The Coconut Palm: From Island Myth to Deadly Diet or Healing Miracle?
The Importance of Coconut Oil
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For about 3960 years of the of the past 4000 years of the documented historical use of the fruits of the coconut palm as a food and a pharmaceutical, the news has all been good. It was seen as a sustainable resource from which the harvested materials influenced every aspect of the lives of tropical communities, but most importantly its fruit, the coconut flesh, water, milk and oil.
The use of coconut oil around the world in tropical regions is prolific: South and Central America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Micro-, Mele- and Poly-nesia and most of Asia. The uses are so respected that they were documented by Ayurvedic medicine in Sanskrit from 1500BC in all areas relating to the mind, body and spirit. Early European explorers including Captain Cook wrote affectionately about the beauty of communities across the Pacific using coconut oil as an integral part of their daily lives. During WWII the water of the young green coconut was successfully used as a substitute for a saline drip saving the lives of many allied soldiers. After the war, in England coconut oil was sold as "margarine" and in the USA as "coconut butter".
Deadly Diet: The Professed Peril of Saturated Oils.
However, this all changed in 1954. In the social environment of the USA in which coronary heart disease (CHD) was becoming the primary cause of mortality in the adult population, the young researcher David Kritchevsky published two academic papers. The initial research described the effects of feeding cholesterol to rabbits and indicated that this may lead to the formation of blocked arteries and thus contribute to potential heart disease. In his second paper he described the beneficial effects of consuming polyunsaturated fatty acids from the oil of corn, soybeans, safflower and sunflower seeds for the lowering, at least temporarily, of cholesterol in the blood.
Kritchevsky’s theory fueled support for the lipid hypothesis, which argued that saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources raise cholesterol levels in the blood, leading to possible deposition of cholesterol and fatty acids as pathogenic plaques in the arteries. Although many studies at the time had also shown research to the contrary, the mud stuck and by the mid 60’s the reputation of all saturated oils in America had been destroyed.
The well oiled marketing machinery funded by the soy bean and corn industry and supported by the American Heart Association was committed to change the American Diet, calling among others, for the substitution of saturated fats for polyunsaturates. The Prudent Diet, as it was called, left a legacy which still haunts us today. 40 years on, this conceptual change in the eating habits of Americans has negatively influenced and changed the dietary regimes of societies all around the world that were initially not even affected by America's particular meat, potato and milk diet. So determined was the pursuit of the American industries in converting their claims into magnificent billboards of health and wealth that even small island nations in the South Pacific were converted by this powerful marketing machine to change centuries of dietary traditions of tropical oils to importing polyunsaturated fats. Today heart disease is still on the increase and obesity, linked to the “new” American diet is a major social problem worldwide that has governments worried about the health care cost of future generations. The U.K. and Australia unfortunately, are racing to catch up to their allies with a large percentage of the population defined as overweight.
Critical modern research is starting to show that dietary changes based on the evidence presented by Kritchevsky and company were at the very least premature and at worst placed the health millions of people at risk. However, time will only tell whether the greatest crime of this initiative will have been the bundling of all saturated fats, whether from meat, dairy or vegetable source together under the one label: Deadly Diet.
The travesty of this action was that one of nature’s most amazing resources, tropical oils, and especially coconut oil with all its functional, nutritional and pharmaceutical possibilities, has been lost to modern medicine for decades. Although saturated, coconut oil is structurally, pharmaceutically and behaviorally different to any other natural oil or fat.
However, we have reached a critical time in our history when society is in dire need of a cost efficient, abundant, natural and effective anti bacterial and anti viral remedy. Modern medical research has allowed us to scientifically dispel many of the theories of the recent past and show the complexity of our modern lifestyle and diet. More importantly however, this critical research into coconut oil has pinpointed the one aspect that makes the case for coconut oil to be reaccepted, not only as a legitimate part of our daily diet, but also as a potent natural anti-viral and anti-bacterial remedy of the future.
Medical research is in agreement that at least 30% of our daily nutritional intake should be made up of fats or oil. However, the structures of different oils are as diverse as nature itself and even a basic knowledge of what defines the different classification of fats will help us understand why this classification is so important when choosing oil to augment and support a healthy lifestyle for our children, families and ourselves.
All oils are made up of different individual fatty acids of fat (lipid) molecules. These lipid molecules or fatty acids are all made up of only three elements: Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms and in nature we find only around 70 different types of fatty acids. These fatty acids have been named and classified depending on the characteristics of intrinsic structure, which are the length and the type of bond between the elements. The length is defined by the number of carbon molecules which form the core of the structure and the type of bond is defined by whether these carbon elements are bound together by a single or a double bond.
