I have already discussed the many toxic effects of the unsaturated oils,
and I have frequently mentioned that coconut oil doesn't have those toxic
effects, though it does contain a small amount of the unsaturated oils.
Many people have asked me to write something on coconut oil. I thought I
might write a small book on it, but I realize that there are no suitable
channels for distributing such a book--if the seed-oil industry can
eliminate major corporate food products that have used coconut oil for a
hundred years, they certainly have the power to prevent dealers from
selling a book that would affect their market more seriously. For the
present, I will just outline some of the virtues of coconut oil.
The unsaturated oils in some cooked foods become rancid in just a few
hours, even at refrigerator temperatures, and are responsible for the stale
taste of left-over foods. (Eating slightly stale food isn't particularly
harmful, since the same oils, even when eaten absolutely fresh, will
oxidize at a much higher rate once they are in the body, where they are
heated and thoroughly mixed with an abundance of oxygen.) Coconut oil that
has been kept at room temperature for a year has been tested for rancidity,
and showed no evidence of it. Since we would expect the small percentage
of unsaturated oils naturally contained in coconut oil to become rancid, it
seems that the other (saturated) oils have an antioxidative effect: I
suspect that the dilution keeps the unstable unsaturated fat molecules
spatially separated from each other, so they can't interact in the
destructive chain reactions that occur in other oils. To interrupt
chain-reactions of oxidation is one of the functions of antioxidants, and
it is possible that a sufficient quantity of coconut oil in the body has
this function. It is well established that dietary coconut oil reduces our
need for vitamin E, but I think its antioxidant role is more general than
that, and that it has both direct and indirect antioxidant activities.
Coconut oil is unusually rich in short and medium chain fatty acids.
Shorter chain length allows fatty acids to be metabolized without use of
the carnitine transport system. Mildronate, which I discussed in an
article on adaptogens, protects cells against stress partly by opposing the
action of carnitine, and comparative studies showed that added carnitine
had the opposite effect, promoting the oxidation of unsaturated fats during
stress, and increasing oxidative damage to cells. I suspect that a degree
of saturation of the oxidative apparatus by short-chain fatty acids has a
similar effect--that is, that these very soluble and mobile short-chain
saturated fats have priority for oxidation, because they don't require
carnitine transport into the mitochondrion, and that this will tend to
inhibit oxidation of the unstable, peroxidizable unsaturated fatty acids.
When Albert Schweitzer operated his clinic in tropical Africa, he said it
was many years before he saw any cases of cancer, and he believed that the
appearance of cancer was caused by the change to the European type of diet.
In the l920s, German researchers showed that mice on a fat-free diet were
practically free of cancer. Since then, many studies have demonstrated a
very close association between consumption of unsaturated oils and the
incidence of cancer.
Heart damage is easily produced in animals by feeding them linoleic acid;
this "essential" fatty acid turned out to be the heart toxin in rape-seed
oil. The addition of saturated fat to the experimental heart-toxic
oil-rich diet protects against the damage to heart cells.
Immunosuppression was observed in patients who were being "nourished"
intravenous emulsions of "essential fatty acids," and as a result
oil is used as the basis for intravenous fat feeding, except in
organ-transplant patients. For those patients, emulsions of unsaturated
oils are used specifically for their immunosuppressive effects.
General aging, and especially aging of the brain, is increasingly seen as
being closely associated with lipid peroxidation.
Several years ago I met an old couple, who were only a few years apart in
age, but the wife looked many years younger than her doddering old husband.
She was from the Philippines, and she remarked that she always had to cook
two meals at the same time, because her husband couldn't adapt to her
traditional food. Three times every day, she still prepared her food in
coconut oil. Her apparent youth increased my interest in the effects of
In the l960s, Hartroft and Porta gave an elegant argument for decreasing
the ratio of unsaturated oil to saturated oil in the diet (and thus in the
tissues). They showed that the "age pigment" is produced in proportion
the ratio of oxidants to antioxidants, multiplied by the ratio of
unsaturated oils to saturated oils. More recently, a variety of studies
have demonstrated that ultraviolet light induces peroxidation in
unsaturated fats, but not saturated fats, and that this occurs in the skin
as well as in vitro. Rabbit experiments, and studies of humans, showed
that the amount of unsaturated oil in the diet strongly affects the rate at
which aged, wrinkled skin develops. The unsaturated fat in the skin is a
major target for the aging and carcinogenic effects of ultraviolet light,
though not necessarily the only one.
