Comparison of the week: Olive oil vs coconut oil

Amy Bradney-George 25 March 2019 NEWS

Coconut and olive oil Image: GettyBoth olive oil and coconut oil have strong followings and health claims. So is there a clear winner?

We compare virtually everything at Finder and our Comparison of the Week isn't afraid to tackle the big questions. This week we slide into the realm of olive and coconut oil.

Head into any major supermarket and you're likely to see a wide variety of olive oil bottles in the cooking section. If look further afield (read: the health food section) and you'll also see coconut oil. And if you take your search online, you'll find some hefty praise and health claims associated with both of these products.

So what's the deal? Is olive oil really better for heart health? Should you actually be using coconut oil when you cook? This comparison goes through the hard facts for each one to separate fact from fiction.

The essentials

Olive oil is a staple of most kitchens, thanks to its versatility in cooking and salads (or even just accompanying some delicious, fresh bread). There are extensive studies showing that extra virgin olive oil provides health benefits compared to other oils and fats – largely thanks to its unsaturated fat content. This makes it a popular option for people concerned with heart health.

Coconut oil, on the other hand, is the darling of many hipsters and Instagram health nuts. It has a tropical flavour and is used for a wide range of cooking recipes and homemade beauty treatments. There are many anecdotes claiming coconut oil helps burn fat, reduces acne and is a "healthier" option, however, there is also less substantial research to back it up. That doesn't necessarily mean it's unhealthy – just that more scientific studies are needed if you want to take claims with anything more than a grain of salt.

The comparison

As there are different varieties of each oil, we've focused this comparison on extra virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil (as opposed to the refined versions of each). Both these oils are popular cooking ingredients and can be used for other purposes, such as home beauty treatments. But there are some key differences.

Olive oil Coconut oil
Price A 750ml bottle of Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil (classic) costs $15 at both Woolworths and Coles online. This works out to $2 per 100ml. A 700ml jar of Pacific Organic Virgin Coconut Oil from Woolworths (online) costs $10. This works out to $1.43 per 100ml. So it could actually be cheaper than olive oil.
Taste Olive oil has a more savoury flavour than coconut oil, with varieties ranging from earthy to fruity. But it doesn't really taste like the olives we eat whole. Coconut oil definitely tastes like coconut, regardless of the quality of the oil. As a result, it's often described as more tropical and, in cooking, could be used for both sweet and savoury recipes.
Fat content Between 55–83% of olive oil is monounsaturated fats, which are healthy fats that can reduce the risk of heart disease.
About 14% of olive oil is made up of saturated fats, which do have some links to an increased risk of heart disease.
Coconut oil is made up of around 80% saturated fats, which can lead to higher LDL cholesterol levels. However, a report from the Mayo Clinic notes that the saturated fats in coconut oil don't appear to increase cholesterol as much as those in red meats or full-fat dairy.
The remaining fats are a mix of monounsatured and polyunsaturated fats.
Calories Olive oil has about 120 calories per tablespoon (15ml), according to data from the USDA. Coconut oil has about 134 calories per tablespoon (15ml), according to data from the USDA.
Other nutritional information Olive oil is high in polyphenols, which can help maintain normal LDL (aka "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood and protect against oxidation of blood lipids, among other potential health benefits. Coconut oil contains phytosterols, which could help lower LDL cholesterol. More research is really needed to confirm this link though.
Smoke point Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 190C (Celsius). In layman's terms, this means you can cook at temperatures up to 190C before there is a potential carcinogenic risk. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of about 171C. This disproves the claims that it's "better" to cook with than olive oil.
Beauty uses The smell of olive oil can be a detractor for some people when it comes to beauty treatments. However, some options include:
  • Moisturiser
  • Hair masks
  • Makeup remover

It's also used for oil pulling – a controversial treatment where you hold oil in your mouth as a way of drawing impurities out of your teeth.

Popular home beauty treatments include:
  • Moisturiser
  • Hair masks
  • Makeup remover
  • Lip balm
  • Shaving cream substitute

Some people also use it to topically treat acne, thanks to the oil's high lauric acid content. You can check out this guide for more coconut beauty tips.

Environmental impact Not a lot of research has been done around the impact olive oil has on the environment. However, a scientific literature review published in 2017 identified some key risk factors as pesticide use in farming and waste/by-product production during both the farming and manufacturing processes. Similar to olive oil, not a lot of research has been done on the environmental impact of coconut oil. But a Sustainable Food Trust analysis published in 2017 indicated it was unlikely to have major negative impacts, as it's difficult to mass produce coconuts and they don't typically require pesticides. The processing involved in extracting oil, though, could lead to some waste and energy usage.
Shelf life In general, shelf life is typically considered to be around 20 months, but it can be anywhere between 6 – 24 months. The easiest way to tell? Smell or taste it and if it doesn't seem right, don't use it. As coconut oil is typically a solid oil at room temperature (below 24C), it's less likely to go rancid as quickly as olive oil. When stored properly, most quality virgin coconut oils will last 2 years.
Availability Widely available. As well as major supermarket, you'll find it in smaller supermarkets, as well as some convenience stores and local produce markets. Available in major supermarkets and some smaller supermarkets. You'll also typically find it in specialty and health food stores. You can also find coconut oil in some beauty stores, chemists and pharmacies – although be wary of using these brands for cooking.

The lowdown

For cooking, the overall consensus is that olive oil comes out on top – particularly thanks to its high smoke point, unsaturated fat content and the amount of research that's been done on it. For beauty treatments, coconut oil has a less distinctive smell and more forms of application, thanks to its solid form below 24 degrees.

In terms of health benefits, consuming either oil by the tablespoon isn't going to be great for your body. However, research on the fat composition of olive does suggest that it can help reduce or manage LDL cholesterol levels. There's less substantive research around coconut oil, but the fact that it's over 80% saturated fat does suggest you should consume with care.

But either of these oils are fine to use in moderation, so it does really come down to what you're using it for and the type of taste you prefer.

Catch up with more of our weekly comparisons, or do your own by heading to the Finder home page to compare credit cards, savings accounts, shopping deals and much, much more. Go on, be a Finder.

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