Broadly speaking the number of carbon atoms will define whether the fatty acid (FA) is classified as a short chain, medium chain or long chain fat molecule. Thus a fatty acid made up of only 2 to 6 carbon atoms is classified as a Short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) and is denoted by C-2 to C-6 indicating its carbon bonds. Similarly Medium-chain fatty acids or MCFA are defined as fatty acids having carbon atom range of 8 to 12 and Long-chain fatty acids have chains of 14 to 24 carbon atoms, abbreviated as (LCFA).
The second critical area of classification and the one aspect that was strongly exploited by the agricultural industries of America during the 60’s is the definition of whether oils are saturated , monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils . Whereas the number of carbon atoms defines the length of a fatty acid, the bonds between the carbon atoms will classify the nature of their saturation. Generally a fatty acid is defined as saturated when all the carbon atoms in its structure are connected another Carbon atom with a single bond. This means that this fatty acids cannot connect or join with any other element, and is thus saturated or stable in is nature. Thus Stearic Acid, a C-18 (i.e. a fatty acid with 18 single bonded carbon atoms in its structure) is a saturated fatty acid commonly found in animal and vegetable oils.
However, when within the length of the fatty acid a carbon is joined to another with at least one double bond it is defined an unsaturated oil. A fatty acid with a maximum of one such bond is classified as mono-unsaturated e.g. a C-18 called oleic acid and found predominately in olive oil. Whereas, when at least two double bonds are present in the structure of a fatty acid it is defined as a poly-unsaturated oil. An example of this is linoleic acid the most common fat in vegetable oils.
However, given the preference of carbon atoms to bond with either hydrogen (hydrogenation) or oxygen (oxidation) poly-unsaturated oils have been shown to be quite unstable and prone to oxidation. Oxidation is a natural process of rancidity creating harmful free radicals. Hydrogenation on the other hand, is a synthetic process which improves stability but creates dangerous trans-(or ‘false’) fatty acids. Saturated oils have however received the predominant criticism for their potential in raising blood cholesterol.
Nonetheless, half a century after the initial research cited the possibility of saturated fats raising cholesterol levels in the blood, it has been shown that not all saturated fats raise blood cholesterol. Even a high percentage of saturated C-14 Myristic Acid and C-16 Palmitic Acid in the diets of tropical island communities did not adversely affect their blood cholesterol levels within their accepted traditional diets.
Recent evidence published by Mary Enig has re-ignited the debate of the stereotypical debate on saturated vs. unsaturated fats. She argues in her article Skinny on Fats that although polyunsaturated oils drive cholesterol into the tissue to support the membrane structure of the cell wall and thus lowering serum cholesterol levels in the blood, this lowering is only temporary. Furthermore unsaturated fatty acids may only be the second best choice for our body in the absences of saturated fatty acids which are the first choice for the physical integrity and function relating to cell maintenance, cell performance and new cell growth.
Current research supports the doctrine that cell walls incorporating saturated fat molecules are more robust and functional, whereas in situations where cell are forced to use unsaturated fat molecules instead of saturated lipids this may in fact cause wall weakness. It is believed that cholesterol has an active function in repairing cell walls that have been harmed by unsaturated fat. Hence blood cholesterol is taken into the tissues to do a job after unsaturated fats are consumed. On the other hand when particular saturated fat molecules are available cholesterol is released from the tissue into the blood stream, as the concentration needed for the repair function in the tissues is less. . This theory would show why some saturated fats in fact cause a temporarily higher level of cholesterol in the blood stream, but that the adverse health effects quoted in the past have arisen through a basic misunderstanding of our bodily cell functioning.
Enig argues that in the light of this new research there is a need to review the techniques for measuring and understanding the role cholesterol and examine how dietary factors alter human cholesterol biosynthesis. Furthermore, external dietary factors influencing human cholesterol synthesis including energy restriction, meal frequency, dietary fat type may be much more influential in raising cholesterol levels in the blood than the old simplistic argument of saturated fats .
However, it is important to realise that while this debate continues, very little attention has been focused on the fact that saturated oils are not a homogenous group, but that they contain three distinct subgroups: short, medium and long chain fatty acids. Each subgroup has different nutritional, metabolic, biological and pharmacological characteristics and the importance of their individual functions within our bodies have been neglected by the tarnished images given to saturated oils.
Coconut oil is in many ways a unique gift of nature. It contains 92% saturated fatty acids, giving coconut oil important properties often lost under the dusty political cloud of the cholesterol debate. Quasi immune to light oxidation and highly resistant to rancidity the oil is functional as a safe nutritional source in most climates without the need for refrigeration or special storage conditions.
However, the fact most lost in the furor over cholesterol is the differentiation of the different sub-groups of fatty acids and in particular the importance in particular of Medium Chain Fatty Acids. Modern researchers have discovered important health benefits and critical bodily functions that are supported by the pool of MCFAs available to the human body. The high concentration of Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) of 62% is the critical aspect of why this tropical oil not only behaves differently to any other saturated fat, but is also deemed healthier than most unsaturated oils, the latter often having a much higher concentration of long chain fatty acids.. Generally MCFAs are of a smaller particle size thus requiring less energy and fewer enzymes for absorption, placing less strain on the digestive system .
