16th July 2000

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'Pol' polls: does coconut oil cause artery-clogging?

Dr. U. P. de S. Waidyanatha, Chairman Coconut Research Board

Coconut oil which was enjoying a pre-eminent position in the world market, (including America) about two decades ago was the target of a misinformation and disinformation campaign by vested interests, especially the American Soybean Association, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Savers' Association.

Coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil were called artery - clogging saturated fats! Its agenda obviously was to promote soya and other oils produced in the west. This lobby petitioned the US Federal Government asking for labelling of coconut, palm and palm kernel oils as health risks. A bill was tabled before the US Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources entitled a Bill to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require new labels on "Foods containing coconut, palm and palm kernel oil". Fortunately, at that time the Philippine Coconut Authority hired a team of five medical and nutritional experts from the Harvard Medical School's Nutrition Coordinating Center, which reviewed the then available evidence on coconut oil and defended the case against coconut oil. The team concluded its evidence on the effect of coconut oil consumption on blood serum cholesterol (BSC) as follows: "In fact, the fairest interpretation of scientific literature says that there is a neutral effect even in situations where coconut oil is the source of fat"; and the Bill was withdrawn !

Epidemiological evidence

A Sri Lankan consumes about 120 nuts per year both as fresh coconut and coconut oil, but the incidence of coronary heart disease in Sri Lanka is low compared to most other countries.

Polynesian Islanders are great coconut eaters, and their major dietary energy source is coconut. A study with two native populations, one in Puke-Puke Islands and the other in Tokelau Islands, revealed that the occurrence of coronary heart disease (CHD) among both populations had been reported to be very low.

However, when Tokelauans migrated to New Zealand, their BSC increased. Despite decreasing consumption of saturated fatty acids their consumption of cholesterol had increased.

Among the people of Kerala in India too, coconut oil is an important item of the diet, and in 1979, 2.3 out of 10,000 were reported to have suffered from CHD problems. A sustained campaign against consumption of coconut oil resulted in substantial reduction of coconut oil from the diet, but by 1993 the rate of CHD had shot up to 70 per 10,000 ! So coconut oil could not have been the villain !

How much fat can you consume ?

There are three types of fatty acids in our diet: saturated fatty acids (SFA - coconut oil, palm oil, animal fat etc), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PFA - corn oil, soya oil etc) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MFA - olive oil, avocado etc).

The general belief is that SFA is cholesterol-elevating and PFA and MFA are cholesterol-lowering; but you will note that the story is not so simple as you read on. The World Health Organisation (WHO) prescription for a healthy diet is that only 15 to 30% of the energy should be derived from fats and oils. Out of this, less than 10% should be from SFA, 3 - 8% from PFA and 10-12% from MFA. About 15 to 25% of energy of an average Sri Lankan's diet is from fat, of which about 80% is from coconut.

Studies conducted by Prof. Sunethra Athukorala and others of the Faculty of Medicine on healthy adults in urban, suburban and rural areas have shown that BSC levels were not increased among subjects in rural areas where coconut consumption was higher than those in other areas. This is ascribed to the high-fibre and low animal fat in the diet.

Dietary studies

In a study reported in 1989 by Dr. Santhi Mendis of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya and co-workers, on 16 young Sri Lankan adult males, the coconut (oil, kernel and milk) in the diet had been replaced with corn oil and cow milk powder. The results revealed that whereas corn oil lowered the total cholesterol from 179 to 146 mg/dl blood serum, the HDL-C or the 'good' cholesterol decreased by 41.4 % as against the LDL-C or the 'bad' cholesterol which decreased only by 23.8 %.

In other words the LDL: HDL ratio rose undesirably from 3: 1 to 3: 9: 1 with the change in the diet from the coconut oil phase to the corn oil phase.

It can be argued that whilst the level of cholesterol of 179.6 mg/dl during the coconut oil phase carried a very low risk of heart disease, it increased relatively with the lowering of the HDL on account of changeover to corn oil. This study also lends further support to the observation that unsaturated fatty acids tend to lower the HDL cholesterol relatively more than the LDL type.

