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Coconut Oil – Health Benefits, Extraction Process and History

Coconut is a tropical fruit, believed to have been first cultivated thousands of years back, at the Malabar Coast of India. The term ‘coconut’ originated much later in 1600s. Later on, the cultivation spread out to Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Slowly, its cultivation was spread out to other countries and now it is cultivated in almost all of the tropical countries, including those in the Caribbean, South America and Africa. This spread has essentially been due to its many health benefits, wide usage and suitable agro-climatic conditions.

Coconut thrives well in the coastal, sandy soils with high humidity and sunny weather. Due to a long history of cultivation dating back thousands of years, coconut has had a great bearing on the lives of people who live in these regions. All of its parts- coconut flesh, fiber, water, milk and oil- are consumed by people in one of the other forms.

Importance of Coconut Oil in India

In India, coconut oil consumption is largest in the southern part of India, comprising states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and to a lesser extent in Goa, Telengana, Orissa, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh. These southern states have coastal land areas with right agro-climatic conditions to grow coconut. In fact, the name ‘Kerala’ is derived from ‘alam’ meaning ‘the land of’, and ‘kera’ meaning ‘coconut’. 

Kerala is the largest producer of coconuts in India. India produces about 17% of world production of coconuts and Kerala contributes about 45% of these. 

Coconut is deeply ingrained in the cultural elements and folklore of these states. Coconut is considered auspicious for religious offerings all over India and for starting any new venture, coconut is broken for good omen and as an offering to the divine. 

Coconut finds a large number of applications in southern states. The oil derived from the kernel is popularly used in cooking in the traditional kitchens of households in these states.

It is used for making various dishes, it is used for frying since it has high melting point. Items like banana chips and ‘parippu vada’ are fried in coconut oil. Coconut milk is added to curries and ‘payasams’ for more richness and subtle flavours and aromas. Many bakery products, including coconut cookies, and desserts and sweets are made in this oil to add the distinct flavour and aroma besides its health benefits.

Besides being used in cooking, the oil is also used to enhance beauty. It is used to massage the body, applied on hair and added in cosmetic products.

As can be seen from the table above, the saturated fatty acids account for about 82% of the total fatty acids in the coconut oil. Saturated fats are not considered good for heart. It is for this reason that many experts believe that coconut oil is not good for heart. However, those in favour of the oil point to the fact that it has been consumed for centuries. They point that a large percentage of these saturated fats is made of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are converted to energy. Further, they opine that these fatty acids add to only the good cholesterol (HDL) and not the bad one (LDL) which gets accumulated in the heart arteries.

Among these saturated fatty acids are the Lauric acid which has highest share of 48%. Besides, it has some composition of Vitamin E and Vitamin K and Iron mineral. It has smoking point of 177°C which makes it good for frying purposes.

It is good source of energy. About 100 grams of coconut oil gives about 890kcal of energy.

Potential Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is believed to give many health benefits. These benefits can be derived from its intake or application on body. 

1/7. Is Coconut Oil Good for Heart?

When it comes to the discussing the benefits of coconut oil for heart, the jury is often divided. The fact that the oil contains saturated fatty acids to the extent of 82% makes most of the people to believe that this is not so good for heart. 

However, contrary to this standpoint, is the view that since most of this saturated fat component is medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), this shall not be a problem for the heart. These people point out to the fact that the people who live their whole lives using coconut and its oils as a major daily ingredient are not known to have cardiovascular diseases.

This is confronted by those who oppose its consumption saying that other factors, such as level of physical activity, genetics and other dietary habits, might be responsible for not having heart issues.

2/7. Protects skin from UV radiation and Dryness

The presence of Lauric acid is known to prevent UV radiations on skin to the extent of 20%. Therefore, coconut oil can work to an extent.

However, it improves the moisture content of the skin and does not let it crack or go dry.

3/7. Encourages fat burning and weight loss

The presence medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) ensures that these are burnt to give out more calories and are not converted to body fat as is the case with LCTs. In studies conducted on both males and females, it was found to reduce the fat around the waist, if consumed in moderation. 

