Benefits of Coconut Oil

From ketogenic diet for Alzheimer’s treatment [1] to production of biodiesel [23] – looks like research of coconut oil is evolving very rapidly nowadays in different fields.

This burst of interest most likely started after the denial that saturated fat – which is found in coconut oil – consumption is dangerous for your health. It has even been shown that people obtaining most of their calories from coconut oil have no sign of increased heart disease risk [4]. Consequently, many companies and researchers started using its name to attract customer attention and funds for development of new products. They are aimed not only for food industry but also cosmetics, pharmaceutics and other applications.

However, we should stay realistic – coconut oil is incapable of replacing every product you consume. Instead, let’s consider its various benefits and try to look how it could improve our everyday lives.

 

Why coconut oil is different?

Coconut oil itself is not a very complicated substance but it has some important differences from other fat containing products. There are three main facts you should start with:

  • First of all, there are only two plant based oils that are high in saturated fats – coconut and palm [5]. Coconut oil contains around 90 percent of them [6]. Therefore, it stays solid at room temperature whereas other oils are liquid. In addition, high content of saturates prevents the oil from oxidative reactions with the environment so it has a shelf life of two years even without the usual components that make other oils stable [7].
  • Unlike animal fats – it contains medium chain (MC) triglycerides. It is also unique because there are all four types of possible MC fatty acids (MCFA) in it [8]. They are able to increase energy expenditure and may even help to feel satiety faster. In addition, there are studies that show possibilities to reduce your waistline by adding it into your diet. Researches are also testing their possibility to enhance the capacity for endurance exercises [9].  Therefore, it has been widely advised to replace long chain fatty acid containing fats like butter with coconut oil [10,11,12,13].
  • Nonetheless, out of all food products coconut oil contains the highest amount of lauric acid [14]. It has antifungal and antibacterial properties that allow its beneficial use in cosmetics and pharmaceutics [15].

 

How coconut oil is produced?

There is a fundamental difference in production between two types of coconut oil available – RBD and virgin.

The first one is made from dried copra milled before the extraction. It is then filtered, refined, bleached and deodorized. Most of these processes are performed at high temperatures so that the oil loses vitamin E content and gains yellow color. The final RBD coconut oil is suitable for cooking and is tasteless and odorless. It has been widely used in the Philippines for many ages.

It was only in the late 1990s that clear or virgin coconut oil appeared on the market. Now there are nine different methods to produce it that consume 10-15 coconuts for the production of one liter of oil. During fresh-dry processes the oil is directly extracted from kernel by using pressure or centrifugation. In fresh-wet methods coconut milk is first obtained for oil production. It is boiled or naturally fermented to fractionate the substance. There is also a possibility to use the Bawalan-Masa process which combines the benefits of both above mentioned methods. During it, oil with very soft texture and mild smell is produced. It is therefore preferred for the production of aromatherapy oils and used in spas for baths and massage.

The price of virgin coconut oil is about five times higher than RBD. It is not only due to the difficulty of extraction but also due to higher nutritional value and quality [16].

 

Degustation of coconut oil

There are specific techniques how to distinguish the best quality coconut oil from the others. First of all, its color should be tested by melting it in a clear glass and placing on a white sheet of paper. Virgin coconut oil is water clear while grey or yellow shades appear if bacterial contamination occurs or too high temperatures are used during the production. Secondly, there is a specific method for tasting coconut oil used for its quality control. It is heated up to 120°F in a water bath and tasted by putting it on your tongue while inhaling air through the mouth and exhaling through the nose. It should have no additional flavors or sour taste.  Moreover, the excess content of fatty acids appears as itchiness in the throat [1617].

It is also quite easy to check if coconut oil is not mixed with other ones. It is supposed to quickly solidify when refrigerated because its MCFAs have a sharp melting-solidifying point like cocoa butter.

