Coconut: Past controversies health fears and future prospects


By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha


Having read the two interesting pieces on coconut by two medical specialists, one by Dr Asoka Dissanayake (Dr AD) a former Professor of Physiology and the other by Dr Upul Wijayawardana (Dr UW), a renowned cardiologist in The Island of 18th and 24th December 2016 (Sat Mag’) respectively, I could not help but get into the fray! Like Dr AD I have been ‘meddling’ in coconuts both as a farmer and as Chairman of the Coconut Research Board, in the latter post for some 10 years from 1994. Before I continue let me add a comment on what Dr UW had remarked about ‘polkedima’(coconut plucking). I am not going to elaborate on ‘polkadima’ by some of the medical consultants who ruthlessly exploit the clients, but about coconut pluckers per se, particularly those operating in homesteads in the urban areas. In the Kandy city limits, for example, the going rate for climbing a coconut tree is Rs 200-250, but if the tree is much taller it can increase!. So they are no different from those exploitive doctors except for their fee quantum differences !

I evinced a keen interest in the coconut, cholesterol, heart disease controversy after taking up the post of Chairman Coconut Research Board in 1994. The SATMAG of the Island of 25th March 2007 carried an exhaustive review by me on the title ‘Is coconut good or bad’ in which I discussed the evidence relating coconut, cholesterol and cardio-vascular disease but space did not permit me to discuss the massive misinformation and disinformation campaign conducted by the US soya bean lobby supported by the American Heart Association (AHA) and other forces. The large poster published by the soya bean lobby then , of a coconut depicted as a time bomb (see picture), with the remarks: "Warning: Foods containing imported coconut and palm oils can be hazardous to your health and;’ to reduce your risk of heart disease look for foods made with pure, low-in-saturated fat soya bean oil; soybean America’s homegrown health food ‘is an example of it! I will avoid repeating what I then wrote, except to quote bits for completeness sake. This following historical information should interest the reader.


History of the tropical oil


Before the World War 2, soya oil was hardly used as a dietary oil. It was essentially used for industrial purposes such as making paint! Coconut oil was the most widely used dietary oil in the US. It was even competing with butter and lard. Disruptions of the coconut oil supplies during the war saw a hurried search for alternatives, resulting in the rapid expansion of the dietary consumption of vegetables oils such as soya, corn and cotton seed. They were used in the pure form or after hydrogenation (to solidify) as margarine, Hydrogenation leads to the formation of trans fatty acids which are worse than saturated fats in blood serum cholesterol (BSC) elevation. With the resumption of tropical oil supplies after the war, an anti-tropical oil (coconut and palm oil) campaign lead by the soya oil industry gained momentum fuelled by research findings of Ancel Keys, Hegsted and others who propounded the lipid hypothesis, essentially that saturated fats elevate BSC and increase the risk of coronary heart disease

(CHD), whereas mono- and polyunsaturated fats reduce BSC and hence the risk of CHD. It was later reported that actually the monounsaturated fats prefentially reduce low density lipoprotein cholesterol LDLC)) or the bad cholesterol but increase high density lipoprotein or the good cholesterol. The soya lobby canvassed support of the American Heart Association (AHA) and with other local vegetable oil producers, and unceasingly carried out a massive propaganda campaign for the local vegetable oils and against the imported coconut and palm oils. They organized a major fund raiser televising concurrently on all three TV channels then operating in the US. The objective was to discredit imported coconut and palm oils, calling them "artery clogging tropical oils" and to promoting the so called ‘puritan diet’ comprising soya, corn, margarine, chicken and cereals. Amongst the panelists promoting the puritan diet, in the TV show was, as to be expected, Ancel Keys. The television campaign, however, was not an unqualified success.. Dr Paul Dudley White, cardiologist of President Eisenhower, was one of the panelists.


When pressured to support the puritan diet, he disagreed with his ASA colleagues remarking" see here (in Massachusetts) I began my carrier as a cardiologist in 1921, and I never saw a myocardial infraction (MI) until 1928. Back in the MI free days before the 1920s, the fats were butter and lard, and I think we should all benefit from the kind of fat that we ate at that time when no one ever heard the word corn oil". Perhaps it was too early for Dr White to have realized that advances in medical and health sciences after the war increased life expectancy rapidly. In the early 20th century a very high percentage of the people died early before they reached the heart attack age (50 – 60 years) from bowel and other diseases. This is why MI was not common in that epoch.

