Q. What's the real story on coconut oil? Is it healthy or unhealthy?

A: Coconut oil acquired a bad reputation when it was lumped in with other artery-clogging saturated fats, such as those in meat and dairy foods. But today lipid researchers understand that coconut oil mostly contains medium-chain fatty acids, which provide numerous health benefits. For instance, they help lower risk for heart disease, aid with weight loss, boost the immune system, and even fight cancer.

Unlike long-chain fatty acids (which are readily stored as body fat or deposited in the arteries), medium-chain fatty acids are predominately burned as an energy source—and thus seldom find their way to the hips or blood vessels. In fact, a diet based on coconut oil as its fat source favorably affects levels of lipoprotein, a substance related to LDL cholesterol that is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Two types of coconut oil are on the market: virgin and RBD (refined, bleached, and deodorized); both are healthy and beneficial. Virgin coconut oil is less processed and more flavorful. However, many people prefer the RBD oil because it is colorless, tasteless, and odorless; thus it does not overpower food dishes. Unlike other oils and fats, coconut oil is very stable and doesn't need to be refrigerated. It stays fresh for several years.

Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, a health journalist since 1993, calls the Pacific Northwest home where she, along with her husband and children, enjoy hiking and cycling.