 

Misleading information about coconut oil

There are some misconceptions of coconut oil quality that are used in their marketing. First of all, there are no official standards to distinguish between virgin and extra-virgin labeled products. It is important to understand that these categories are used for olive oil where they note which part of olive extract is used for the oil. However, it does not apply for coconut oil where same processes are used and is misleading customers.

Another idea is that coconut oil should be processed without heat in order to maintain its vitamin E content. Though it is true at first sight, its amount in coconut oil is too low to contribute to evaluation of oil quality. Moreover, the amount of vitamin E also decreases while, for example, drying the kernel in the sunlight as an alternative to heat. Nonetheless, coconut oil produced in hot conditions has more phenolic substances that are important when the oil is used for its antioxidant health benefits.

The third fact that is manipulated is that removing brown outer part from kernel is necessary in order to obtain the highest quality coconut oil. It does not only lead to increased price of the final product but also decreases the amount of linoleic acid in the oil. In addition, the process does not contribute to the final color of the oil [16].

 

When you manage to find coconut oil that suits your expectations – you can start using it. Here are some examples of what you could start with.

Cooking and uses in food industry

It is quite easy to introduce coconut oil into your usual kitchen routine. However, you should be aware of some things. For instance, plain virgin coconut oil has smoke temperature of 350°F so you should not exceed it in order for your meal to stay healthy and tasty [18]. Another alternative would be using refined coconut oil because its smoke point is one hundred degrees higher even though it lacks the pleasant smell of coconut [19]. Moreover, the oil melts at 75-95°F depending on its quality [20] so you should make sure that you store it in a tight, well-filled container, protected from light and that it stays butter solid [21].

Addition of the pleasant taste and smell of coconut oil is advisable for cooking various meals – you could use it to sauté vegetables like sweet potatoes or fry meat. It could be used to make spreads, salad dressings or even natural homemade mayonnaise [22]. The oil is also very popular among vegans or people on a dairy free diet to use it for desserts instead of butter or add it to coffee instead of milk substitutes [23]. However, coconut oil is insoluble in water and therefore it floats on the surface of your drink.

Coconut oil could also replace butter in recipes for leavening effect by just using the same volume of it. Its spray does not only add glossy appearance but also can prolong shelf-life due to lauric acid content [16]. It has been scientifically proven that rubbing coconut oil can prolong the storage time and prevent weight loss of eggs [24]. Moreover, coconut oil can be used to preserve fresh herbs by freezing them in it [25]. Using it as a base of chocolate shells for deserts is another creative way to use this oil as it easily solidifies [26].

Constant users are satisfied by its long lasting energy boost capabilities that do not cause addiction like, for example, caffeine. It also helps them to fight fatigue during the day [27]. Therefore, if you want to stay energized while spending long hours at work, you should consider adding coconut oil into your diet.

Though it is suitable for cooking various meals coconut oil is originally associated with the cuisines of tropical countries – where it has been used for more than 5000 years [28]. So enjoy it at its best and try some recipes from the Philippines or Indian cuisine. One of the first applications of coconut oil in the U.S. as pop corn popping oil is also worth consideration.

There are also some applications of this oil in food industry that customers should be aware of. For example, coconut oil is sometime used in order to replace a part of fat in the whole milk, cheese and ice cream because it is cheaper [1629]. It is also utilized in the production of cocoa butter substitutes [30]. Combined with other oils like sunflower it may improve their stability.

 

Natural remedies and pharmaceutical applications

In Philippines (the largest producer of coconut oil) it is called a drugstore in a bottle. There it has been used with success in traditional medicine for generations. Moreover, Ayurvedic medicine has recognized the healing properties of coconut oil already 4000 years ago. It has been used directly as well as for conservation of medicinal plants [31]. Also, some studies concentrate on particular fatty acids from coconut oil instead of the whole substance. Though some of its uses are still questionable and more related to placebo effect most of them are scientifically proven and are worth a serious consideration.

