The Latest Studies on Coconut Oil
By Mary G. Enig, PhD
One of the very useful oils in the food supply comes from the coconut. Coconut oil has suffered from unjust criticism for more than 30 years in the United States because some of the governmental and food oil organizations, as well as consumer activist organizations such as Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), have claimed that coconut oil as a “saturated fat” is shown to be atherogenic. This is not true.
There is a variety of supportive research published in 2003, 2004, and 2005, which shows the importance of coconut oil. Also, information on coconut oil is currently coming into the research literature from numerous countries, including India, Norway, Iran and the United States.
The following are some of the most recent studies showing the benefits of coconut oil. These studies contradict claims that coconut oil contributes to heart disease and also support earlier research showing an antimicrobial role for the fatty acids in this traditional fat.
Beneficial for Heart Disease
Recent research contradicts claims that coconut oil causes atherosclerosis and heart disease. In a study published in Clinical Biochemistry, 2004,1 researchers looked at coconut oil as a component of diet in laboratory animals (Sprague-Dawley rats). In this study, virgin coconut oil, which was obtained by wet process, had a beneficial effect in lowering total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids and low density lipoproteins (LDL). The effects were uniformly beneficial. In serum and tissues, very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol levels were lowered and HDL-cholesterol was increased. The polyphenol fraction of virgin coconut oil was also found to prevent in vitro LDL-oxidation. We know that oxidized cholesterol can initiate the process of atherosclerosis—the fatty acids in coconut oil prevent this oxidation. The results in this study were interpreted as due to the biologically active polyphenol components present in the oil.
Another study dealing with lipoproteins and cholesterol was carried out in women. Researchers found that coconut oil-based diets lowered post-prandial tissue plasminogen activator and lipoprotein (a).2 Lp(a) is a blood marker that is a much more accurate indication of proneness to heart attack than cholesterol levels. Researchers had believed that levels of Lp(a) were unaffected by various forms of dietary fat intake. However, in this study, Lp(a) was lowered when the subjects consumed a high-saturated fat diet and somewhat lowered when they consumed a slightly lowered-saturated fat diet. The saturated fat used in both of these diets was coconut oil. The control diet was based on a monounsaturated oil.
One of the more interesting uses of coconut oil found in the human toxicology literature involves the beneficial use of coconut oil as a successful treatment for acute aluminium phosphide poisoning. This poison is used to control pests in grain storage facilities where it functions as a poisonous gas, namely phosphine gas, which is a mitochondrial poison. There is no known antidote for aluminium phosphide. The patient described in this case study survived following rapid treatment which included taking baking soda and coconut oil, as well as supportive care, and it was concluded that coconut oil had a significant use as an added part of the treatment protocol in this type of poisoning.3
A few researchers have known for some time that a derivative of coconut oil, lauric acid and monolaurin, are safe antimicrobial agents that can either kill completely or stop the growth of some of the most dangerous viruses and bacteria. Many bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics but herbal oils such as the oils of oregano and the major fatty acid from coconut oil, lauric acid, which the body turns into the monoglyceride, monolaurin, are showing great promise as anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents. Monolaurin, in particular, is being shown to be useful in the prevention and treatment of severe bacterial infections, especially those that are difficult to treat or are antibiotic resistant. Difficult bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus as well as other bacteria have been studied here in the United States in research groups such as Dr. H.G. Preuss’s group at Georgetown University. They found that monolaurin combined with herbal essential oils inhibited pathogenic bacteria both in the petri dish (in vitro) and also in mice (in vivo).4
1. Beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil on lipid parameters and in vitro LDL oxidation. K.G.Nevin and T. Rajamohan, Clinical Biochemistry 37,2004;830-835).
2. A Diet Rich in Coconut Oil Reduces Diurnal Postprandial Variations in Circulating Plasminogen Activator Antigen and Fasting Lipoprotein (a) Compared with a Diet Rich in Unsaturated Fat in Women. H. Muller, A.S. Lindman, A. Blomfeldt, I. Seljeflot and J.I. Pedersen. Journal of Nutrition. 133:3422-3427, 2003.
3. Successful treatment of acute aluminium phosphide poisoning: possible benefit of coconut oil. S. Shahin, R. Mojgan, P. Abdolkarim, R. Mmohammad-Hosein, A. Mohammad. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 24:215-218, 2005).
4. Minimum inhibitory concentrations of herbal essential oils and monolaurin for gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. Preuss HG, Echard B, Enig M, Brook I, Elliott TB. Molecular Cell Biochemistry, 2005:272:29-34).
About the Author
Mary G. Enig, PhD is an expert of international renown in the field of lipid biochemistry. She has headed a number of studies on the content and effects of trans fatty acids in America and Israel, and has successfully challenged government assertions that dietary animal fat causes cancer and heart disease. Recent scientific and media attention on the possible adverse health effects of trans fatty acids has brought increased attention to her work. She is a licensed nutritionist, certified by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists, a qualified expert witness, nutrition consultant to individuals, industry and state and federal governments, contributing editor to a number of scientific publications, Fellow of the American College of Nutrition and President of the Maryland Nutritionists Association. She is the author of over 60 technical papers and presentations, as well as a popular lecturer. Dr. Enig is currently working on the exploratory development of an adjunct therapy for AIDS using complete medium chain saturated fatty acids from whole foods. She is Vice-President of the Weston A Price Foundation and Scientific Editor of Wise Traditions as well as the author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, Bethesda Press, May 2000. She is the mother of three healthy children brought up on whole foods including butter, cream, eggs and meat.