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The Plain Truth About Coconut Oil

Dr. P. Rethinam and Muhartoyo
Asian and Pacific Coconut Community

(Quoted from the Jakarta Post, June 18, 2003)

On March 19, 2003 the Jakarta Post published an article entitled ìThe simple truth about cholesterolî written by Melissa Southern-Garcia. While the article tries to enlighten readers about cholesterol, it is sad to note that the author gave inaccurate and misleading information about coconut oil. She implied that since coconut oil belongs to saturated fat it has a negative effect on our health by increasing our blood level of harmful LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol. This article is meant to give a scientifically proven fact about coconut oil that may be missed out by common people and professionals.

Coconut oil is a colorless to pale brownish yellow oil with a melting point ranging from 23?C to 26?C. The glycerides of coconut oil are invariably a mixture of one, two, or three fatty acids. Though coconut oil is known as triglyceride or lipid, it also contains minor proportions of mono and diglycerides and has highest content of glycerol (13/5% to 15.0%). Glycerol is a carbohydrate with chemical composition similar to that of simple sugar. This implies that with coconut oil as a dietary fat, the actual intake of fatty substances is much less than that with same quantity of any other actual intake of any other oil.

A study done in a two groups of community living in New Zealand who consume a large number of coconut oil has proved that they have rare incidents of hypercholesterolemia and heart attack. According to Prior, Davidson et al. two groups of Polynesians from Cook Islands derive 35% and 27% of their calories from coconut oil but their mean cholesterol values are low, i.e. 153 mg% and 195 mg% respectively. Prevalence of heart attacks also is low in these groups compared to the usual New Zealand population.

About 70% Sri Lankans are consuming coconut oil for over 1000 years but the epidemic of hypercholesterolemia and heart disease is of recent origin. Before 1950, heart attacks were not common in Sri Lanka. Hospital admission rate for heart attacks was 57.3 in 1970 to 182 in 1992. On the other hand the Central Bank of Sri Lanka figures out that the coconut consumption has gone down from 132 nuts per person per year in 1952 to 90 per person per year in 1991. It indicates that the increase of heart attacks incidents in Sri Lanka is not due to the increased consumption of coconut.

In a study in the Philippines, 10 medical students tested diets consisting of different levels of animal fat and coconut oil. When the ratio of animal fat and coconut oil at ratio of 1:1, 1:2, 1:3 no significant change in cholesterol but when animal fat level increased total calories reached 40% and blood cholesterol increased. This study indicated that not only did coconut had no effect on cholesterol levels, it even reduced the cholesterol elevating effect of animal fat.

Hashim et al (1953) demonstrated that coconut oil was not a ìbad oilî when they compared essential fatty acid-rich safflower oil with an equal mixture of safflower oil and coconut oil on 10 hyper-cholesterolemia males, 8 of whom were survivors of myocardial infarction. They showed that both safflower oil (SFO) and safflower oil-coconut oil (SFO-CNO) caused marked decrease in the serum cholesterol and that the (SFO-CNO) effect was obtained regardless of whether it was fed before or after the safflower oil (Kaunits, 1992).

There were some experiments which concluded that coconut oil caused hypercholesterolemia, but these experiments turned out to be unacceptable due to some reasons. First, these experiments used hydrogenated coconut oil in which the coconut oil became more saturated and its essential fatty acid, linoleic fatty acid, got destroyed. Second, Most of the research work has been done using animals such as rabbits, monkeys, dogs, swine, and rats and the number of animal used are very small. In some experiments only four animals were used. Third, Rabbit model used for most of the research work cannot be compared to man. It has been found that when corn oil is administered to a man it will make his serum cholesterol level come down, while in the rabbit model, corn oil increases serum cholesterol level (Aturokarole, 1996).

The fact that coconut oil belongs to saturated oil cannot be automatically justified to be the cause of increasing LDL cholesterol as coconut oil has its own unique properties. Moreover, people may not know what saturated oil means. Chemically, oil is made up of chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen called fatty acid. All fatty acids consist of a chain of carbon atoms with varying amounts of hydrogen atoms attached to them. A molecule that has two hydrogen atoms attached to each carbon is said to be ìsaturatedî with hydrogen because it is holding all the hydrogen atoms it possibly can. A fatty acid that is missing a pair of hydrogen atoms on one of its carbons is called monounsaturated fat. If more than two hydrogen atoms are missing, it is called polyunsaturated fat. (Fife, 2000).

It must be noted that there are different groups of fatty acids contained in major oils and fat. Generally they are grouped into medium chain fatty acids (MCFA), and long chain fatty acids (LCFA). The two fatty acids have different behavior and health effect to human being. Those who equate coconut oil with other saturated fats are not conscious of the existence of subgroups within broad category of saturated fatty acids. The medium fatty acids have a lower melting point, a smaller molecular size and greater solubility in water and biological fluids compared with those of the long chain fatty acids (Thampan, 1998).

Coconut oils is grouped into MCFA as 57% its fatty acids consisting of C8 (capric acid) and C12 (lauric acid). A number of noted scientists have revealed the superiority of MCFA. Coconut oil has approximately 50% lauric acid. Lauric acid has the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Some studies have also shown some antimicrobial effects of the free lauric acid. (Enig, 1999).

Coconut oil has also, approximately 6-7% capric acid. Capric acid has a similar beneficial function when it is formed into monocaprin in the human or animal body. Monocaprin has also been shown to have antiviral effects against HIV and is being tested for antiviral effects against herpes simplex and antibacterial effects against chlamydia and other sexually transmitted bacteria. (Reuters, London June 29, 1999).

Garcia who stated in her article that vegetable oils did not have cholesterol is not accurate. The latest research finding concludes that cholesterol can also be found in vegetable oils. INFORM Vol. 13 December 2002 published by American Oil Chemistsí Society indicates that vegetable oils contain cholesterol although in small amounts. It is further stated that coconut oil has the lowest cholesterol amounts (5-24 parts per million) compared to palm kernel oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, soy oil, conttonseed oil, rapeseed oil, and corn oil. Please see table 1.

Table 1
Estimated amounts of cholesterol in vegetable oils and animal fats

Oil/fat Range(Parts per million)
Palm kernel
Beef tallow

Source: Inform, Vol. 13, 2002

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