In quite many cases the high content of lauric acid in coconut oil provides its pharmaceutical benefits. As it is a MCFA source its prospective use to improve blood cholesterol levels is under investigation. However, at the moment it is only proven that it increases the HDL (the good) cholesterol levels the most of all fatty acids. This also changes the balance in the overall cholesterol level [32]. Surprisingly, in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where people consume most of their fats from coconut oil, the death rates for total cardiovascular disease, coronary disease, and stroke are at least seven times lower than in the U.S. [27, 33]. Moreover, in one animal study coconut oil was found to reduce oxidative stress in heart mitochondria which helps to prevent heart failure [34]. It could even increase their respiratory capacity which would lead to beneficial metabolic actions [35].

Moreover, MCFA containing oils are well suitable for ketogenic diet where you should mainly consume fats and no carbohydrates. It is used to help children in the control of epilepsy seizures. Unfortunately, such high fat consumption during the diet may lead to unpleasant side effects like cramps. Therefore, MCFA fats are preferred because they allow the introduction of small amount of carbohydrates while still keeping the benefits of ketogenic diet [3637].

There are many studies of MCFA effects on our health. During one of them improvements of cognitive functions like memory were noticed. The study was conducted for 24 weeks using a placebo group [38]. Coconut oil also helps to maintain optimal omega-3 and omega-6 ratio for diabetes patients [39] as well as does not affect overall insulin action [35]. The MCFA from coconut oil are easily absorbed in digestive system and produce energy rapidly. Therefore, they are advisable as diet components for convalescing or AIDS patients and premature infants. For the latter ones, coconut oil helps to gain weight [4041] and absorb minerals [42] that are vital for their survival. In addition, when coconut oil is used to massage preterm newborns it promotes their growth and weight gain [43]. It is even used in feeding tubes and IV solutions to treat critically ill patients. Furthermore, symptoms of autoimmune diseases like Chrohn‘s, psoriasis, Sjogren‘s are easier to control [27]. One study showed hepatoprotective activity of virgin coconut oil which means that it promotes liver healing after its damage due to e.g. high consumption of paracetamol [44].

The fact that MCFA is found in human breast milk should also be mentioned. It does not only promote the addition of MCFA containing coconut oil into infant food but it is also advised for breastfeeding women. In other words, if mother‘s diet includes source of MCFA her milk will be enriched with health-promoting fats. For instance, eating about 3 tablespoons of coconut oil in one meal can temporarily increase the lauric acid in the milk twice [45].

 

Relation between virgin coconut oil consumption and cancer treatment also interests scientists. Already in 1980s it was showed that it is possible to prevent tumor development by using this oil [46]. For instance, in one of the experiments animals given MCFAs in their diet did not develop tumors while those fed other oils did. There were no detectable tumor-promoting effects even though they were administered potent mammary cancer-causing chemicals [47]. Some scientists explain that it is due to cancer cells not using MCFA as energy source while healthy cells do. This starvation of the tumor leads to a significant decrease in its growth. Another advantage of coconut oil is that it prevents several genotoxic substances from alternating the structure of DNA which may later lead to cancer cell accumulation [48]. In addition, some studies show that consumption of coconut oil may improve quality of life factor and decrease side effects of chemotherapy for cancer patients [49]. Because coconut oil prospectively protects against cancer some researchers believe that MCTA enhances the immune system [27]. However, the cases where coconut oil has actually been used to treat cancer are rare and have to be performed on a larger scale in order to fully prove these claims.

 

Antibacterial properties of lauric acid are also interesting.  For example, one of the prospective applications is acne treatment therapy [5051]. It has been proven that lauric acid could prevent follicular inflammation caused by acne bacteria [52]. Therefore, applying it to your skin helps it to stay acne-free or decrease the scarring. It is also possible to use coconut oil for the treatment of atopic dermatitis that is observed when the skin is dry and colonized by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. A study compared it with virgin olive oil and found that coconut one is more beneficial [53].