In the l940s, farmers attempted to use cheap coconut oil for fattening
their animals, but they found that it made them lean, active and hungry.
For a few years, an antithyroid drug was found to make the livestock get
fat while eating less food, but then it was found to be a strong
carcinogen, and it also probably produced hypothyroidism in the people who
ate the meat. By the late l940s, it was found that the same antithyroid
effect, causing animals to get fat without eating much food, could be
achieved by using soy beans and corn as feed.
Later, an animal experiment fed diets that were low or high in total fat,
and in different groups the fat was provided by pure coconut oil, or a pure
unsaturated oil, or by various mixtures of the two oils. At the end of
their lives, the animals' obesity increased directly in proportion to the
ratio of unsaturated oil to coconut oil in their diet, and was not related
to the total amount of fat they had consumed. That is, animals which ate
just a little pure unsaturated oil were fat, and animals which ate a lot of
coconut oil were lean.
In the l930s, animals on a diet lacking the unsaturated fatty acids were
found to be "hypermetabolic." Eating a "normal" diet, these
malnourished, and their skin condition was said to be caused by a
"deficiency of essential fatty acids." But other researchers who were
studying vitamin B6 recognized the condition as a deficiency of that
vitamin. They were able to cause the condition by feeding a fat-free diet,
and to cure the condition by feeding a single B vitamin. The
hypermetabolic animals simply needed a better diet than the "normal,"
fat-fed, cancer-prone animals did.
G. W. Crile and his wife found that the metabolic rate of people in
Yucatan, where coconut is a staple food, averaged 25% higher than that of
people in the United States. In a hot climate, the adaptive tendency is to
have a lower metabolic rate, so it is clear that some factor is more than
offsetting this expected effect of high environmental temperatures. The
people there are lean, and recently it has been observed that the women
there have none of the symptoms we commonly associate with the menopause.
By l950, then, it was established that unsaturated fats suppress the
metabolic rate, apparently creating hypothyroidism. Over the next few
decades, the exact mechanisms of that metabolic damage were studied.
Unsaturated fats damage the mitochondria, partly by suppressing the
repiratory enzyme, and partly by causing generalized oxidative damage. The
more unsaturated the oils are, the more specifically they suppress tissue
response to thyroid hormone, and transport of the hormone on the thyroid
Plants evolved a variety of toxins designed to protect themselves from
"predators," such as grazing animals. Seeds contain a variety of toxins,
that seem to be specific for mammalian enzymes, and the seed oils
themselves function to block proteolytic digestive enzymes in the stomach.
The thyroid hormone is formed in the gland by the action of a proteolytic
enzyme, and the unsaturated oils also inhibit that enzyme. Similar
proteolytic enzymes involved in clot removal and phagocytosis appear to be
similarly inhibited by these oils.
Just as metabolism is "activated" by consumption of coconut oil,
prevents the inhibiting effect of unsaturated oils, other inhibited
processes, such as clot removal and phagocytosis, will probably tend to be
restored by continuing use of coconut oil.
Brain tissue is very rich in complex forms of fats. The experiment
(around 1978) in which pregnant mice were given diets containing either
coconut oil or unsaturated oil showed that brain development was superior
in the young mice whose mothers ate coconut oil. Because coconut oil
supports thyroid function, and thyroid governs brain development, including
myelination, the result might simply reflect the difference between normal
and hypothyroid individuals. However, in 1980, experimenters demonstrated
that young rats fed milk containing soy oil incorporated the oil directly
into their brain cells, and had structurally abnormal brain cells as a result.
Lipid peroxidation occurs during seizures, and antioxidants such as
vitamin E have some anti-seizure activity. Currently, lipid peroxidation is
being found to be involved in the nerve cell degeneration of Alzheimer's
Various fractions of coconut oil are coming into use as "drugs,"
that they are advertised as treatments for diseases. Butyric acid is used
to treat cancer, lauric and myristic acids to treat virus infections, and
mixtures of medium-chain fats are sold for weight loss. Purification
undoubtedly increases certain effects, and results in profitable products,
but in the absence of more precise knowledge, I think the whole natural
product, used as a regular food, is the best way to protect health. The
shorter-chain fatty acids have strong, unpleasant odors; for a couple of
days after I ate a small amount of a medium-chain triglyceride mixture, my
skin oil emitted a rank, goaty smell. Some people don't seem to have that
reaction, and the benefits might outweigh the stink, but these things just
haven't been in use long enough to know whether they are safe.
