Coconut oil and olive oil are two cooking oils with strong reputations surrounding their health benefits. Since they have very different properties, how should you choose between them? In this SPICEography Showdown, we take a look at how coconut oil and olive oil compare.
How does coconut oil differ from olive oil?
Coconut oil and olive oil have different nutritional profiles. The differences in health effects are evident firstly in the fact that coconut oil contains much more saturated fat than olive oil. This is true both of unrefined (or virgin) coconut oil and refined coconut oil. Saturated fats increase your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol and can cause blocked arteries.
Along with having much less saturated fat, extra virgin olive oil is full of polyphenols that are beneficial for fighting inflammation. It is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which are known to improve cholesterol levels in the blood and lower your risk of developing heart disease as a result.
Coconut oil and olive oil look different. Coconut oil is solid at room due to fatty acids it contains that have high melting points. Solid coconut oil is offwhite and has a similar appearance to shortening. Olive oil is liquid. The extra virgin variety of olive oil will have a greenish color, while the more refined varieties will be yellow.
Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of around 375 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty low. Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is about the same, but refined or extra light tasting olive oil has a much higher smoke point of about 465 degrees Fahrenheit. Refined coconut oil also has a high smoke point of around 430 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unrefined coconut oil is extracted from the meat of fresh coconuts and has a noticeable coconut flavor. It will give sweet, nutty coconut notes to any food cooked with it. Refined coconut oil comes from dried coconut meat and has a neutral flavor. Extra virgin olive oil has a distinctive herbaceous flavor similar to the taste of green olives and may have a light pepperiness as well. Refined or extra light tasting olive oil is closer to neutral.
Can you use coconut oil as a substitute for olive oil and vice versa?
Unrefined coconut oil can work as a substitute for extra virgin olive oil if you specifically want to replace the grassiness of the olive oil with the nuttiness of coconut oil. Refined coconut oil won’t be a good substitute for extra virgin olive oil since it is virtually flavorless. It will be a much better substitute for refined olive oil, which has a similarly neutral taste.
Extra virgin olive oil will be a good substitute for unrefined coconut oil if you want its health benefits since it is a healthier oil. It won’t be a good substitute if the flavor is important at all. Its herbaceous notes will be too different from the sweetness of the coconut oil.
It won’t be a good option for replacing refined coconut oil either because of extra virgin olive oil’s strong flavor and low smoke point. Refined olive oil will be a better substitute because it won’t contribute unwanted flavors, but it will be bland compared to unrefined coconut oil. Refined olive oil makes a good substitute for refined coconut oil.
When should you use coconut oil, and when should you use olive oil?
Use virgin coconut oil for Southeast Asian dishes where its flavor profile will be an asset.
Use Extra virgin olive oil in salads and dishes cooked over low heat, which is where its flavor and nutritional profile will be most beneficial.