterranean diet. Following this diet is associated with lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and some types of cancers (
Many of these benefits have been attributed to olive oil (
Olive oil is predominantly made up of monounsaturated fatty acids. In fact, they make up 98–99% of the oil. The remaining 1–2% is made up of compounds including vitamin E and health-promoting polyphenols (
Research suggests that polyphenols may help slow the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, due to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and lipid-lowering effects (
Oleic acid is the main monounsaturated fatty acid in olive oil and is thought to be the main component that gives olive oil most of its health benefits (
Olive oil is effective at lowering levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood. High LDL levels are a risk factor for heart disease (
Coconut oil is generally classified as a saturated fat — the type of fat known to increase the risk of heart disease — but emerging research continues to redefine its role in the diet and highlight its varying health benefits (
Over half of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — a type of fat that is absorbed more efficiently in the body and reduces the metabolic load on the liver compared with other fats (
Lauric acid is the main MCT found in coconut oil. Studies have shown it has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and may have the potential to improve immune health and insulin resistance (
Research has demonstrated that consuming coconut oil effectively improves levels of HDL (good) cholesterol even more effectively than olive oil — and it may also reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol (
More studies in humans are needed to investigate the long-term health benefits of coconut oil.
Olive oil is an important part of the Mediterranean diet and is associated with a reduced risk of several diseases. Coconut oil offers emerging benefits, including the potential to improve immunity and insulin resistance.
Here are a few potential downsides of olive oil and coconut oil.
Many of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are believed to be the result of including olive oil.
However, many people in the scientific community warn against attributing health to any single food or nutrient, saying that the individual overall dietary pattern matters most (
Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet includes many foods rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, which may also contribute to good health (
The research on the effects of coconut oil on people’s cholesterol levels is mixed.
Despite coconut oil’s potential to increase your HDL (good) cholesterol, research has also shown that coconut oil increases levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in some cases (
Coconut oil also contains long-chain saturated fats, a type of fat that may contribute to an increase in LDL cholesterol (
On the other hand, other studies have shown coconut oil may have the ability to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, though these have mainly compared coconut oil with butter. Thus, there is conflicting evidence to date and more research is needed (
Research also suggests that the body may break down the MCTs in coconut oil in the same way as the saturated fats, simply because it is not a pure MCT oil, which is free of saturated fats (
Until we know more about coconut oil’s health effects, it’s best to treat it like saturated fat and stick to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation to limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your daily calories (27).
That is equivalent to 200 calories or less in a 2,000 calorie diet.
It’s important to remember that olive oil is not the only ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that can support your health. Coconut oil may increase the LDL (bad) cholesterol, though study results are mixed, and more research is needed.
Another aspect to consider is how well each of these oils stands up to heat when you use it in cooking.
Smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to break down and undergo chemical changes. As a general rule, oils with a higher smoke point of 392°F (200°C) or higher are better suited for deep-frying (
Olive oil has a high smoke point of 410°F (210°C). This means that it tolerates high-heat cooking well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stated it’s safe for deep-frying, as well (28).
Coconut oil’s lower smoke point of 350°F (177°C) makes it more appropriate for lower-heat cooking, such as sautéing and pan-frying (
In short, olive oil is better for the following reasons:
- It’s highly researched with lots of supporting scientific evidence.
- It lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and your risk of heart disease.
- As part of a balanced diet, like the Mediterranean diet, it also reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
- It has a higher smoke point than coconut oil, so you can use it for frying or even deep-frying.
While coconut oil does appear to offer some health benefits, more research is needed to determine its long-term health effects in people, particularly on the risk of heart disease.
Olive oil is a better choice for your health than coconut oil. Its health benefits are supported by more scientific evidence. It may lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and it is better suited for deep-frying.
Olive oil and coconut oil both have potential health benefits, but olive oil is the clear winner if you’re looking for cooking oil with research-backed health benefits.
Including olive oil in your diet may help you improve your blood cholesterol levels and heart health, and reduce your risk of several chronic diseases. Olive oil is also better suited to frying and deep-frying compared with coconut oil.
Choose extra virgin olive oil for the most health benefits.
On the other hand, coconut oil may still be worth including in your diet in moderation. It has emerging health benefits, including antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory benefits, and it may have the potential to improve immune health and insulin resistance.
Future research on coconut oil will tell us more about its long-term health effects.