Possibilities that coconut oil could help to improve oral health were also proven. During the study people had to chew it for 10 minutes every day and it decreased the population of bacteria that cause unpleasant odors [54]. The oil would pull out the bacteria and contribute to the overall mouth cleaning in addition with flossing and brushing your teeth [55].

It has also been proven that coconut oil promotes absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) and minerals calcium, magnesium, and iron better than other oils. It acts as a protective agent prior to the absorption. In addition, it improves overall digestive function and, due to easy to break MCFA content, it is even suitable when you have enzyme insufficiency. In the cases of digestive or gallbladder problems adding coconut oil may increase the amounts of nutrients absorbed [1627].

 

Some sources  claim that it also is possible to treat flu, cold, bronchitis, thyroid conditions, fungal infections and other diseases with lauric acid and it sounds logical considering its properties [56]. Some people also use it to reduce stretch marks, moisturize the nostrils, disinfect small wounds or to calm the skin after mosquito bites [57]. In addition, it can be massaged into swollen joints and aching muscles to decrease arthritis symptoms [28]. However, there is a lack of scientific evidence to prove the effectively of these methods so it might not work as well as expected.

There are some more specific coconut oil applications in medicine. For instance, it has been used in the treatment after aluminum phosphide poisoning [58]. Also, symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency could be diminished when coconut oil is added to the diet [59]. Moreover, coconut oil is investigated as a possible component for fluorescent dye nanocapsules that would be used in tumor imaging [60].

 

Making homemade beauty products

The possibilities in this area are probably as wide as cooking because many of coconut oil benefits could be utilized.

To begin with, coconut oil contains the same MC triglycerides as sebum which is the natural oil our body produces. After application on skin coconut oil can be converted into MCFA by skin bacteria and then used for our benefit [27]. For example, due to the high MCFA content coconut oil is one of the most effective skin moisturizers [61]. Therefore, it is found as an effective and safe treatment for xerosis that is observed as dry, rough, scaly, and itchy skin [62]. It makes the skin feel soft without making it oily. Moreover, coconut oil has high moisture-retaining capacity as well as prevents the negative effects of free radicals. Its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal capabilities also help to reduce the risk of infections [63]. All these properties can be used for making beauty products.

Virgin coconut oil could be used as a base for lip balms, various lotions, scrubs [6465] and creams for your skin [66]. In these cases it is usually mixed with other natural ingredients that add their desired properties to complete the final formula. In addition, application of coconut oil is advisable after bathing to reestablish the protective layer on the skin [27].

Coconut oil is recognized as one of the best natural hair conditioners. MCFAs are capable of penetrating deep into the hair structure and nourishing it [67]. As they are small polar molecules, MCFAs are capable of reaching even the hair shaft while mineral oils are unable to do that [68]. In addition, lauric and capric acids and vitamin E  found in coconut oil help in making your hair healthy looking and shiny. Applying it to split ends of your hair aids in smoothing them [6970]. Nonetheless, it is proven to prevent combing damage [71] and increase keratin retention that contributes to color and strength of the hair structure [72].  Also, there is some evidence that coconut oil containing mixtures help to treat head lice [7374]. Therefore, it is even included in some therapeutic shampoos.

There are also more specific applications of coconut oil like making tooth paste [26], baby wipes that decrease rash [75], deodorants [76] or using it as a low SPF sun lotion [77]. It is also suggested as cuticle softener [78], shaving cream or makeup remover [2679] as well as a suitable ingredient for making homemade eyeliners [80] and the growth of eyelashes promoting mascaras [81]. It can also help to remove gum when it gets stuck in your hair [82].

It is also used as carrier oil in aromatherapy and massage oils [16].

Even though all these recipes use natural ingredients, it is advisable to check for allergies before using any products containing coconut oil especially before their application to infants [8384].