We have to remember that the arguments made for aspartame, monosodium
glutamate, aspartic acid, and tryptophan--that they are like the amino
acids that make up natural proteins--are dangerously false. In the case of
amino acids, balance is everything. Aspartic and glutamic acids promote
seizures and cause brain damage, and are intimately involved in the process
of stress-induced brain aging, and tryptophan by itself is carcinogenic.
Treating any complex natural product as the drug industry does, as a raw
material to be fractionated in the search for "drug" products, is
because the relevant knowledge isn't sought in the search for an
association between a single chemical and a single disease.
While the toxic unsaturated paint-stock oils, especially safflower, soy,
corn and linseed (flaxseed) oils, have been sold to the public precisely
for their drug effects, all of their claimed benefits were false. When
people become interested in coconut oil as a "health food," the huge
seed-oil industry--operating through their shills--are going to attack it
as an "unproved drug."
While components of coconut oil have been found to have remarkable
physiological effects (as antihistamines, antiinfectives/antiseptics,
promoters of immunity, glucocorticoid antagonist, nontoxic anticancer
agents, for example), I think it is important to avoid making any such
claims for the natural coconut oil, because it very easily could be banned
from the import market as a "new drug" which isn't "approved
by the FDA."
We have already seen how money and propaganda from the soy oil industry
eliminated long-established products from the U.S. market. I saw people
lose weight stably when they had the habit of eating large amounts of
tortilla chips fried in coconut oil, but those chips disappeared when their
producers were pressured into switching to other oils, in spite of the
short shelf life that resulted in the need to add large amounts of
preservatives. Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers, potato chip producers, and
movie theater popcorn makers have experienced similar pressures.
The cholesterol-lowering fiasco for a long time centered on the ability of
unsaturated oils to slightly lower serum cholesterol. For years, the
mechanism of that action wasn't known, which should have suggested caution.
Now, it seems that the effect is just one more toxic action, in which the
liver defensively retains its cholesterol, rather than releasing it into
the blood. Large scale human studies have provided overwhelming evidence
that whenever drugs, including the unsaturated oils, were used to lower
serum cholesterol, mortality increased, from a variety of causes including
accidents, but mainly from cancer.
Since the l930s, it has been clearly established that suppression of the
thyroid raises serum cholesterol (while increasing mortality from
infections, cancer, and heart disease), while restoring the thyroid hormone
brings cholesterol down to normal. In this situation, however, thyroid
isn't suppressing the synthesis of cholesterol, but rather is promoting its
use to form hormones and bile salts. When the thyroid is functioning
properly, the amount of cholesterol in the blood entering the ovary governs
the amount of progesterone being produced by the ovary, and the same
situation exists in all steroid-forming tissues, such as the adrenal glands
and the brain. Progesterone and its precursor, pregnenolone, have a
generalized protective function: antioxidant, anti-seizure, antitoxin,
anti-spasm, anti-clot, anti-cancer, pro-memory, pro-myelination,
pro-attention, etc. Any interference with the formation of cholesterol
will interfere with all of these exceedingly important protective functions.
As far as the evidence goes, it suggests that coconut oil, added regularly
to a balanced diet, lowers cholesterol to normal by promoting its
conversion into pregnenolone. (The coconut family contains steroids that
resemble pregnenolone, but these are probably mostly removed when the fresh
oil is washed with water to remove the enzymes which would digest the oil.)
Coconut-eating cultures in the tropics have consistently lower cholesterol
than people in the U.S. Everyone that I know who uses coconut oil
regularly happens to have cholesterol levels of about 160, while eating
mainly cholesterol rich foods (eggs, milk, cheese, meat, shellfish). I
encourage people to eat sweet fruits, rather than starches, if they want to
increase their production of cholesterol, since fructose has that effect.
Many people see coconut oil in its hard, white state, and--as a result of
their training watching television or going to medical school--associate it
with the cholesterol-rich plaques in blood vessels. Those lesions in blood
vessels are caused mostly by lipid peroxidation of unsaturated fats, and
relate to stress, because adrenaline liberates fats from storage, and the
lining of blood vessels is exposed to high concentrations of the
blood-borne material. In the body, incidentally, the oil can't exist as a
solid, since it liquefies at 76 degrees. (Incidentally, the viscosity of
complex materials isn't a simple matter of averaging the viscosity of its
component materials; cholesterol and saturated fats sometimes lower the
viscosity of cell components.)
