Does coconut oil live up to its superfood hype?

Eleanor Ozich of Petite Kitchen uses coconut oil for recipes such as this roasted granola with apricot and figs. Picture / Eleanor Ozich.

Halfway through applying coconut oil to the annual winter cold sore attractively positioned under my nose, I began to have doubts. Was this really going to work where other, more medicinal products failed? Could it honestly be as simple as dab oil on suppurating sore, see it miraculously disappear?

According to the growing number of coconut oil evangelists, the answer is yes. Apparently the little edible oil that could, coconut oil is hailed as everything from an effective treatment for stretch marks to the best method for taming frizzy hair.

Cookbooks such as Anna Jones's acclaimed A Modern Way to Eat and Hemsley and Hemsley's best-selling The Art of Eating Well eulogise about its benefits, with the Hemsley sisters noting it has "incredible immune-boosting properties and... helps to control blood sugar levels [while boosting] energy and health".

Locally, bloggers such as Eleanor Ozich of Petite Kitchen and raw chefs including Little Bird's Megan May swear by it for their gluten and dairy free recipes.

It has been touted as a skin moisturiser, recommended as a way of preventing split ends and suggested as a replacement for both nappy-rash cream and eye make-up remover. In celebrity world, where they are always happy to go that extra step, it's also swished around the mouth for up to 20 minutes a day - a technique known as oil pulling, which has its roots in Ayurvedic medicine and which fans such as Gwyneth Paltrow believe helps to prevent tooth decay, bleeding gums and cracked lips.

"Coconut oil's uses are almost limitless," explains Melissa Hemsley. "That's why everyone is now raving about it. We use it in the kitchen for everything from baking brownies and cakes to stir-fries and roasts, smoothies and curries. It's also excellent as a hair mask and moisturiser."

Nor is it simply an effective alternative beauty product. A spate of recent articles have claimed that coconut oil can have a positive effect on the brain, boosting memory and even providing short-term help to patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

In the absence of a full study into the links between coconut oil and memory it's hard to say how valid these claims are, but researchers at the University of Maryland are looking at coconut oil and cholesterol while Kieran Clarke, a professor of physiological biochemistry at Oxford University, was reported to be looking into whether coconut oil could help those with Parkinson's. Indeed, so many and varied are the claims for coconut oil's supposed superpowers that a satirical article in last week's New Yorker remarked that "coconut oil changed my life, and also my genetic coding".

No matter how incredible, or otherwise, coconut oil may turn out to be, it's also important to remember that there's a huge difference between organic virgin products such as Clearspring or Vita Coco and bog-standard hydrogenated coconut oil, which would be unhealthy to cook with and is highly unlikely to make your hair shine, at least not in the way that you're hoping.

So does the real deal truly work? It is certainly a boost in the kitchen, providing a slightly sweet but not overpowering undernote in curries and roast dishes, though it's worth noting that it is still high in saturated fat, and thus not recommended by the British Heart Foundation or the New Zealand Ministry of Health. Coconut oil fans counterbalance that by bringing up its lauric acid levels, which apparently both boost "good" HDL cholesterol and help to fight infection.

"There's a myth that saturated fats are bad for you," says Jasmine Hemsley. "Natural fats like pure, cold-pressed coconut oils are great for you and really easy to digest. Like all saturated fats, coconut oil is heat-stable and therefore far better for you than any processed vegetable oil that's manufactured for cooking. Most importantly it's natural and makes food feel more satisfying while adding flavour."

However, Professor Rod Jackson, medical practitioner and epidemiologist at Auckland University, is concerned that this type of promotion is setting the public on a path to increased coronary artery disease.

Acting director of public health at the New Zealand Ministry of Health Dr Harriette Carr says the few recent studies that endorse diets high in saturated fats are insufficient to refute the wealth of counter-evidence. The link between saturated fat consumption, blood cholesterol levels and heart disease is well established.

It would seem here that moderation is key, whereas people tend to overlook portion control with so-called superfoods such as coconut oil.

As for the beauty products: lacking Paltrow's willpower, I failed at the oil pulling, feeling nauseous and spitting it out after only five minutes. I wasn't entirely convinced by the coconut oil as face-moisturiser line, either - online blogs suggest that it works less well on dry skin - but it was a surprisingly effective eye make-up remover and a decent lipsalve.

Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the result of my highly unscientific cold-sore test. Not only did it instantly alleviate the burning pain, within 24 hours the sore had shrunk to nothing and within another day it had gone. Is coconut oil really the miracle product to end them all? Probably not, but it cures cold sores. Frankly, that's all I need.

- The Independent

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