 

Cleaning products and soaps

Various oils and butters are used in the production of soap and coconut oil is not an exception [85]. However, if it is made for large scale production the quality of the oil may be compromised. Homemade soap would be an alternative but the users should be careful while handling sodium hydroxide as well as aging the soap for a long enough time to make it suitable for contact with human skin. Laundry detergents could also be made with coconut oil after some modifications of the soap recipe [86].

Coconut oil is commonly used as a surfactant in commercial environmentally friendly detergents. However, sometimes sodium lauryl sulfate known as SLS is also called coconut surfactant on the labels because it can be made from coconut oil. It does not make SLS safer and, therefore, may mislead the customers looking for a more natural product [87].

Since some dirt like substances are more soluble in oil than water coconut oil is a good alternative to use for collecting them. For example, you could use it to clean ink or oil-based paints from your hands, guitar strings or shoes [88]. In addition, removing annoying merchandise stickers is much easier after application of coconut oil [89]. It is also a suitable solution for cleaning soap scums in the shower.

There are also some more global applications of coconut oil for collecting dirt. Since it is a biodegradable, environmentally friendly, and nontoxic substance it could be used as a hydrophobic material. One of the applications would be in nanotechnology, where coconut oil containing fluids could work as oil spill removing agents from water surfaces [9091].

 

Coconut oil for your pets

Not only is coconut oil great for human use but it should also be considered as a pet care product. For instance, if fed to dogs on a daily basis coconut oil helps with various skin conditions like flea allergies, ear infections and itchy skin. It also promotes digestive functions and nutrient absorption as well as allows avoiding bad breath. In addition, it helps in healing digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel syndrome and colitis. Nonetheless, in the same manner as for humans coconut oil may contribute to animals’ weight control.

Cat owners may benefit from the capability of the oil to aid in elimination of hairballs and coughing [92]. Moreover, animal studies have shown that supplementation of virgin coconut oil may prevents bone loss in osteoporosis [93].

The dosage of coconut oil should be calculated depending on the animal size and kind. It can be used to make treats by mixing with other products or without any additives and is especially advised for hot summer days [94].

 

Other uses

In India coconut oil is used as an engine lubricant by autorikshaw (the three-wheeler) drivers. Obviously, its properties like wear rate and thermal stability should be modified in order to make it comparably good with commercial products. However, it is more environmentally friendly than mineral oils and therefore its studies for further improvements are performed [95]. In places like Marshall Islands filtered coconut oil is blended with diesel or kerosene in order to decrease fuel consumption in agriculture [16]. It is possible because coconut oil is well soluble in liquids like petroleum or alcohol [96].

Another application of coconut oil would be to use it as a base component of mosquito repellents that provide up to four hour protection [97]. If used with suitable herbal additives it should even work longer.

Since coconut oil has good adhesive properties it could also be used for such purposes as furniture polishing or leather cleaning [98]. Some people suggest it useful for polishing stainless steel [99] or season cast iron pans to create a protective non-stick fat layer on them [100]. This method is also convenient for outdoor metal tools as it prevents them from rusting and decreases the amount of dirt sticking to it. Some people even rub it on snow shovels to make it easier for snow to slide off [101]. Coconut oil can be used as cutting board conditioners not only to give them back the usual appearance but also as disinfectant. It is also used to make the leaves of plants at home look shiny and dust-free.

This oil is also suggested as a prospective surfactant for compost tea to protect it from harmful UV rays and prolong the survival of beneficial organisms in it [102].

In chemistry industry it is used to synthesize plastics, rubber substitutes, and synthetic resins [96].

 

Bottom line

Coconut oil consumption could significantly contribute to your health and beauty. Some researchers even claim that coconut oil affects the root cause of many health problems and therefore it is capable of normalizing our bodily functions. This makes coconut oil a must-have in our households. However, in some cases cheaper alternatives might also provide a similar result.