Coconut [Cocos nucifera L.,] belongs to the family Arecaceae and is widely called as ‘Kalpaviriksha’ or ‘Tree of Heaven’. It is also one of the most important sources of vegetable oil in the world. Coconut and various values added products obtained from coconut have numerous health benefits. Amidst controversies about the healthy nature of coconut products, this article discusses various health benefits of coconut oil to dispel any negative connotation associated with coconut and its products.
‘Health is wealth’-though an old saying is relevant for all the ages. Overall health includes internal as well as external well being. Today the world is more health-conscious and people always strive to choose health promoting foods and products without any inadvertent effects or minimal side effects. Moreover any food or crop product with multiple health benefits is a preferred choice for the consumers. We consume foods to obtain all the essential nutrients mainly carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Similarly, oils we consume also play an important and integral part in our daily life in maintaining good health. Since centuries we have been using coconut oil for different purposes because of its numerous health benefits whether in the form of cooking oil or to nourish and alleviate skin and hair related ailments, in cosmetics, in pharmaceuticals products and in other industries. Coconut oil is extracted from the kernel of the mature dried coconut (Cocos nucifera L.). Worldwide, around 80 countries grow coconut and India ranks third only after Philippines and Indonesia in coconut production. Coconut grows well in tropical climatic conditions; hence Southeast Asian countries are the largest producer of coconut oil. Philippines contribute around 35.7% of total global coconut oil production and it is the largest exporter while US is the biggest importer of the coconut oil. Although tropical countries produce coconut oil but the demand is not only limited to these regions of origin but huge demand exists in developed economies such as Canada, USA, Europe and Australia. Coconut oil has shown many benefits including its effect on weight loss, increasing total cholesterol and HDL, oral hygiene and antimicrobial and antifungal properties, improved digestion among many others.
Once, coconut oil was rightly given an epithet “superfood” but from the last few years there is a slight downfall in the coconut oil production worldwide due to the negative connotation put forwarded by many health organizations including WHO, American Heart Association and Food and Drug Administration mainly because of its higher saturated fat content which is thought to cause many health complications like heart diseases, obesity. However, the association of saturated fat with these ailments is still a questionable debate.
Coconut oil (CO) vs virgin coconut oil (VCO)
Coconut oil is available in different forms mainly refined and unrefined. Virgin coconut oil is unrefined form of coconut oil and has a great demand over the ordinary coconut oil as VCO is extracted from the fresh coconut milk and it does not undergo chemical processing such as bleaching, or deodorization. VCO contains high tocopherols, minerals and antioxidants than regular coconut oil. Also, it retains natural coconut aroma and taste while refined coconut oil undergoes various processing like bleaching , deodorization and heat treatment and does not have particular taste and aroma of coconut. Unlike other oils which are rich in PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) and are more prone to oxidation and hence rancidity, coconut oil is resistant to rancidity due to its high content of saturated fatty acids and hence can be stored for about six months at room temperature and used in smoke cooking, deep frying and baking.
Benefits of coconut oil and its uses:
a) Coconut nutrition: source of good health
Consumption of 100 g of coconut oil provides 890 kcal, 82% saturated fat, 6% monounsaturated and 2% polyunsaturated fat. Besides, some amount of vitamin E (0.11mg), vitamin K (0.6µg) and Iron is also present in coconut oil. On an average 15 ml of coconut oil contains 14g of fat out of which 12g are saturated fat and it provides 120 calories (USDA). Approximately 50% of total saturated fat is composed of lauric acid and other major saturated fats are myristic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid and palmitic acid. Lauric acid has been found to possess antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
b) Neutraceutical benefits
Coconut oil has antimicrobial, antifungal and anti inflammatory properties. It is used for skin and hair care and in wound healing, prevention of dry skin, protection from UV rays, in the treatment of skin infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus that cause acne and skin burns. Hence coconut oil is extensively used in soaps, creams, lotions and shampoos.
