Photography by Bea and Rob Crisostomo (ritual.ph)
Rigorous science and anti-corporate nationalism have allowed us to scratch the surface of coconut oil’s curative properties. Conrado and Fabian Dayrit’s book is an intergenerational story of questions asked, questions answered, and questions waiting to be investigated
Coconut Oil: From Diet to Therapy
By Conrado S. Dayrit and Fabian M. Dayrit
Anvil Publishing, 2013
There is a lot of useful information in this book. The authors, after all, make a convincing argument that coconut oil is a wonder product. They show convincing evidence that what the scientific and medical community believes about fats, particularly coconut oil, is unscientific.
Take for example the idea that dietary fat must be strictly controlled for weight-management and to avoid cardiovascular disease. Through patient and convincing explanation of clinical studies, the book shows that the studies that led to these conclusions are faulty. As the studies that demonized dietary fat also became the basis for the current dietary guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the book also presents convincing arguments that these guidelines are flawed and are failing to achieve healthy outcomes. The book achieves what many new age therapies and diet prescriptions fail to: present proof that will stand up to the caveats of what physicians call “evidence-based” medicine. It goes beyond the mere presentation of anecdotal evidence and cites well-run epidemiological studies and clinical trials.
But the book does not only give evidence that the guidelines on fat need to be changed to better suit the scientific evidence; it goes on to show why the fats in coconut oil in particular are good for you above all other types of fat. To do this, it provides a fascinating description of the biochemistry of fats and coconut oil in particular. The book then crosses over from biochemistry into cardiovascular studies to show why the oils in fatty acids prevent rather than promote the various body reactions that lead to heart disease. It then shifts from the field of medicine to talk about the history and political economy of the demonization of coconut oil.
For those interested only in practical take-home messages, I urge you to take 3 to 6 tablespoons of virgin coconut oil (VCO) a day. Change your cooking oil to coconut oil. Eschew other oils such as corn oil, soya oil, and canola oil. If you want to have olive oil, fine. You can’t use it for cooking at high heat anyway, as most chefs will tell you. Besides it is “neutral.” In other words, it doesn’t have the harmful effects of the other oils. But don’t take 3 to 6 tablespoons of olive oil as a substitute for VCO. Supplement your VCO intake with fish oil if you are not a big fish eater. Assuming that you enjoy some amount of pork or chicken, peanut oil, and olive oil, you probably have all the fats you will need to stay healthy.
The book notes that fish oil contains omega 3 fatty acids while some animal fats—olive oil and peanut oil—will give you omega 6 fatty acids. These two fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the body but are essential to health. But you don't need them in large amounts. In fact too much omega 6 fatty acid is bad for you.
If you achieve a proper ratio of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, you don’t need to obsess about your cholesterol level.
The other important piece of advice is to avoid trans fats like the plague, because they cause heart attacks. Any product that says it uses “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” has trans fats. Don’t believe current labeling that says “zero trans fats.” The USFDA allows that label if you have less than 0.5 grams per serving. But anyone who knows about labels will know that what the food manufacturer calls a “serving” may be miniscule.
Corn oil and soya oil release unhealthy things like free radicals when you heat them to temperatures needed for frying. Coconut oil remains stable when heated.
There is a likelihood that drinking VCO will reduce your risk for obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and heart disease. VCO works to boost your immune system and has been found in small studies to kill certain bacteria and viruses, including the HIV virus.
Snake Oil and Panaceas
I am cynical of all health claims related to herbals and supplements. Especially when the herbal or supplement presents itself as a solution to health problems that are yet unsolved or as a panacea for several illnesses.
The mainstream drug industry and your friendly neighborhood quack trade on the fact that herbals and supplements are not well regulated. Unlike drugs that take years of research and development (often requiring large amounts of expertise and financial resources), food supplements and herbals need not show such rigid proof of their effectiveness and safety.
In one sense, this is only right because herbals and food supplements are far less likely to cause any harm. But here lies the rub. Because they are less likely to cause criminal harm, these are more likely to be marketed in the most unethical ways. Take for example commercials implying that multivitamins are the reason a handsome man can drive his cab the whole day and then go home and make fantastic love to his wife. Given how cab drivers in this country earn so little, asking him to spend his money on multivitamins deprives his wife and kids of food money. It is no secret that eating a balanced diet gives you the vitamins you need and then some.
If anyone wants an energy boost, he or she should drink VCO instead. Unlike other fatty acids those in VCO are absorbed directly by the liver where they are used immediately for the body’s energy needs.
Hard Facts and Documented Studies
Why do I raise cynicism about food supplements like VCO only to endorse VCO?
Because this book provides clear scientific evidence for these claims, something sorely lacking in the quackery of some new age practitioners and conspiracy theorists against Western science. This gem of a book has the virtues (it’s such an academic book rich with scientific evidence) of its drawbacks (it’s such an academic rich with scientific evidence).
The book takes you into a fascinating review of the chemistry and biochemistry of saturated medium chain fatty acids, particularly lauric acid, which is found in abundance in coconut oil and not other commonly used cooking oils.
(The authors do tell you that palm oil and kernel oil also have good amounts of lauric acid. So let me say now that when I use imprecise terms like “most” or “usually,” the reader will find all the precision needed in the book. After all, author Conrado Dayrit was a Professor of Pharmacology of the UP College of Medicine and a cardiologist. His son and co-author Fabian Dayrit has a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton.)
