Coconut oil. It's popping up everywhere from supermarket shelf to paleo cafe to bathroom cupboard near you.
Hailed as a superfood, this wonder oil is supposedly great for weight loss, skin and hair care, stress relief, boosting the immune system, improving memory, regulating metabolism and helping to control blood sugar levels.
But the jury is still out on whether coconut oil can deliver any of these health benefits.
Dr Kellie Bilinski, a spokeswoman for the Dieticians Association of Australia, is adamant that "people should not be replacing healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils with coconut oil. We do need healthy fats in the diet, and substituting these fats for coconut oil may have adverse health outcomes''. Dr Robert Grenfell, national director of cardiovascular health at the Heart Foundation, says ''the research on the health benefits of coconut oil is inconclusive''.
Despite this, there is huge interest in coconut oil, which has grown from the rising momentum of the paleo diet, and a return to pre-agricultural or "caveman" eating habits, such as unprocessed fats, reduced carbs, and a high intake of protein.
"I only use coconut oil or animal fats for [any] cooking at home. I use extra virgin olive oil only on salads but I never heat it," says paleo advocate chef Pete Evans, who plans to launch his own-brand coconut oil soon. "It makes the perfect replacement for cooking oils, butter and margarine.''
Coconut oil can be used in high-temperature cooking - such as stir-fries, baking, shallow-frying and roasting - because it has a high smoke point, and can withstand high heat without oxidation. It also adds a subtle sweetness to foods.
"We use coconut oil for baked goods, in our brekkie paleo pancakes, high-protein balls and bars and use coconut butter in our berry-plus, apple pie and cookies-and-cream smoothies," says Josh Sparks, founder of Thr1ve which recently opened in Melbourne and has outlets in Sydney and Canberra. Sparks, who has long been inspired by the paleo lifestyle, says, "the aim is to provide a balanced menu of complete meals based on scientific evidence".
Hosts of blogs talk up its usefulness as a house-cleaner and beauty product.
Certified health coach and creator of the This is Lifeblood blog Claire Baker agrees.
"I use coconut oil because it is so versatile, natural and nourishing. I love to use it to cook with but also use it on my skin and in my hair. I keep a big jar in my kitchen and bathroom," says Baker.
Evans, who has been using coconut oil for three years, says, "I have a spoonful of it daily as it is great for brain health. It's also great for nits. Pop it on the kids' head and the nits will die!"
WHAT IS COCONUT OIL?
Coconut oil is a vegetable-based fat high in saturated fatty acids (about 90 per cent). In terms of its saturation level it more closely resembles animal fats such as ghee (65 per cent), butter (54 per cent) and tallow (50 per cent) than any vegetable oil (canola oil is 8 per cent).
What's unique is that coconut oil contains up to 60 per cent of its saturated fat as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), mainly lauric acid.
The theory is that these fatty acids contain a number of anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties, and that the medium-chain fatty acids are easier for the body to metabolise than other types of fat. Although, most health experts would agree that more research is needed in this area to substantiate any health claims.
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