As budding superfoods go, virgin coconut oil should face an uphill battle: it's chock-full of saturated fat which usually equates to artery-clogging cholesterol and kilojoules.
Yet despite a lack of endorsement from key health organisations, the oil continues to fly off the shelves on the back of health claims around weight loss, memory protection and digestion.
Queensland coconut oil importer and distributor Nature Pacific says its sales more than doubled last financial year. “Put simply it's going gangbusters,” says its marketing manager, Phil Brosgarth.
Though traditionally the domain of health food shops, delis and increasingly major retailers such as Woolworths are starting to stock the oil, which can sell for up to $15 a pop.
Dietitians and doctors also say they're fielding more questions than ever from patients wondering if coconut oil lives up to the health hype.
“A few months ago, patients started asking me if they should be taking it for this or that, or whether it would raise their cholesterol,” says Vicki Kotsirilos, a Melbourne GP and co-author of A Guide to Evidence-Based Integrative and Complementary Medicine.
Dr Kotsirilos decided to scan the research herself and even consulted an expert or two so she had some answers for her patients.
She concluded that when eaten as part of a balanced diet which included seafood, vegetables and an active lifestyle, whole coconut appeared not to raise cholesterol levels.
“I've not been convinced by the research that it does do harm,” she says.
Coconut oil products are not about to get the National Heart Foundation tick, however. The organisation continues to stand firm on the topic, advising consumers against using the oil due to its high saturated fat content.
“The Heart Foundation believes that the research on the health benefits of coconut oil is inconclusive,” its senior manager of food supply, Barbara Eden, says.
"Our recommendations are based on good-quality scientific evidence and don't recommend eating foods high in saturated fat. There are many healthier oils that don't raise cholesterol levels or increase the risk of heart disease," she says.
On the other side of the divide are advocates like Mike Foale, formerly of the CSIRO in Brisbane, who point out that not all saturated fats are bad.
Coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids that are considered heart-friendlier than their long-chain counterparts found in animal products.
Researchers, meanwhile, continue to report tantalising findings. Three years ago, Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research compared mice fed on diets rich in lard or coconut oil.
The latter, they found, were protected against insulin resistance and avoided accumulation of body fat – both of which are strongly associated with type 2 diabetes.
(They also noted, though, that eating lots of medium-chain fatty acids to boost weight loss could lead to fat build up in the liver.)
A small Brazilian study also published in 2009 compared the effect of a daily 30ml dose of soybean oil or coconut oil on obese women. Only the latter experienced a reduction in abdominal waist circumference.
Alan Barclay, a spokesman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says in light of growing public interest, he also did a little digging to determine how conclusive the scientific literature was.
He says he looked only at the studies done on humans and found most of these were small, of short duration and too few in number to make powerful claims.
The oil seems to be fine when used in the context of traditional cuisine, Dr Barclay says. “Problems arise when you call it a miraculous cure and add it to a Western diet.”
Dr Kotsirilos agrees. She notes there are no long-term population studies that prove coconut oil has positive effects.
“I tell my patients not to use this as medicine at this point until there is more research,” she says.
Accredited nutritionist and dietitian Catherine Saxelby says the lack of data may not deter everyone.
Coconut oil appeals to vegans, she notes, and is also finding favour among those wishing to avoid processed foods, like those on the Paleo diet.
Others note that coconut oil has other benefits. It is more stable at high temperatures than many other oils and imparts a sweet flavour that suits particular dishes such as Asian curries.
It is also a favoured ingredient of Kate McAloon, personal chef to the Australian model Miranda Kerr, whose penchant for the oil has helped propel the product to prominence.
McAloon says she uses it in omelets, desserts and muffins. She offers the following tips for cooking with coconut oil:
- Look for virgin coconut oil, not its hydrogenated cousin copha.
- Some brands have a stronger flavour while others are more neutral so if one brand doesn't suit you, try another.
- It can be used for frying or baking as it handles high temperature better than many other oils.
- It works well in place of butter in raw treats such as chocolate fudge.