This is further enhanced by the fact that short and medium chain fatty acids are made soluble and absorbed in the aqueous phase of the intestinal contents and transported directly via the portal vein to the liver where they are consumed as an energy source similar to carbohydrates. MCFA have also been shown to assist the absorption and retention of calcium, magnesium and some amino acids as well supporting the healthy functioning of the thyroid.
Notwithstanding all the bodily functions that may be enhanced by the consumption of MCFAs the most outstanding finding of modern research has been the capacity of certain MCFA to enhance the human immune system and actively participate in the capacity of the human body to fight virus, bacteria and fungi.
The most important of these MCFAs that enhance and boost the bodies immune system are Caproic Acid, Caprylic Acid, Capric Acid and Lauric Acid and Myristic Acid It is however the powerful capacity of Lauric acid to immobilise harmful invaders of our body, which has excited researchers the most. Although Dr Jon Kabara had already noted the antimicrobial activity of lauric acid in 1966, it has been only in the last 10 years that the potential of all MCFA in fighting bacterial and viral infections has been realised. Furthermore, in addition to their capacity to inactivate pathogenic organisms, the use of MCFAs has shown no negative toxicological or pharmacological side effects. If anything MCFA have shown to weaken viruses or bacteria that show antibiotic resistance to such an extent that these drugs can actually function against these organisms, while the use of MCFAs over time has not shown any build-up of resistance by microbial organisms to these fatty acids.
In practical terms, the consumption of MCFAs would not only boost the human immune system without fear of negative side effects, but also that they could be consumed to compliment the functions of general antibiotic treatments when their effectiveness is decreased by built up resistance found in bacteria. MCFAs are effective mostly in their digested form or in the case of lauric acid: monolaurin. The effectiveness of monolaurin is based on the small size of the particle and the similarity in substance to the lipid (fat) membranes coating harmful microorganisms. Monolaurin is attracted to the virus and is then easily absorbed into its quasi fluid membrane weakening it to such a degree that it literally splits open, killing the organism and allowing the bodies own white blood cells to effectively clean and dispose of the remnants.
These research results have lead to the incorporation of especially Caprylic, Capric and Lauric Acid into many accepted anti-viral/anti-bacterial pharmaceutical treatments today. The fact is that over 63% of coconut oil is made up of these three major fatty acids . In addition the majority, around 48%, is Lauric acid, the fundamental building block of our bodies immune system and the most effective anti-pathogenic of all MCFAs. At these concentrations it is only found in one other of natures products: Mothers Milk.
The Chance of a Healing Miracle: What do we have to lose?
The importance of Mothers Milk in the diet of an infant has also been neglected in the past, but is regaining its rightful status as the foundation of human long-term well-being. Modern allopathic research is littered with failures to properly ascertain the long-term risk of medical prescriptions, none more evident than the recent scare in Hormone Replacement Therapy using synthetically produced estrogen.
However, the evidence of the virtues of MCFAs, natures own anti-pathogenic resource cannot and should not be ignored any longer. The fact is that much research has been done and the documented use of monolaurin in dental care, peptic ulcers, benign prostatic hyperplasia, genital herpes, hepatitis C as well as HIV/AIDS is now well documented.
Moreover in a seminal study presented by Prof. Conrado Dayrit on the use of MCFAs and, in particular monolaurin, as a cure for HIV/AIDS, he concluded: initial trials confirm anecdotal reports that coconut oil does have an anti-viral effect and can beneficially reduce the viral load of HIV patients. Furthermore, the study showed that the positive anti-viral action was seen not only with monolaurin, but also with coconut oil itself and thus showed the effectiveness of the consumption of coconut oil in boosting the immune system of the body.
Tropical oils and Mother’s Milk are by far the richest food sources of medium chain fatty acids available, especially the all important lauric acid, comprising almost 50% of the resource. The closest other source of these vital building blocks for our immune system would be milk fat and butter, comprising around 3% of its content. All other vegetable oils are completely deficient in these MCFAs.
The choice to avail oneself of this recently rediscovered information would be the educated choice of each individual. Diet is only one aspect of our general mental, physical and spiritual well being, albeit an important one. The question whether the evidence put forward will one day proclaim coconut oil as a miracle cure for our failing ability to fight disease may be irrelevant. The reality is that benefits arising from the consumption of coconut oil within a healthy diet have been documented for over 4000 years. The tree is beautiful and abundant and the question to be answered is whether we can afford to continue to ignore its potential.
1 Enig, M & Fallon, S., The Oiling of America, Nexus Magazine, 1998