The coconut has attained Superfood status.
Lured by endorsements from celebrities, supermodels and even Kourtney Kardashian, consumers are clamoring for coconut oil, water, milk, and coconut-infused cocktails. They're pouring it in coffee, spreading it on toast, swishing it like mouthwash and gulping it down after hot-yoga classes, enticed by the promise that coconut can banish belly fat, boost heart health and even stave off the effects of Alzheimer's Disease.
But do coconuts offer any real health benefits? Or is it just hype?
Researchers, dietitians, and doctors say that coconut's properties are promising, but the data just isn't sufficient to start recommending daily doses.
"The science we have is interesting, but it's too early to deem this as the next Superfood and start pouring it on everything," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. "We just don't have enough evidence."
Most of the excitement revolves around coconut's reputation as a weight-loss tool. Coconut oil contains large amounts of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are used for fuel more quickly than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) found in most animal-based products, like meats and dairy. LCTs linger longer in the bloodstream and are more readily stored as fat.
"Because fats high in MCTs are metabolized faster by the liver, coconut oil may have a slight edge over other fats in terms of weight loss. But the research is limited," says Kirkpatrick.
"There is a perception that because it's plant based, it's healthier than animal fats. But like animal [fat], it has calories, lots of them, and that makes a big difference in weight loss."
Much of the hype has been spurred by studies that have shown modest weight loss in small groups over short periods of time, she adds, including a 2011 study of women who, over a 12-week period, lost just 0.005 percent more belly fat consuming coconut oil supplements than those who took soybean oil supplements.
But studies like that one are too small to justify bold health claims, cautions Ashley Simmons, a cardiologist and medical director of the University of Kansas Hospital's women's heart program. "I think we need to look at all these studies very cautiously," she says.
To be sure, coconut oil does have some proven benefits. It contains lauric acid, which reduces inflammation associated with acne, and has been shown to have antimicrobial properties. There is some evidence that virgin coconut oil contains antioxidants that may play a role in reducing inflammation associated with arthritic conditions.
And it is a smart substitute for other saturated fats, such as butter or shortening, Simmons says. Those animal-based fats raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Coconut oil raises both HDL ("good") cholesterol, as well as LDL, so it doesn't carry the same cardiovascular risk.
"As a saturated fat, it's probably better than others," she says. "But it's still a high-calorie, highly-saturated fat."
Indeed, coconut's high proportion of saturated fat -- which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease -- gives health experts pause.
Coconut oil has a higher proportion of saturated fat than other plant-based oils. A tablespoon of coconut oil has calorie and fat counts similar to olive oil's, but 88 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, compared to just 15 percent in olive oil.
"For olive oil, we have very strong studies showing that it's reduced the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer," says Kirkpatrick.
The oil also has been hailed for its potential to delay the effects of Alzheimer's Disease.
"I get asked about coconut oil on a daily basis," says Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida's Byrd Alzheimer's Institute in Tampa. She says she has heard mixed reviews from patients who've tried it and is conducting a study to determine whether cognitive benefits exist. "Some say that it helps, and others have perceived no benefit. But we don't have the data to make specific recommendations."
The coconut craze reaches beyond the kitchen. Some recommend it for oil pulling, an Ayurvedic method that has been said to banish migraines, whiten teeth and detox the body. Oil pulling involves swishing oil in the mouth for five to 20 minutes, then spitting it out. The American Dental Association recently warned that oil pulling shouldn't be substituted for teeth brushing, fluoride or other conventional oral hygiene measures.
Traditionally, sesame oil was used for oil pulling, says Larissa Hall Carlson, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Mass. But these days some people are using coconut oil because it's lighter and more palatable. Ayurvedic practitioners don't commonly recommend oil pulling on a daily basis, or as a substitute for brushing and flossing, Carlson says. And they don't promise any other sweeping health benefits.
Other coconut products have also become wildly popular. Cartons of coconut milk have become permanent fixtures in dairy departments of groceries, alongside soy, almond and hemp milks, for those searching for cow's milk alternatives. Coconut milk has calorie and fat profiles similar to other plant-based milk.
Coconut water is becoming a popular thirst-quencher for those looking for a natural way to replenish electrolytes after hard workouts. Unsweetened varieties don't have the sugar, artificial sweeteners or dyes contained in many conventional sports drinks. And coconut water is high in potassium and magnesium, two nutrients the body needs.
That said, Dayton, Ohio-based sports dietitian Pamela Nisevich Bede points out that coconut water is lower in sodium, the main electrolyte lost through sweat, and carbohydrates than conventional sports drinks. While it's a better choice than soda or a sugar-packed juice, "I wouldn't recommend it over a traditional sports drink to rehydrate after vigorous activity," she says.