(Quoted from the Jakarta Post, June 18, 2003)
On March 19, 2003 the Jakarta
Post published an article entitled “The simple truth about
cholesterol” 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 23ºC to 26ºC.
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 “bad oil” 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,
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 “saturated” 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 Chemists’
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 1Estimated amounts of cholesterol in vegetable oils
and animal fats
Range(Parts per million)
Source: Inform, Vol. 13, 2002