06/14/2012 06:27 pm ET

Coconut Oil: A Tropical Disease-Fighting Super-Oil?

Although I love all things coconut, from coconut water to coconut scents, I don't give special treatment to the newest craze: coconut oil. It most likely isn't the cure-all that many experts now claim. Dr. Oz touts the "superpowers" of coconut oil as causing weight loss, improving skin conditions, and treating ulcers.

What is coconut oil? I'm not talking about conventional coconut oil that's has been used in candy, creamers, and movie theater popcorn. That kind is highly processed, made from dried coconut and cooked until it is very refined. The healthier, natural, "virgin" coconut oil making headlines today is made with a mild extraction procedure from fresh coconut meat. It's the newest popular oil used in baking, smoothies, cooking, and even hair products and skin care.

Coconut oil, a solid at room temperature, is composed of 92 percent saturated fat. That seems pretty high compared to other sources of saturated fat in our diet: soybean oils (15 percent saturated fat), beef (50 percent sat fat), and butter (63 percent saturated fat). Though coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, the majority of the fatty acids are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This explains why compared to other saturated fat sources composed mostly of long chain triglycerides (LCTs), coconut oil may not carry the negative health risks that saturated fat is known for (heart disease and high cholesterol).

MCTs are metabolized differently in the body: They are transported directly from the intestines to the liver, with a greater chance to be burned directly as fuel. This differs from LCTs that have a higher chance of circulating throughout the body and being deposited in fatty tissues. However, it is still questionable whether that means coconut oil can do all of the following:

  • Cause weight loss
  • Cure Alzheimer's
  • Reduce diabetes/regulate blood sugar
  • Increase bone and dental health by improving calcium absorption
  • Fight inflammation and free radicals with its ferulic and p-coumaric acid components
  • Decrease risk of heart disease
  • Fight infections due to the lauric acid content

Sounds like the new miracle drug! Unfortunately, there isn't enough concrete scientific evidence to suggest that coconut oil does any of these. Coconut oil is best enjoyed as a treat, in moderation, just as you would use a small amount of other oils or fats in baking. Perks included or not, coconut oil is just another healthy, natural, and dairy-free alternative option to butter and oils that you can incorporate in your diet.

For more by Carrie Wiatt, M.S., click here.

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