Thus we learn that not all saturated fats are bad for you. In fact, the medium chain fats in coconut oil are good for you and are superior to the polyunsaturated ones in other oils. It is this key fact that the diet and oil industries have obscured for years,
The book presents the reader with real evidence that the US oil industry, in an attempt to grab market share from coconut oil, demonized it. It also shows, through documented studies, that what the diet industry says about fats and cholesterol is not so much evidence-based as it is profit-driven.
A Long Tradition in Academia
My father, Horacio R. Estrada, and Conrado S. Dayrit were colleagues in the Department of Pharmacology of the UP College of Medicine. They ended their academic careers as professors emerita. They were also colleagues in pioneering the study of herbal medicines in the Philippines. They worked to establish the National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants under the Department of Science and Technology.
Dr. Dayrit and my father came from a long tradition of US-trained academics who used the educational opportunities offered by US colonialism and neo-colonialism for nation-building. That involved being critical—taking the best for their nation while resisting the colonizing tropes of the education given them. For one thing, they did not see US science and technology as an unmitigated good that could be simply transported back to the Philippines. My father and Dr. Dayrit were too young to have become pensionados under a scholarship program instituted by the American colonial administrators from 1903 to 1941. Both, however, went on to take graduate studies in US universities on scholarships.
My father was offered a position at the University of Pennsylvania at the end of his postdoctoral training. It was his ticket to what many Filipinos have longed for through generations—the absorption into America and the American dream.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, the Philippines was the second best economy in Asia, second only to Japan. The University of the Philippines was the region’s educational center. We were an industrializing nation with a cadre of well-trained scientists and technocrats.
At home, I rarely saw my father. He was always in his laboratory, conducting his experiments on medicinal plants. When he was around, our scientific reasoning on any matter, from buying fruits to school science projects, had to be rigorous. We would be treated to discussions of logic and reasoning between him and my mother, a philosopher.
My final science project for a biology class was conducted in his laboratory. I was interested in whether a plant traditionally used as an abortifacient was effective. He brought me to his lab to test whether the plant extracts could cause a frog’s smooth muscles to contract. I spent weeks learning how to isolate the frog’s tissues; keeping it alive in isotonic saline solution; making slurries of bark, leaf, and flower of the banaba plant; applying this to the isolated muscle tissue and recording the contractions over a certain period in comparison to contractions of the untreated muscle. All the equipment was of my father’s making. He said that those Americans kept selling us their equipment so that they could impoverish his university with their expensive price tags and expensive maintenance. So he made his own from local materials.
Dr. Dayrit and my father were by no means alone. They are but two exemplars of an academic rigor that rejects the irrationalities of cooptation to imperialist/capitalist standards of science and the unthinking nativism of those who fail to see that a colonial education can instill the capacity for scientific integrity. In their careful treading of the narrow path between these two chasms, they proved themselves to be true scientists and true patriots.
Conrado Dayrit spent much of his time researching virgin coconut oil. In so doing, he was able to present a documented critique of how imperialism has stunted the growth of the Philippines economically and scientifically. He was also able, like a true scientist, to show us how the world is set back when commercial interests dominate the development of cures.
Fund the Research
The final chapters of the book, updated and now co-authored by his son Fabian Dayrit, give us an indication of where research and development money should be spent. For example, research money should be spent on finding out whether lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin can become an effective drug in the treatment of HIV infections and AIDS. In 1988, Conrado Dayrit had already conducted a well-run experiment with HIV-infected human subjects using coconut oil. But, as Fabian Dayrit notes, this awaits further study.
It may be difficult to get funding for additional studies on lauric acid and monolaurin, because I doubt that these two substances can be patented. But coconut oil shows promise in other ways. It exhibits a wide range of activity against fungi and bacteria in the test tube. There is also tantalizing data of its possible use in the prevention and mitigation of Alzheimer's disease and malignancies.
I cannot help but think that, if only VCO could be patented, drug companies would have taken these early findings further and we would now have fuller scientific confirmation (including actual drug formulations and dietary guidelines) of its amazing properties.
As I write this review, the Department of Health is involved in a drug scandal over the endorsement and use of an untested combination of drugs and a herbal derivative, produced by a fly-by-night drug company. They claim it is a cure for dengue. In defense of this fake drug, the former director of the DOH-Philippine Institute for Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) uses a knee-jerk nationalist argument against the current Secretary of Health who has suspended this unethical project. The former PITAHC Director argues that the suspension has taken away a useful drug, developed by Filipinos, using a herbal formulation. I can say with certainty that my father, a pioneer in herbal medicine, would have come out strongly against this drug, because there is no science to its claim that it can cure dengue.
I am almost certain that Dr. Conrado Dayrit would have condemned this fake anti-dengue drug too. But he might have proposed that government resources be used instead to develop drugs that the drug companies avoid. The PITAHC, after all, is indebted to the early work of the pioneers in herbal medicine. If it wishes to develop herbal medicines in the country, why not carry one with the work started on virgin coconut oil?If that should happen then I will envy Conrado Dayrit’s co-author, Fabian Dayrit, because this book will have contributed to such a desirable outcome. Even now though, I envy him. He is the worthy son of a truly great nationalist.