The American vegetable lobby relentlessly continued its campaign against the tropical oils and in 1987 an attempt was even made to label all foods containing coconut and palm oils. A bill entitled ‘S1109, a Bill to Amend the Federal food, Drug and Cosmetics to Require New Labels for Food Containing, Coconut and Palm Oils’ was to be introduced. Fortunately, the Philippines Coconut Development Authority got the wind of it and promptly proceeded to hire an expert team from the Harvard Medical School lead by Dr George Blackburn that successfully contested the Bill before a US Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources which was appointed to investigate into the matter. He established that there was no evidence to implicate the tropical oils as being health risks. Blackburn concluded that ‘it would be particularly unfortunate if consumers were deterred from buying products containing tropical oils on health grounds when the most recent medical evidence suggests that the tropical oils are more beneficial than the hydrogenated fats(margarines) that would be exempt from the proposed legislation. The irony was that the US diet then had less than 1% coconut oil! And the anti-tropical oil campaign was such a success that Americans, it was said, then feared coconut oil more than they feared witches!!


Coconut oil and palm oil

consumption and vascular health

Let us briefly look at health risks and benefits of the two oils. Coconut oil has about 74% of its satutated fatty acid composition reported to elevate cholesterol comprising lauric(48%) myristic (17%) and palmitic(9%). Lauric acid is a very beneficial fat from certain health considerations and was earlier thought to be not cholesterol –elevating but later found to be otherwise. On the other hand, palm oil has 45% palmitic acid known to be cholesterol elevating, but the 39% oleic acid , a monounsaturated fatty acid , which only lowers the’ bad cholesterol’(LDLC). The polyunsaturated levels in the two oils are comparable.

Of the numerous publications on coconut oil and cholesterol, let us look at two local studies. Prof. Shanthi Mendis and co-workers conducted two controlled dietary studies. In 1989 and 1990. In the first, feeding coconut ( 100 gm kernel and 10 ml oil) to young adult as against corn oil (10 ml) and cow milk powder(10 gm) increased total cholesterol(TC), LD-C and HDL-C by 23, 32, 69 respectively, but decreased triglycerides by28%. The ‘Platelet Factor ‘4’ ( an index of vascular damage) rose by 46%. In the second study, feeding 85 gm soya fat as against 84 gm of coconut fat similar results , as in the earlier, were obtained except that in this trial there was an increase in the triglycerides as against the other However, the HDL-C increase in both trials should be salutary.. There are other numerous dietary studies some of gave comparable data whilst others, opposing data!. A 2003 study with Norwegian women with coconut fat, reducing the SFA consumption from 22 to 10% reduced total BSC and LDL-C by only 4% and 2.5 respectively , but HDL-C by as much as 15%, which obviously is not desirable. Most free living dietary studies do not support the contention that coconut elevates cholesterol. A 1991 study of Prof . Sunethra Athukorale and her coworkers showed that rural people (Kurunegala) who ate almost a coconut a day had better lipid profiles than those from the urban and sub-urban areas who consumed only half a coconut. Similarly, as had also been adverted to by Dr UW , the Polynisian atolls study with two tribes, Pukapukans and Tokeluans, showed that in the two tribes that derived 34% (3/4 coconut) and 63% (1.5 coconuts)daily energy from the consumption of coconut, the cholesterol levels (mg/dl) were 170 in males and 176 in females( Pukapukans) versus 206 in males and 216 in females (Tokeluans)respectively . Both tribes ate a lot of fish daily . However, when the Tokuleans migrated to New Zealand, their TC increased despite their SF consumption decreasing from 45 to 21%!

Perhaps there are not as much studies on palm oil on the subject as with coconut. However, human feeding and other epidemiological studies claimed that palm oil diets showed a reduction of BSC ranging from 7 to 38% . A 1991 Malaysian dietary study (Ng et al ) comparing feeding of coconut, palm and corn oils reported that whereas coconut oil increased total BSC by 10% , palm and corn oils reduced BSC by 19 and 36% respectively. On the other hand, there is a further study which claims a 6% increase in the total BSC with feeding palm oil.

