Melissa Oprish is a convert to the coconut.
The Eden Prairie mother keeps a 54-ounce vat of coconut oil at the ready. She sautées Brussels sprouts with it. She slathers it on her baby’s bottom to prevent diaper rash. She’s even used it as nipple cream when nursing.
“I always say: If all else fails, try coconut,” said Oprish, who recently wrote about the wonders of coconut for the Twin Cities Moms blog.
The 33-year-old is part of a consumer movement that is transforming a tropical fruit once maligned for its high fat content into a super food embraced by people who swear by its therapeutic powers.
The coconut’s healing abilities are said to be vast — from bad-breath-erasing mouthwash to Alzheimer’s treatment. As with other so-called miracle foods, “things start snowballing, and that’s what happened with coconut,” said Dr. Donald Hensrud of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
What follows are eight purported ways to improve your life by eating, drinking or applying coconut onto our bodies — and a dose of reality from doctors.
The claim: Oil pulling, as it’s called, is the buzziest of oil treatments right now. Swishing coconut oil in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes (then spitting it out) promotes healthy gums because the oil attracts bacteria and literally pulls it out.
Experts say: The issue of oil pulling is too hot to touch for the American Dental Association. A spokeswoman for the organization said the group isn’t commenting on the trend because more research is needed. She referred us to the ADA’s policy on “unconventional dentistry.”
Scott Lingle, a St. Paul dentist for more than 30 years, agreed that there are no scientific studies about oil pulling. “Most of the bacteria in the mouth is in the plaque — that sticky film that forms on your teeth,” he said. “You have to physically brush or floss to destruct the plaque film. I’ve never seen anything yet that [shows] rinsing is going to pull bacteria out.”
Diaper rash reliever
The claim: Parents rub coconut oil (which commonly comes in a jar) on baby’s bottom to soothe redness and irritation.
Experts say: “It could be very effective for minor dermatitis, like diaper rash. Having said that, people can develop allergies to coconut oil so you have to be careful,” said Dr. Peter Lee, a dermatologist at the University of Minnesota. Check your family history before using it on your baby.
“In terms of the skin, it’s an amazing moisturizer,” Lee said. The fatty acids in coconut oil bind together and form a barrier that’s more natural than the greasy, petroleum jelly-like substances used in traditional creams. “It allows the skin to breathe more. These fatty acids actually hold water better.”
The claim: A growing number of people are switching to non-dairy milk choices, including coconut milk. It comes from the flesh of the coconut and contains antiviral and antibacterial properties. Coconut milk drinkers say it can help ward off viruses and infections.
Experts say: That’s quite a leap, according to Hensrud. “There’s no data to support that,” he said.
The claim: Swallowing one to three tablespoons of coconut oil daily can improve brain function in Alzheimer’s patients.
Experts say: It’s a question Mayo neurologist David Knopman gets asked often from families of his patients. Often, they’ve simply heard about the claim through the grapevine. But “there actually isn’t any biological basis to think this would work,” he says.
Weight loss aid
The claim: Cooking with virgin coconut oil — which comes from the meat of mature coconuts — can help you lose weight even though it’s high in saturated fat. TV’s Dr. Oz is a fan, saying that virgin coconut oil is made up of “medium chain fatty acids” that quickly dissolve in the blood. Using it can help speed up metabolism.
Experts say: “The truth lies somewhere in between, especially at this stage of the game,” said Hensrud, an internist and medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Diet. Studies that show weight loss are based on MCT, an ingredient found in coconut oil. But Hensrud cautioned that the studies did not use coconut itself, and the results were short-term. When dealing with weight loss, he said, long-term results are important.
Coconut oil’s former bad reputation stemmed from it being partially hydrogenated. “There certainly are differences between partially hydrogenated and virgin coconut oil,” Hensrud said. “So it does deserve a fresh look, but let’s continue to study it and refine our knowledge based on data.”
Katherine Zeratsky, a Mayo dietician, said coconut oil adds great flavor to dishes that can be healthier because you’re likely to use less of it. Just don’t overdo it, she advised. “The end game is the calories,” she said.
The claim: Chock full of potassium, coconut water helps prevent muscle cramps and has fewer calories and less sodium than most sports drinks. Unlike coconut milk, coconut water is clear and is found in the middle of young, green coconuts.
Experts say: It’s fine for athletes and others who will be doing workouts for more than an hour and sweating hard. But for most recreational exercisers, plain water hydrates well enough, and it doesn’t have any calories. Plus, it’s free. Typically, a bottle of coconut water costs as much as $3.
The claim: Applying coconut oil onto sunburned skin aids in the healing process.
Experts say: When you have a sunburn, you want to apply ointments that are very soothing like aloe, Lee said. “[Coconut oil] would have a similar effect in that it coats the skin and protects it from outside,” he said.
Athlete’s foot treatment
The claim: Dabbing some coconut oil on your feet can rid you of that itching and burning feeling.
Experts say: Coconut oil does have anti-fungal properties, Lee said, but “it’s not the best” treatment option. “For someone with severe athlete’s foot, you’re probably going to need more than coconut oil.” While the oil isn’t strong enough as a standalone treatment, it’s worth using to help prevent the recurrence of foot fungus, he said.