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Q: How is coconut butter different from coconut oil? Does it deliver the same nutritional benefits?

A: Coconut oil is currently a very popular oil for cooking and arguably the go-to fat source for Paleo diet devotees. Coconut oil spinoffs have also gained popularity, with the most prominent being coconut butter. However, there are some differences, both nutritionally and culinary, between the butter and oil versions that you should know before digging in.

Coconut oil is pure fat. And despite the name, it will usually be solid and opaque–not liquid—in your cupboard. This is because it’s made up of more than 90 percent saturated fats, which solidify at room temperature. It’s also different than other oils in that less than 60 percent of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), compared to longer-chain fatty acids in olive oil or fish oil. MCTs are unique, as they are passively absorbed in your digestive tract (unlike other fats which requires special transport/absorption) and thus are readily used as energy. These saturated fats have fascinated nutritional scientists for years, but their best application in a diet has yet to be fleshed out.

Coconut butter, on the other hand, contains similar nutritional characteristics, but since it is comprised of pureed, raw coconut meat—not only the oil—it is not made exclusively of fat. One tablespoon of coconut butter provides 2 grams of fiber as well as small amounts of potassium, magnesium, and iron. You may be familiar with Coconut Manna, which is essentially the branded version of coconut butter.

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Just as you wouldn’t use peanut butter and peanut oil the same way in cooking, you wouldn’t use coconut butter and coconut oil interchangeably. [Tweet this tip!] Coconut oil is perfect for using in sautés and stir-fries, since its high saturated fat content makes it suitable for high temperatures. In contrast, coconut butter is thicker in texture, so real coconut lovers may use as a spread just as you would with regular butter. Some of my clients also love using coconut butter in smoothies or as a topping for berries (like you would use yogurt, just in much smaller quantities).

Both coconut oil and butter seem to have health halos hovering over them, so many people view their fat profile as a magical, metabolism-boosting health elixir. I warn clients against looking at any food in this light, as it leads overconsumption and disappointment. While both contain unique and potentially healthful nutritional profiles, they are still calorie-dense—packing 130 calories per tablespoon of oil and 100 calories per tablespoon of butter. So don’t think of either as a free food you can use in your meals with reckless abandon. They aren’t the health-food version of Jack’s magic beans—the calories still count.

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