The decades 1980 and 1990 I, in particular were replete with the coconut-cholesterol controversy. Among the several supporting coconut oil consumption, outstanding were Dr Mary Enig, PhD a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and Bruce Fife, M.D who even wrote a book entitled ‘Saturated Fats May Save Your Life’! One of the famous metabolic and prospective studies on the association of CHD , saturated fat and cholesterol was the Farmingham Heart Study cited even in medical text books. However William P. Casteli, M.D, Director of the study subsequently wrote a piece in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine , July 1992 that ‘In Farmingham, Mass. the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate the lower the person’s serum cholesterol. The opposite of what one saw in the 26 metabolic ward studies, the opposite of what the equations provided by Hegsted et al and Keys et all would predict’….They weighed the least, and were the most physically active. The message here as also in Prof Sunethra Athukorale’s local study is that physical activity overrides the dietary effects!


Health benefits of coconut and palm oils

There are many health benefits of coconut oil. Much evidence is available that medium chain fatty acids lauric and capric acids in coconut and their monoglycerides monolaurin and monocaprin ( also produced in mother’s milk) have miraculous healing properties. These compounds are reported to have anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoal effects. Some 20 research papers are reported to have been be published on these subjects and several patents taken. Palm oil has the advantage of a higher percent of unsaturated fatty acids, oleic acid and linoleic acid which add up to 48% of the total fats. Apart from their BSC lowering effects they have many other health benefits. The high beta carotene content in palm oil is beneficial in vision improvement whereas its high tocopherol content, a type of vitamin A is important as a natural antioxidant.

Given all the considerations, and the current modest national per capita consumption of coconut, one third to one fourth of a coconut per day, it is prudent to consider, as Dr UW also has indicated in his article, that as far as cardiovascular diseases are concerned coconut oil is neutral in effect., let alone other benefits. Similarly, consumption of palm oil as supplemental to coconut oil should cause no health risk.

It would appear that the risk of coconut is probably more with the quality of the oil than its fatty acid composition given the methods of manufacture and adulteration. The manner in which copra is produced especially in households by airdrying can easily lead to contamination of aflatoxin, a carcinogen produced by a fungus (Aspergillus flavus) growing on moist copra. Other hazardous contaminants, especially in the production of desiccated coconut and virgin coconut oil, are salmonella and Escherichia coli which cause bowel diseases, is due to unhygienic handling.

Coconut production, consumption and potential

The real problem of the coconut industry has now been not the ‘temperate oils’ but its low productivity and production globally. The massive increase in the global vegetable oil demand after the world war, especially with the increasing affluence in the developing countries, could never have been met by coconut oil. In fact palm oil came into fill the gap with its much higher productivity, on average, four times that of coconut oil. Whereas coconut productivity is less than 1t/ha globally (about 0.8 t/ha in Sri Lanka), that of palm oil is , on average, 3-4 tons. The potential yields of our hybrid coconuts are 25,000-30,000 nuts /ha whereas the average yield is about 6500. High yields cannot be realized due to poor management. Absentee landlordism is a major bane of the industry. However, Indian farmers applying 6 kilos of fertilizer per tree per annum and 120 litres of water per day achieve yield approaching this potential!

In the light of the local coconut oil shortage the government’s recent decision to expand the oil palm extent from the current level of 8,000 ha to 20,000 is commendable . Whereas the national vegetable oil requirement is about 90,000 Mt of coconut oil, only about 50,000 Mt are produced locally and the balance is largely met by imported oils, chiefly palm oil. .The total vegetable oil(largely palm oil) imports have dropped from about 185,00 Mt in 2015 to 117, 000 Mt last year as a consequence of a drop in consumption following the imposition of an import tax on of Rs 150 – 175 / kg of palm oil. This has been necessitated essentially to mitigate adulteration of coconut oil with it. A recent Coconut Research Institute study has revealed that 40% and 60% of the samples analyzed from wholesale and retail shops respectively were adulterated and 92% did not meet the Sri Lanka Institute prescribed standards for coconut oil.

Clearly, as for other primary products, product diversification and value addition should be vital strategies for the future of the industry. The demand for quality coconut oil for flavoury and fragrance products is rapidly growing for which the quality of the oil is critical. In this regard , expansion of the virgin coconut oil production is important. Firmerich, a world renowned company in the flavour and fragrance industry named coconut the 2016 the flavour of the year. Similarly proliferation of coconut water in the western markets has been exponential since the Brazil introduced packed coconut water in 2004. This market has increased by over 100% since then and its annual growth rate now is 17%. Sri Lanka has a very small share in these products in the world market but greater entrepreneurial drive is needed to expand it.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...