Coconut oil has soared in popularity in recent years, largely due to celebrity endorsements and the wellness movement that has encouraged consumers to opt for plant-based products.
Supermodel Miranda Kerr says coconut oil is a staple in her kitchen, while paleo advocate and television chef, Pete Evans has replaced butter, margarine and virgin olive oil with coconut oil in cooking. But does this supposed miracle oil live up to the hype?
The Philippines, Indonesia and India are the main producers of coconut oil, which can be processed and refined.
Coconut oil is extracted from the white flesh of coconuts and is 100 per cent pure fat, leaving behind the fibre, carbohydrate and protein.
There are numerous types of saturated fatty acids in coconut oil – the predominant kind is lauric acid. Coconut oil has a long shelf life and is used in everything from cooking to haircare products, yet coconut oil provides little to no vitamins or minerals for the human body.
Coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fat – the fats that raise LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol in the blood and increase your risk of developing heart disease.
However, many coconut oil supporters believe that the saturated fat in coconut oil isn't processed in the body the same way as other saturated fats that you would find in meat, butter and cheese.
Many point to coconut oil being a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are absorbed quickly by the body and used for energy, which prevents fat storage. Because of this, they claim that coconut oil doesn't affect our health negatively.
However, most coconut oils found in the supermarket contain only a small amount of MCTs and are high in lauric acid, which acts as a long-chain fatty acid in the body.
In 2013, an Australian study conducted at the University of Queensland debunked myths about coconut oil curing Alzheimer's disease, lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease.
Associate Professor David Colquhoun, a cardiologist from the university's School of Medicine said at the time that the research didn't support any of these claims and coconut oil was in fact full of unhealthy saturated fat, which could raise bad cholesterol levels, clog the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Similarly, in 2017 the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended that people replace saturated fats (such as coconut oil) with unsaturated fats.
The AHA reviewed seven controlled trials and found that coconut oil did, in fact, raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels.
WATCH: Chrissy Teigen reveals the many ways she uses coconut oil. Post continues after video...
According to dietitian Lyndi Cohen, there are other bizarre claims about the benefits of coconut oil circulating, particularly among self-professed wellness experts.
"Coconut oil enthusiasts make claims of it being a miracle superfood that can help you lose weight, reduce cravings and whiten your teeth," she explains. "While coconut oil may be good to use on your skin or hair, most of the impressive superfood health claims about coconut oil aren't backed up by research and evidence."
Although coconut oil doesn't contain cholesterol, dietitians say the high content of saturated fat makes it unhealthy to consume on a regular basis. Lyndi recommends leaving your jar of coconut oil for cosmetic purposes and switching to extra virgin olive oil for cooking instead.
"I prefer to use extra virgin olive oil daily because there is plenty of evidence that its high antioxidant levels can help protect your heart health," she explains.
The truth is that olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and is a key component of the Mediterranean diet, which has been proven to help with weight loss and increase life expectancy. The phenolic compounds in olive oil have antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties, which can aid your immune system and lower your risk of heart disease.
However, the praise coconut oil receives for its hair benefits are deserved. It is rich in fatty acids and used around the world in shampoos, conditioners and treatments for the hair.
Coconut oil can help nourish dry and damaged hair, moisturise the scalp, enhance shine and prevent frizz. It has also been used for years to minimise dandruff, and a 2003 study found that coconut oil reduced the protein loss for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre- and post-wash grooming product.
Did you know...
A CHOICE investigation found that one tablespoon serving of coconut oil has more than 13 grams of fat, with saturated fat making up about 11 grams of that.
The recommended daily allowance for additional saturated fatty acids for an average adult is 24 grams, according to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.