In this author’s last post, two dietary strategies (Mediterranean diet and low carbohydrate/ ketogenic diet) were explored and considered for their influence upon health biomarkers and outcomes. A common element found from both diets included the daily consumption and use of oils as part of their respective regimens. In the following sections, this author would like to further elucidate particular biochemical characteristics of coconut oil and its influence upon physiology/health/human disease, and why such an oil is essential in the human diet.
Coconut oil, and coconut oil products, are becoming increasingly popular in Westernized societies and the world. The use of coconut oil in the human diet has had a degree of controversy due to the larger amount of saturated fat content. However, Mikołajczak1 has provided a review outlining findings and facts behind coconut oil consumption and health benefits. The general public typically believes that the saturated fatty acids have a detrimental influence on human health, mainly due to the the effects on cholesterol levels in blood serum, both total and LDL fraction (Low Density Lipoproteins).1(308)
Coconut oil is considered a highly relevant oil used globally; such an oil belongs to a particular group of oil products called lauric oils, characterized by a high content of saturated fatty acids (90%), with a dominant contribution of lauric acid characterized by a 12-carbon chain length.1(309) The content of lauric acid in coconut oil is approximately 35.25-52.48% with the remaining saturated fat content of coconut oil coming from palmitic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, caproic acid, and stearic acid.1(309) Trace amounts of unsaturated fatty acids also exist in coconut to include oleic acid (usually found in olive oil) and linoleic acid.1(309)
Coconut oil is also characterized by other saturated lipids to include medium chain triglycerides (MCTs); 3 fatty acid molecules linked to glycerol backbone containing a carbon chain length between 6 to 12.1(310) MCTs have a unique method of absorption and entry into the body when compared to long chain fatty acids (LCTs). LCTs require a lipase enzyme to liberate said fatty acids from glycerol, and the resulting fatty acids are absorbed and re-attached to the glycerol molecule backbone for entry into the bloodstream.1(310) Such biochemical properties allow easy entry through the digestive system and provide a substantial energy substrate for the body.1(310)
Coconut oil not only provide MCTs that are an easily digestible and readily available fuel source; coconut oil also contains other substances known as phytosterols. Phytosterols are functional and structural analogues (similar) of cholesterol, which are synthesized within plants.1(310) Of particular relevance is hypocholesterolemic (cholesterol-lowering) and anti-tumor effects; phytosterols contribute to the reduction of total cholesterol, LDL fraction, and platelet aggregation.1(310)
Coconut also contains tocols such as vitamin E; an antioxidant, which extends its protective influence upon unsaturated fatty acids such as those found in cell membranes.1(310) Vitamin E also decreases the susceptibility of unsaturated fatty acids against oxidation, and participates in the construction and maintenance of cell membranes.1(310) Furthermore, vitamin E is engaged in several metabolic processes in addition to preventing the aging of the body, and bestows a positive influence on plasma lipid levels.1(310)
Coconut oil also contains substances known as polyphenols; a group of chemical compounds that are secondary metabolites of plants.1(311) Polyphenols are particularly influential upon health due to their unique ability to deactivate reactive forms of oxygen and nitrogen, as well as free protein and lipid radicals.1(311) Furthermore, polyphenols have bactericidal (kill bacteria), anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergic properties, in addition to protecting the skin from oxidative damage and preventing cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.1(311)
In conclusion, oils are relatively popular substances consumed in the human diet. Although olive oil is a well-researched and understood unsaturated fatty acid, coconut oil has been erroneously misinterpreted and largely demonized as harmful to health. However, it is this author’s hope that the aforementioned sections have helped elucidate the biochemical and physiological health benefits that coconut oils place upon those who consume such a saturated fat.
1. Mikołajczak N. Coconut oil in human diet nutrition value and potential health benefits. Journal of Education, Health and Sport. 2017; 7(9):307-319. doi:10.5281/zenodo.997464.