Health fanatics from Miranda Kerr to Gwyneth Paltrow swear by coconut oil. No strand of hair, salad or stir-fry is safe. From substitute eye make-up remover to teeth whitener, the coconut is nature's miracle elixir and can do no wrong according to them.
But the current train of thought among the wellness industry may contradict years of devotion. Especially when it comes to the coconut's most lucrative commercial offshoot. Are we barking up the wrong tree?
"The claims are that coconut oil is a magical cure for many things, that it can control your weight, boost your metabolism, ease digestion, manage type 2 diabetes, support your immunity, improve your skin texture and reduce your cravings. There really isn't any evidence to support those claims," says Lyndi Cohen, dietitian and founder of The Nude Nutritionist.
"I don't think it's a good idea to include coconut oil into your diet if you're looking to get healthier."
Here are the facts:
As opposed to polyunsaturated fats found in most vegetable oils, coconut oil contains 92 per cent saturated fat and is full of medium chain fatty acids or MCTs, which are useful for fat burning and more easily absorbed into the body than other types. The dividing debate, however, is whether those fats are actually good for your heart health or can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
"I think it's important to look at population groups in the world who use coconut oil most frequently and very often we don't see lower rates of heart disease. In fact we see higher rates of heart disease and higher rates of diabetes," says Lyndi.
So how did this whole coconut oil phenomenon start?
"I think the trend really began when we realised that vegetable oils were not as healthy as we first thought," says Belinda Kirkpatrick, a Double Bay-based naturopath, nutritionist and founder of The Seed Concept.
"Oils such as canola, sunflower and soy were very popular but very processed and need to be chemically extracted, deodorised and altered before becoming a liquid. The polyunsaturated fats in these oils are highly unstable and oxidise easily," she says.
In other words, at high heat they can release toxic chemicals known to cause cancer.
So in flies a new superhero, coconut oil. "Due to its saturated fat content, coconut oil doesn't oxidise easily at high temperatures making it ideal for cooking on the stovetop or at high heat. It's also a traditional oil that doesn't require chemical processing or extraction," she says.
But that's not all. They've been the brunt of jokes for years, but finally there's proof. Coconuts are a legitimate substitute for boobs. "Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a type of fat found in human breast milk," says Belinda, adding that its great for the immune system and supports healthy digestion.
However, some experts still believe that there's not enough supporting evidence to warrant the coconut's cult following.
"What we're seeing in the research on lauric acid is that it increases your HDL cholesterol, which is great for your heart health, but simultaneously it also increases your LDL cholesterol and that isn't great for your heart health," says Lyndi, warning us to not get caught up in clever marketing schemes.
"Coconut oil is seen as a natural option, it's a bit exotic and a speciality food, something you'll need to seek out," Lyndi says. "When marketers and the health food industry push a product, they're not going to tell us to eat more fruit and vegetables, that's too convenient. They've got to find a foreign product that we're not that familiar with and try and get us to buy more of something we've never really bought."
Instead, she recommends a high quality extra virgin olive oil, which contains antioxidants, minerals and nutrients, as a simple and healthy alternative.
But Belinda doesn't agree.
The case for coconut
"There have been multiple scientific studies which prove the benefits of coconut oil on lipid profiles (a group of blood tests used to determine risk of cardiovascular disease). It makes sense to people to use a food which is minimally processed and has been used by traditional cultures for centuries," says Belinda.
She suggests using coconut oil as a spread, in bliss balls, homemade chocolates and raw treats or topically, as a barrier to use on dry skin before showering, a hair treatment to fight frizz and homemade lip balm.
"The main thing to look for is the virgin, unrefined coconut oil which is produced by pressing raw coconut without heating or over-processing. Like anything, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation to allow variety in the diet. I'd recommend rotating coconut oil with cold olive oil and other healthy fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds," she says.
So really, the jury is still out.