A study conducted at Columbia University in 2008 suggested that oils rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil improves total cholesterol and HDL level and hence reduces cardiovascular diseases whereas some health organizations claim that regular consumption of coconut oil can lead to increased weight and can clog arteries. However this topic is controversial as there are not enough evidences to support this. Most of the vegetable oils consist of long chain triglycerides (LCTs) which are not easily hydrolysed while coconut oil contains a large amount of MCTs which are easily broken down and absorbed by the intestine and are used for energy production.
Coconut oil is a ketogenic oil that is it produces ketones which are instantly and easily taken by brain cells as energy source bypassing the regular glucose metabolism hence is used in treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s. Patients afflicted with such neurodegenerative diseases become insulin resistant and can’t use glucose. In such cases administering coconut oil improves brain functions. Moreover VCO has been found to be effective in reducing stress due to its anti-inflammatory and antidepressant characteristics which is again due to medium chain triglycerides and polyphenols. Shinohara et al (2013) showed that daily supplementation of medium chain fatty acids reduces stress-induced depression in mice by restoring serum level glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, corticosterone and 5-hydroxytryptamine which are increased in stressed conditions. A study conducted by Kaushik (2016) clearly documented that mouth cleaning (oil pulling) with coconut oil can greatly reduce the gum diseases. Further, it has anti-Halitosis (bad breath) properties and is a safe natural alternate to chlorhexidine mouthwash against Streptococcus mutans which causes bad breath and tooth decay. Lauric acid present in coconut oil forms sodium laurate which has soap like cleansing properties. Oil forms a film on the surface of the teeth surface which prevents the bacterial adhesion and co-aggregation thereby reducing the the plaque formation and it also has antimicrobial properties which kills the oral pathogens by damaging their cell wall or by pulling them out of the mouth (Pavia DL,2004; Peedikayil F.C, 2015).
c) Renewable and clean fuel: Cocobiodiesel
Coconut oil has also been used in production of biodiesel fuel from the last few years as an alternative to the conventional diesel fuel. Vegetables oil are used in the production of biodiesel by transesterification processes using alcohol as a catalyst in which triglycerides are converted to their alkyl esters form to reduce the viscosity and improve the volatility of vegetable oils which is very important step to prevent the carbon deposition in the engines. Biodiesel obtained from coconut oil is found better than the biodiesel obtained from rubberseed and palm oil because of its comparable viscosity and volatility to that of conventional diesel fuel (Satyanarayana 2011). Some tropical countries like Phillipines, Samoa use biodiesel derived from coconut oil in various transport modes like trucks, buses and automobiles. Use of coco methyl ester in diesel showed 80% reduction in emission of black smoke comprising of high content of carbon and sulphur particles and hence can be very beneficial in reducing pollution to a great extent. Although production and use of biodiesel is expensive but it is environmental friendly nature can provide a replacement to the diesel fuel. Coconut oil derivatives mainly acid derivatives also find place as herbicides and in lubricants industry.
Coconut oil capsules-concentrated coconut oil
Despite of controversial health benefits coconut oil capsules in different sizes are also available in market similar to vitamin E capsules which are concentrated form of coconut oil with or without other vitamins and herbs supplementation. These are replacing the traditional coconut oil bottles as they are portable and easy to consume and provides the benefits of coconut oil. So instead of consuming tablespoon coconut oil, coconut capsule is convenient to use in the treatment of Candida or other microbial infection, to ward off hair and skin problems, to aid the weight loss, and improving digestion. Although coconut oil mainly virgin coconut oil is marketed in capsule form also, its use should be mainly focused in the countries where coconut production is very limited. Preparation of coconut oil concentrates requires extensive processing which can remove natural elements of coconut oil hence, it is not advisable to prefer coconut oil pills over conventional coconut oil specially where the coconut production is huge. According to experts about 15gm of daily coconut oil can be obtained by consuming 1table spoonful of oil while one capsule contains 500-1000mg of coconut oil so one has to consume about 15 capsules daily to match one tablespoonful of coconut oil which is not practically feasible.
There are enough evidences which go in favour of consuming coconut oil and its numerous health benefits despite numerous studies against it. Seeing its positive effect on improving overall health of an individual, inclusion of coconut oil in our daily diet can be a better step towards the prevention and cure from many diseases and health related problems.
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