Most of the images and metaphors relating to coconut oil and cholesterol
that circulate in our culture are false and misleading. I offer a
counter-image, which is metaphorical, but it is true in that it relates to
lipid peroxidation, which is profoundly important in our bodies. After a
bottle of safflower oil has been opened a few times, a few drops that get
smeared onto the outside of the bottle begin to get very sticky, and hard
to wash off. This property is why it is a valued base for paints and
varnishes, but this varnish is chemically closely related to the age
pigment that forms "liver spots" on the skin, and similar lesions
brain, heart, blood vessels, lenses of the eyes, etc. The image of "hard,
white saturated coconut oil" isn't relevant to the oil's biological action,
but the image of "sticky varnish-like easily oxidized unsaturated seed
oils" is highly relevant to their toxicity.
The ability of some of the medium chain saturated fatty acids to inhibit
the liver's formation of fat very likely synergizes with the pro-thyroid
effect, in allowing energy to be used, rather than stored. When fat isn't
formed from carbohydrate, the sugar is available for use, or for storage as
glycogen. Therefore, shifting from unsaturated fats in foods to coconut
oil involves several anti-stress processes, reducing our need for the
adrenal hormones. Decreased blood sugar is a basic signal for the release
of adrenal hormones. Unsaturated oil tends to lower the blood sugar in at
least three basic ways. It damages mitochondria, causing respiration to be
uncoupled from energy production, meaning that fuel is burned without
useful effect. It suppresses the activity of the respiratory enzyme
(directly, and through its anti-thyroid actions), decreasing the
respiratory production of energy. And it tends to direct carbohydrate into
fat production, making both stress and obesity more probable. For those of
us who use coconut oil consistently, one of the most noticeable changes is
the ability to go for several hours without eating, and to feel hungry
without having symptoms of hypoglycemia.
One of the stylish ways to promote the use of unsaturated oils is to refer
to their presence in "cell membranes," and to claim that they are
for maintaining "membrane fluidity." As I have mentioned above, it
ability of the unsaturated fats, and their breakdown products, to interfere
with enzymes and transport proteins, which accounts for many of their toxic
effects, so they definitely don't just harmlessly form "membranes."
probably bind to all proteins, and disrupt some of them, but for some
reason their affinity for proteolytic and respiration-related enzymes is
particularly obvious. (I think the chemistry of this association is going
to give us some important insights into the nature of organisms.
Metchnikof's model that I have discussed elsewhere might give us a picture
of how those factors relate in growth, physiology, and aging.) Unsaturated
fats are slightly more water-soluble than fully saturated fats, and so they
do have a greater tendency to concentrate at interfaces between water and
fats or proteins, but there are relatively few places where these
interfaces can be usefully and harmlessly occupied by unsaturated fats, and
at a certain point, an excess becomes harmful. We don't want "membranes"
forming where there shouldn't be membranes. The fluidity or viscosity of
cell surfaces is an extremely complex subject, and the degree of viscosity
has to be appropriate for the function of the cell. Interestingly, in some
cells, such as the cells that line the air sacs of the lungs, cholesterol
and one of the saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil can increase the
fluidity of the cell surface.
In many cases, stressful conditions create structural disorder in cells.
These influences have been called "chaotropic," or chaos-producing.
blood cells, which have sometimes been wrongly described as "hemoglobin
enclosed in a cell membrane," it has been known for a long time that lipid
peroxidation of unsaturated fats weakens the cellular structure, causing
the cells to be destroyed prematurely. Lipid peroxidation products are
known to be "chaotropic," lowering the rigidity of regions of cells
considered to be membranes. But the red blood cell is actually more like a
sponge in structure, consisting of a "skeleton" of proteins, which
damaged by oxidation) can hold its shape, even when the hemoglobin has been
removed. Oxidants damage the protein structure, and it is this structural
damage which in turn increases the "fluidity" of the associated fats.
So, it is probably true that in many cases the liquid unsaturated oils do
increase "membrane fluidity," but it is now clear that in at least
those cases the "fluidity" corresponds to the chaos of a damaged cell
protein structure. (N. V. Gorbunov, "Effect of structural modification
membrane proteins on lipid-protein interactions in the human erythrocyte
membrane," Bull. Exp. Biol. & Med. 116(11), 1364-67. 1993.