4/7. Anti-microbial properties

As can be seen from the table above, the Lauric acid makes up about 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil. On digestion, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

5/7. Mental health improvement

While there is little research conducted on examining a direct link between consumption of coconut oil and mental health, there are some indirect indications based on study of ketones and MCTs which suggest that coconut oil could be of help in mental health issues. 

The keto-based diet, which is low in carbs and high in fats, is known to provide alternative source of energy to malfunctioning brain cells by burning down the MCTs. This helps people with mental disorders, such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and others. 

Coconut oil is rich in MCTs. Once these MCTs are broken down into ketones in liver, these are circulated through blood to different parts of the body, including brain. Therefore, it is expected to play a significant role in improving brain health. 

6/7. Improvement in dental health

When used in place of antiseptic mouthwash, coconut oil can be very effective against bacteria Streptococcus mutans, which is responsible for developing dental plaque, gum diseases and tooth decay. It also reduced inflammation of gums when used regularly.

7/7. Prevention of hair damage

When coconut oil was applied before or after shampooing, there was significant reduction in protein loss from the hair. 

Researchers opined that the unique molecular structure of the lauric acid allowed it to penetrate the hair shaft better than other fats.

Besides these benefits of coconut oils, there are many others which were noticed during research conducted on animals or in test-tube. However, these experiments need to be extended to humans in order to determine usefulness for human beings. 

Coconut Oil extraction and processing

Extraction of coconut oil is done using either the dry method or the wet method…

1/2. The Dry Process

During the drying process, the meat of the coconut is extracted from shell and dried using fire, kiln or sunlight to make into copra. This copra is then pressed to give coconut oil and mash. Mash is usually fed to ruminating animals as it contains proteins and fiber. 

2/2. The Wet Process

In the wet process, however, the coconut milk is extracted from raw coconut and is made into oil using centrifugation and certain pre-treatments. Wet process delivers a lower yield than the dry process and requires more capital investment.

Coconut oil is available either in unrefined (virgin) form which is the purest, or in the refined form wherein it undergoes refining, bleaching and deodorisation process. This refined oil can be further hydrogenated partially or fully to increase its melting point from 24°C to about 40°C. These processes for refining the oil take away most of its nutritional value. Even in the hydrogenation process the unsaturated fats are converted into saturated or transfats.

Virgin Coconut Oil

Virgin coconut oil (VCO) has attracted the attention of the consumers due to its antiviral and antimicrobial properties and high nutrition value. 

It is extracted from fresh coconut milk, meat or residue from a single press that is grated and dried for a few hours at less than 40°C temperature. There is no second press and the temperature of extraction is low. This reduces the yield which is why is it expensive than the refined oil.

VCO can be extracted using both the drying and the wet processing methods as well. Dry processing method is conducted at less than 40°C so the aroma and flavour does not evaporate. In this method there is less or no scope for rancidity or fermentation to occur because the process takes a short time to complete. 

When wet process is used, the use of coconut milk adds moisture which has the tendency to turn it rancid. 

Virgin Coconut Oil is considered better than refined one for cooking as most of the nutrients are retained in the oil including the natural chemical and volatile components, vitamin E, pro-vitamin A, and polyphenols.

Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (EVCO) and Extra Extra Virgin Coconout Oils (EEVCOs)

People do distinguish between extra virgin and virgin Olive oils because it is possible to establish the difference by presence or absence of certain fatty acids in them. However, there is no such or any difference between Virgin and Extra Virgin coconut oils. Even USFDA does not recognise this difference. 

It looks more like a marketing spin with no real difference. Similarly, extra extra coconut oil is also not a right terms to use since there is no such things. The only real different is between virgin and refined coconut oil.

Fatty acid content of coconut oil
Type of fatty acidpct
Caprylic saturated C87%
Decanoic saturated C108%
Lauric saturated C1248%
Myristic saturated C1416%
Palmitic saturated C169.50%
Oleic monounsaturated C18:16.50%

Also Read…

[1] Coconut – Nariyal

[2] Coconut Oil – Health Benefits

[3] Coconut Oil – Adulteration and Detection

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