Coconuts just keep on giving. From enjoying the slippery-sweet flesh as it comes from the shell to products such as coconut sugar, flour, yoghurt, milk, water and oil, this palm-borne fruit comes not only with a delicious tropical nuttiness, but also a long list of health claims, some of which are hotly contested.
While a lot of coconut products have clear benefits for dairy- and gluten- intolerant people, we take a deeper look at coconut oil to uncover whether it truly deserves its 'healthy oil' crown.
Among the virtues attributed to coconut oil are its ability to control sugar cravings, control weight gain, ease indigestion and boost metabolism when eaten as part of a regular diet. In the realm of home remedies, the oil is said to help skin retain its moisture as well as aid oral health.
Facts vs hype
There's nothing new about coconut oil. Coconuts have been cultivated, harvested and consumed in tropical climes for thousands of years. But in recent years, the western world has awoken to the purported benefits of this miraculously versatile and tasty fruit, spurred by celebrity interest, health influencers and a shift toward more plant-based diets.
Coconut oil is also claimed to provide stress relief and boost immunity and there have even been studies that suggest that the ketones your body produces when you consume the oil can boost brain function in mild Alzheimer's cases. But before you bolt to the health food section of your supermarket for a jar of miracle oil, let's sort the facts from the hype.
Coconut oil is particularly popular in vegan cooking as a replacement for dairy products.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from the flesh of the coconut. It has a slight nutty flavour and works well in both savoury and sweet dishes. It's particularly popular in vegan cooking and can replace dairy products to make pastries and creamy desserts. It has a high smoking point when cooked and has a long shelf life.
Rise in popularity of coconut oil
Dr Kellie Bilinski, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says she has seen an increased interest in the use of coconut oil by the public, much of it driven by those following sugar-free, vegan and paleo diets.
The much-hyped paleo diet, which promotes foods that were once only obtained through hunting and gathering, along with a more recent groundswell in plant-based eating, has helped boost the profile of coconut oil.
High in saturated fat
Both our experts warn that although using coconut oil may have a few health benefits and has shown promising evidence, the claims above are yet to be comprehensively researched or proven. Pinpointing coconut oil as being either healthy or harmful is near impossible at this stage with so much more research to be done.
Most plant-based oils are considered healthy options, however, coconut oil does stir up some contention due to its high saturated fat content. With up to 80-90 per cent saturated fat, hesitation at labelling it 'healthy' is understandable. This fat content is what turns the oil solid at room temperature, but not all saturated fats are bad and coconut oil may actually encourage your body to burn fat and raise good cholesterol (HDL).
Yet on the flipside, it also raises bad cholesterol (LDL), which steers the oil away from being good for the heart, according to the Australian Heart Foundation, which suggests there are superior heart-protective oils and fats to consume or use in your cooking, such as olive oil, nut butters and avocado.
What are virgin and extra virgin coconut oil?
As with most oils, choosing a virgin or extra-virgin oil rather than a refined oil is always the healthier option. Refined oils are highly processed, and in the case of coconut oil, often bleached and deodorised – stripping it of its aroma and coconut taste.
However, unlike with olive oil, there really is no such thing as an extra-virgin coconut oil – that's merely marketing. But virgin coconut oil (VCO) is a pure, cold-pressed product with much better flavour. Both look the same, so try before you buy, if possible.
Benefits of coconut oil
Coconut oil does have some antioxidant properties, potentially because of plant nutrients called phenolic compounds. Studies on animals have shown that when applied to inflamed areas, coconut oil has an anti-inflammatory effect, giving it plausibility in beauty products. It also shows evidence of being a great skin moisturiser when applied topically.
It could help you burn fat
Coconut oil is an unusual blend of short- and medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs) not seen in other saturated fats, there's evidence these MCTs may offer some health benefits when consumed, such as fat-burning. However, research is yet to confirm this.
It may reduce hunger
The high amount of MCTs found in coconut oil may reduce hunger, which could aid weight loss. However, studies on this have been short, small and inconclusive.