Although I had stopped using the unsaturated seed oils years ago, and
supposed that I wasn't heavily saturated with toxic unsaturated fat, when I
first used coconut oil I saw an immediate response, that convinced me my
metabolism was chronically inhibited by something that was easily
alleviated by "dilution" or molecular competition. I had put a
tablespoonful of coconut oil on some rice I had for supper, and half an
hour later while I was reading, I noticed I was breathing more deeply than
normal. I saw that my skin was pink, and I found that my pulse was faster
than normal--about 98, I think. After an hour or two, my pulse and
breathing returned to normal. Every day for a couple of weeks I noticed
the same response while I was digesting a small amount of coconut oil, but
gradually it didn't happen any more, and I increased my daily consumption
of the oil to about an ounce. I kept eating the same foods as before
(including a quart of ice cream every day), except that I added about 200
or 250 calories per day as coconut oil. Apparently the metabolic surges
that happened at first were an indication that my body was compensating for
an anti-thyroid substance by producing more thyroid hormone; when the
coconut oil relieved the inhibition, I experienced a moment of slight
hyperthyroidism, but after a time the inhibitor became less effective, and
my body adjusted by producing slightly less thyroid hormone. But over the
next few months, I saw that my weight was slowly and consistently
decreasing. It had been steady at 185 pounds for 25 years, but over a
period of six months it dropped to about 175 pounds. I found that eating
more coconut oil lowered my weight another few pounds, and eating less
caused it to increase.
The anti-obesity effect of coconut oil is clear in all of the animal
studies, and in my friends who eat it regularly. It is now hard to get it
in health food stores, since Hain stopped selling it. The Spectrum product
looks and feels a little different to me, and I suppose the particular type
of tree, region, and method of preparation can account for variations in
the consistency and composition of the product. The unmodified natural oil
is called "76 degree melt," since that is its natural melting temperature.
One bottle from a health food store was labeled "natural coconut oil, 92%
unsaturated oil," and it had the greasy consistency of old lard. I suspect
that someone had confused palm oil (or something worse) with coconut oil,
because it should be about 96% saturated fatty acids.
Copyright 1996 Raymond Peat
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Raymond Peat, Ph.D.
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About the extraction methods for coconut oil: For big-scale
they use copra, I think because drying makes it relatively easy to separate
from the shell. In some countries it's customary to dry the cracked nuts
over a fire, but that gives the oil a smoky flavor, and it probably isn't
very safe as food. Sun drying is the common method, but the coconut gets
moldy, and that's probably the reason for the liberation of free fatty
acids, giving the oil a soapy taste. Traditionally, the copra is ground and
then boiled in a vat, or otherwise treated with hot water. This washes away
some of the acid, and the heat inactivates any enzymes that might gradually
decompose the oil.
Apparently, some oil is being processed by systems designed for extracting
other oils, using organic solvents. But if any sort of clean water system
is used, and if the coconuts are gathered in the wild, then the oil can be
sold as "organic," at about twice the price of the standard oil.
The plant in Iguala said they filter the oil through diatomaceous earth to
remove the odors and color. The tasteless oil is the traditional form, that
lasts several months without becoming rancid, and this oil can be used to
make ice cream, for baking, and for frying.
A few places sell a relatively home-made oil, with all the coconut aroma,
at prices that are often five times higher than the standard oil. I assume
this requires laborious shelling of each nut, so the prices are reasonable,
but not many people can afford to use it at those prices. I have tasted
some from Oaxaca and Costa Rica that were perfectly sweet and fresh
tasting, but some of the supposedly "virgin" oil on the market is
for my taste. And these aromatic oils are limited to use in puddings, ice
cream, cookies, sweet rolls, etc.
Do you know about the Sirena soap company in Guadalajara? They make pure
coconut soap, but their U.S. distributor isn't very easy to deal with, and
most of the stores where I used to see it don't carry it any more. I went
to about ten "health oriented" stores in several towns around central
Mexico, and I found coconut soap in only one, and it was a fancy scented
imported bar that sold for something outrageous, like $6 US.
Those health connections of yours will undoubtedly be helpful in making
people aware of the benefits of coconut oil. Several years ago, I noticed
that Mexico's equivalent of health food stores were promoting soy products.
In 1998, I talked to someone in the Guadalajara office of the coconut oil
producer, and asked her about buying it, and she wanted to know what I
wanted it for, and said "you can't eat it!" (The can's label says
de coco comestible.")
Finally, I had to go to the warehouse in Celaya to
get a load of it, and saw that it's being distributed by the soy oil
industry. It seemed strange that a coconut oil producer would have to sell
it exclusively through a competitor who discourages its use.