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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Tropical Oils

Originally posted 8-6-2006

A week or so ago, someone noticed my jar of palm oil in the pantry and made a comment about how palm oil is supposed to be bad for you. Next to that was my jar of coconut oil, which is also supposed to be bad for you. So I thought I’d touch on the many health benefits of consuming palm and coconut oils and show why they are not detrimental to health, and are in fact, good for your health.

First, how did palm and coconut oils come to be “unhealthy”? That one is simple: they are both saturated oils. And as we all “know”, saturated fat is the unhealthy fat that will cause you to gain weight, have high cholesterol, and lead to a heart attack. That all of that is bunk is irrelevant (Lenin stated “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”…seems to hold in this case).

Ray Peat has an excellent article about the benefits of coconut oil. Coconut oil is made up of mostly short- and medium-chain fatty acids. What this means is that they are immediately available to the body as energy without the use of the carnitine transport system, being absorbed directly through the stomach instead. If you consume coconut milk or oil, you can actually feel your body temperature rise, owing to coconut oil’s effects on metabolism (half a can of coconut milk has actually made me sweat). Coconut oil also supports thyroid function, another driver of metabolism. Coconut oil is rich in butyric, lauric and myristic acids, which are variously being used to treat cancer and infection.

When I talk about palm oil, I’m talking about the unmodified red palm oil like that sold by Tropical Traditions (where I buy my palm and coconut oils). Palm kernel oil and any clear palm oils are not going to have the health benefits of red palm oil due to refining, deodorization, and bleaching. Palm oil is an excellent source of numerous vitamins, including Coenzyme Q10 which supports healthy heart function. It contains all eight forms of vitamin E – 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols – along with high levels of vitamin A, mainly in the form of alpha- and beta-carotene, which provide the rich red color. Palm oil actually has fifteen times the beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A) content of a carrot and 300 times that of a tomato. Palm oil is the second most widely consumed oil in the world, behind soybean oil. However, if we remove the United States from the equation, palm oil is the number one oil. For some reason, we’d rather hydrogenate soybean oil than use natural palm oil for baking.

Polyunsaturated oils, on the other hand, are powerfully immunosuppressive. Concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids have been administered intravenously to skin graft and organ transplant patients to suppress the immune system, reducing the chances of rejection. Unfortunately, these patients also quickly developed cancer. Dr. Peat mentions that "An excess of the polyunsaturated fats (PUFA's) is central to the development of degenerative diseases: cancer, heart disease, arthritis, immunodeficiency, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, connective tissue disease, and calcification." Intake of polyunsaturated fats is also positively correlated with susceptibility to oxidative damage from ultraviolet rays, which could explain why my ability to endure time in the sun has improved with the addition of coconut and palm oils to my diet (along with the added antioxidants from my fruit and vegetable intake).

Saturated oils are nearly impervious to oxidation and degradation. Basically, there are four types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans. Trans fats are just bad news altogether, so I’m not even going to touch on them. Every fat molecule consists of a glycerol molecule joined to three fatty acids, as this image shows. The degree of saturation refers to the number of double bonds between carbon atoms on a single fatty acid. So looking at the top two fatty acids, you see that no carbons are double bonded; all are bonded to hydrogen molecules, hence this fatty acid is “saturated” with hydrogen. The bottom fatty acid has a single double bond, meaning that it is monounsaturated. A fatty acid with two or more double bonds is polyunsaturated. These double bonds are susceptible to attack from free radicals, which degrades the fats, both inside and outside of your body. Obviously more double bonds equals more bonds available for attack. Heat, light, and oxygen all cause damage to fats in proportion to their degree of unsaturation. Therefore, polyunsaturated fats are the most unstable, with monounsaturated and saturated fats falling next in line. Coconut oil is so stable that after a year on the shelf at room temperature, it has been shown to have no measurable rancidity. Polyunsaturated oils are so unstable that they must undergo a great deal of processing to be made relatively shelf stable, including deodorization and bleaching. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your polyunsaturated cooking oils are stable, merely that there are few components left in it that will have an off taste or smell to warn you of its rancidity. Polyunsaturated processing also removes pretty much any trace of vitamins, a step which is not needed with saturated oils.

The great irony was that the Center for Science in the Public Interest, many years ago sued fast food makers for frying their fries in lard and other saturated fats. The fast food companies switched to hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are high in trans fats, the one fat that has no natural place in your body. Now, the CSPI is suing fast food makers for using oils containing trans fats; I guess it gives them a reason to exist. As it turns out, saturated fats are the healthiest oil to deep fry in (healthiest being a relative term when discussing deep frying) due to their ability to tolerate high temperatures. Cooking, especially deep frying, in polyunsaturated oils is bad news.

Palm and coconut oils have been vilified needlessly. These are two of the healthiest oils you could be eating, but because they are saturated, the makers of our “wonderful” polyunsaturated oils will keep telling us how bad they are for us. And political correctness won’t allow anyone to state that any oil could be better for you than olive oil. Olive oil, while good for you, is not the health panacea of the Mediterranean diet that it’s made out to be. It is merely a good oil that is relatively stable and quite tasty.

Vilification of these two oils was relatively easy though. At room temperature, they are both solid, resembling the “arterial plaques” that we are constantly shown (note: arterial plaques do not resemble saturated fats). Of course, at 98.6 degrees, the internal temperature of the body, both would be liquid, but why hymn and haw over facts? And as this picture shows, very little of our cell walls are made up of polyunsaturated fats. Is that saturated fat that makes
up some 40% of human fat and cell walls? That saturated and monounsaturated fats make up our cell walls make sense; they provide stability and rigidity that polyunsaturated fats cannot.

So let’s run up the tally here:
Coconut oil: very stable for cooking, no need for refining, no need for hydrogenation, improves metabolism, rich in fatty acids which support the immune system
Palm oil: also very stable for cooking, no need for refining, no need for hydrogenation, rich in vitamins A and E, high in CoQ10
Polyunsaturated oils: very unstable for cooking, very short shelf life, must be highly processed to avoid tasting and smelling awful, contain no vitamins due to processing, suppress the immune system

It looks like saturated tropical oils in a landslide. I know that my consumption of palm and coconut oils has improved my skin, my energy levels, and my body composition. Given the scientific facts and my own experience, I’ll stick with cooking in palm and coconut oils and adding olive oil (monounsaturated) to my salad dressings and vegetables. And if you’re worried about cholesterol or saturated fat’s effects on cholesterol, check out my review of The Great Cholesterol Con by Anthony Colpo.