One of the hottest products in health food stores today is organic coconut oil. Once maligned because it is largely composed of saturated fat, what consumers have come to understand is that the saturated fats from coconut oil are different than the ones found in animal products. Specifically, they are shorter in length and utilized by the body in beneficial ways. 

Coconut oil contains what are referred to as short- and medium-chain triglycerides while the saturated fats in animal products are long-chain triglycerides.  Being shorter in length, short- and medium-chain triglycerides are handled by the body differently and are preferentially sent to the liver to be burned as energy. One analogy is that they act like kindling to help stoke the fire of metabolism. The reason being is that these fats have actually been shown to promote weight loss by increasing the burning of calories (thermogenesis), plus some research suggests that they lower cholesterol as well. The benefits of coconut oil are many, but let’s focus on just three key areas: antimicrobial effects, weight loss promotion, and increasing brain energy metabolism.

A Natural Antimicrobial

Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are in the form of lauric acid, a medium-chain (12-carbon) saturated fat called. The only other abundant source of this health-promoting fat in nature is human breast milk. In the body, lauric acid is converted into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin. Another fat in coconut oil, capric acid is converted in the body to monocaprin. These compounds have demonstrated significant antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal effects that destroy a wide variety of disease-causing organisms. Obviously, that is a very beneficial action within breast milk, but it may also be of benefit via coconut oil as well.

Many viruses, bacteria and protozoa (parasites) are enveloped by a protective membrane composed of lipids (fats). Current research indicates that monolaurin and monocaprin destroy these pathogens by dissolving the lipids in the fatty envelope surrounding them. They basically disintegrate the organism’s protective shield causing them to be easily destroyed by the immune system. Other recent studies suggest that monolaurin also kills bacteria by interfering with signal transduction, thus disrupting the bacteria’s ability to interact with the cells it is trying to infect. In addition, lauric acid has been shown to interfere with virus assembly and maturation.

 The antiviral properties of the medium-chain fatty acids abundant in coconut have been found to be so potent that they are now being investigated as a treatment for AIDS patients. Studies recently conducted in the Philippines have demonstrated that coconut oil does indeed reduce viral load in AIDS patients. In these studies, AIDS patients consumed 20 to 25 grams of lauric acid per day. Approximately 12 grams of lauric acid are provided in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, 3 tablespoons of creamed coconut, ½ cup of canned whole coconut milk, or ½ cup of dried coconut meat.

Studies have demonstrated that monolaurin eliminates lipid-coated viruses such as Cytomegalovirus, Herpes simplex virus-1, HIV, Hemophilus influenzae, measles, Vesicular stomatitis virus, and Visna virus. Pathogenic bacteria inactivated by monolaurin include Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus agalactiae, Staphylococcus epidermidis Groups A,F & G, Group B gram positive Streptococcus, and Helicobacter pylori. Not only does monolaurin inactive these bacteria, unlike antibiotic drugs, the bacteria appear to be unable to develop resistance to coconut’s natural antimicrobials.

Lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin also kill or inactivate a number of fungi, yeast and protozoa including several species of ringworm, Candida albicans, and Giardia lamblia. In study, researchers obtained clinical specimens of Candida species infections from 52 patients. Results showed that all Candida species were 100% susceptible to the coconut oil an effect equal to the antifungal drug fluconazole.

Promotes Weight Loss

Coconut oil promotes weight loss. In one study in which coconut oil was used as part of a high-fat diet, researchers found the coconut oil-enriched diet actually produced a decrease in white fat stores. In another study, when genetically obese mice were given a diet high in either safflower oil or coconut oil and their number of fat cells was measured, those on given coconut oil were found to have produced far fewer fat cells than those given safflower oil.

Coconut’s medium chain fats are easily absorbed and preferentially used as an energy source, their burning actually increases the body’s metabolic rate. The result—as long as calories in excess of the body’s needs are not consumed—is that more calories are burned, a situation that also encourages the burning of the long chain fatty acids found in other fats as well.

In one study, the thermogenic (fat-burning) effect of a high-calorie diet containing 40 percent fat as medium-chain fatty acids was compared to one containing 40 percent fat as long-chain fatty acids. The thermogenic effect of the medium-chain fat diet was almost twice that of the long-chain fat diet—120 calories versus 66 calories—leading the researchers to conclude that the excess energy provided by medium-chain fats was not stored as fat, but burned. In a follow-up study, medium-chain fats given over a six-day period increased diet-induced thermogenesis by 50%.

In another study, when obese men consumed 30 ml (two tablespoons) of virgin coconut oil per day for four weeks, they experienced a 2.86 cm decrease in their waist circumference. Women have also been shown to be responsive to the weight loss effects of coconut oil. In a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial with women aged 20–40 years, those who took 30 ml of coconut oil daily for 12 weeks, along with a balanced hypocaloric diet and walking exercise for 50 min per day, reduced their waist circumference by 1.4 cm and body mass index (BMI) by 0.5 kg/m2. Women who followed the same regime but took 30 ml of soybean oil daily instead of coconut oil, did not significantly reduce their waist circumference or BMI. Coconut oil also raised HDL levels and lowered the ratio of bad to good cholesterol (LDL:HDL ratio).

Increases Brain Energy

A very popular email chain letter claimed that coconut oil could cure Alzheimer’s disease and it promoted a YouTube video of Mary Newport, M.D., author of "Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Were a Cure — The Story of Ketones." The video, as well as the book, told the story of how coconut oil helped her husband’s symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In fact, the improvement was dramatic.

Dr. Newport decided to try coconut oil because it is a rich source of a medium-chain saturated fat known as caprylic acid. An experimental drug composed of caprylic acid, Ketasyn, was used in a pilot study on AD patients and was found to improve memory in 47 percent of the subjects tested. However, there have been no follow up studies to date.

The mechanism suggested for any benefit with coconut oil is that it increases energy production within brain cells. The primary energy source of the brain is glucose (blood sugar). In AD there is a defect in the utilization of glucose – most often due to insulin resistance (NOTE: AD is often referred to as “diabetes of the brain).  The backup fuel for the brain are compounds known as ketone bodies. If there is very little carbohydrate in the diet, the liver breaks down the fat into ketone bodies like acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid. Clinical studies have shown that raised ketone body levels can enhance memory and cognition in some people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. So, it is possible that a “ketogenic diet” that is low in carbohydrate along with coconut oil intake might improve energy production in the brain and improve AD.

Simple Ways to Use Coconut Oil

Here are some simple ways on how to use coconut oil. For example, it makes a delicious spread or dip. It can also replace butter in any recipe on a 1:1 basis in any baking recipe. Coconut oil can be used for sautéing and stir-frying, but it does have a lower smoke point compared to monounsaturated fat sources such as olive, macadamia nut, avocado, and canola oil. The "smoke point" is the temperature at which, when heated, an oil will begin to smoke. Unrefined coconut oil smokes in the range of 350° F while extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil both are generally well above 400° F. The bottom line with the use of coconut oil in cooking is to avoid high heat.