While further studies are needed there is some early evidence that MCTs can increase blood levels of ketones, which in turn, may help to dampen symptoms. These studies haven't been done on the MCTs produced specifically from consuming coconut oil however.
It could aid oral health
There has been some evidence to suggest using coconut oil may help reduce oral infections when used as a mouthwash due to the antibacterial properties of … acid found in the oil. But it's important to note, this is far from proven and the evidence is scant.
Disadvantages of coconut oil
It's definitely fatty
Of all the claims around coconut oil, there is one indisputable fact: all coconut oil, whether virgin or refined, is high in saturated fat (higher than butter), so it is considered a solid fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil provides 490kJ (117 calories), 13.6g total fat (11.8g saturated fat), no protein or carbohydrates, and only trace amounts of a few nutrients.
It's not the best kind of fat
One of the main concerns is the type of fat in coconut oil – saturated fat. The fatty acids found in coconut oil raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) just like other saturated fats, such as butter. And while coconut oil may also raise HDL cholesterol (the good one) this is negligible in comparison.
Other plant-based oils are better for you
Although coconut oil doesn't contain cholesterol, it also doesn't stack up against most other plant-based oils. Canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, flaxseed, grape seed and extra virgin olive oil all contain significantly less saturated fat.
Verdict: health claims don't quite stack up
While many Asian diets have included coconut oil for generations with potentially protective benefits, the fact that coconut oil is so high in saturated fat needs to be considered in the context of a Western diet, which is typically already high in fat compared with an Asian diet. As such, the Cancer Council of Australia recommends reducing or avoiding saturated fats.
Coconut oil can certainly be included as part of a healthy diet and there has been no studies that show a moderate intake has any negative effects. But it's not necessary for optimal nutrition and shouldn't be the only oil in your pantry.
Coconut oil can certainly be included as part of a healthy diet … but it's not necessary for optimal nutrition
Most plant oils provide some health benefits, particularly extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), which has proven heart health and anti-inflammatory benefits, but the evidence for coconut oil, while ostensibly promising, remains limited and disputed.
Coconut oil is also expensive! It can cost around twice the price of olive oil or roughly the same as premium extra virgin olive oil, but it hasn't been shown to offer any superior health benefits. So if you're choosing oil based around health reasons, coconut oil doesn't quite stack up.
How to cook with coconut oil
Thanks to its high fat content, coconut oil is great to use when cooking stir-fries and baking vegetables (but we'd advise against deep-frying with it). It's also good as a butter substitute in baking and particularly popular in vegan and paleo treats.
Virgin coconut oil imparts a lovely nutty flavour to your meal, which unsurprisingly, lends itself to Asian cuisine. Try using it in curries or drizzled over a noodle salad.
Comparatively, rice bran oil and peanut oil are also great for stir-frying, while extra virgin olive oil is good for cooking on moderate heat and for salad dressings.
Aside from its use in cooking, coconut oil's anti-inflammatory and moisturising properties mean it can be used for cosmetic and home beauty treatments.
What else can you do with coconut oil?
Anti-inflammatory and moisturising properties mean coconut oil can be used to create all manner of cosmetic and home beauty treatments, from hair conditioners to face masks and washes. Try making your own lip and body scrub by mixing the oil with coffee grinds.
If its benefits are unproven, how did coconut oil become so popular?
When it comes to any kind of trend, there is usually a catalyst. Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier wrote a PhD on what makes things cool. His number one finding was that it's impossible for something to be cool without cool people using it. Things become desirable by their association with people (more so than the other way around). When it comes to extolling the wonders of coconut oil, plenty of influencers joined the bandwagon, from celebrities to well-known health personalities.
Add to the mix preliminary studies that show there might be some evidence of benefits (which are often misinterpreted and generalised into junk science), and suddenly coconut oil is hailed as a wonder food.
But however you came to discover coconut oil, if you enjoy the taste and its use as a dairy-free ingredient, there's nothing to fear from including it moderately in your diet.