A recent study conducted by Prof. Rajmohan and others of the Kerala University revealed that coconut oil consumption did not elevate BSC. Consumption of coconut kernel along with coconut oil lowered BSC. Apparently the dietary fibre in coconut had a cholesterol-lowering effect. Coconut oil did not also elevate LDL cholesterol or the LDL/HDL ratio.

An interesting study reported by Felton and others in the Lancet in 1998, following chemical analysis of atheroma (platelets that clog arteries) established that fatty acids from the cholesterol eaters are 75% unsaturated and 24% saturated. None of the saturated fatty acids were reported to be lauric acids or myristic acids which constitute as much as 65% of the total fatty acid in coconut oil!

Recent research reveals another exciting fact about the prospective role of coconut oil in the prevention of atheroma (deposition of plaques in the arteries). A role is suspected of certain viruses (herpes virus and cytomegalo virus) in the initiation of atherosolerotic plaques and reclogging of arteries after angioplastry. Interestingly, these viruses are inhabited by momolaurin which is not formed in the body unless there is a source of lauric acid in the diet; and nearly 50 % of coconut oil is lauric acid ! Consumption of coconut oil then should be beneficial against CHD !

Margarines can be bad !

Nearly all margarines in the market display prominently on the packs, the label - cholesterol-free. This is highly deceptive ! Margarines are made by a process of hydrogenation of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PFA) designed to solidify the product for ease of use. During this process, a certain configurational transformation of the fatty acid molecule takes place leading to the formation of what are called transfatty acids. Transfatty acids (present in margarines) are well known to increase BSC, and in particular, decrease good cholesterol (HDL-C) and increase bad cholesterol (LDL-C).

Diet, blood serum cholesterol (BSC) and coronary heart disease (CHD)

Many think that cholesterol is a harmful substance in our system. The fact is that cholesterol is a vitally important compound for healthy functioning of our body. However, cholesterol in excess of certain limits is believed to increase the incidence of heart attacks and strokes.

There are, however, two strong schools of thought; one that supports the 'lipid hypothesis' meaning that there is a correlation between the SFA consumption, BSC and incidence of CHD; the other contests these relationships.

In 1977 the 'Farmingham study' reported a relationship between the risk of CHD and BSC . On the other hand, there is equally strong evidence contesting the lipid-cholesterol - CHD relationship.

In 1964, the famous heart surgeon Dr. De Bakey co-authored a study involving 1,700 patients, which also failed to establish a definite correlation between BSC and CHD.

The Helsinki Heart Study has often been quoted by those who contest any relationship between BSC and CHD. This study was confined to subjects in the age group of 30-50 years. They were divided into two, one group had regularly checked BSC and kept the values within normal limits. The other (control) group had no interventions to restrict the cholesterol and the results are unbelievable ! After 20 years, the group that had BSC checked, had thrice as many heart attacks as the control group !

Changing the amount of cholesterol or SFA concentration in the diet has little or no influence on the BSC levels of most people. This is possible because certain compensatory mechanisms in the body are engaged in scavenging excess cholesterol. This phenomenon may be genetically controlled implying that on a similar (cholesterol/SFA) diet, in some, the cholesterol levels may go up, but in others it may not. It would appear that the atherogenic process is multifactorial and complex with a strong genetic influence. What is important is to know thyself !

If your BSC is normal and you are also devoid of other risk factors then you should not be unduly worried about cholesterol or fat in your diet. On the other hand if you are predisposed to one or more of the risk factors, then naturally it should be wise to restrict your fat intake and keep the CHD within the WHO recommended range.

There is now growing concern among Americans whether the vegetable oil-based food industries have 'led them down the garden path' ! Billions of people in the world are well, only a fraction are ill or at risk of being ill. After all is life worth living without a little 'kirihodi' and 'pol sambol' in your meal?

News 100 years ago

Ceylon needs a university

The need for a university in Ceylon is gathering momentum. It has the support of the Director of Public Instruction, S.M. Burrows, who says " this difficult question still awaits a final solution".

He briefly states the problem: as education progresses and prosperity continues, an increasing number of parents desire something more for their sons than what our present system offers, something in the shape of a degree without the necessity of going to England for it. It is a most laudable ambition to be cautiously but firmly encouraged. At present our system may be said to stop short at the Senior Cambridge and for want of any better course to pursue, boys are reduced to the necessity of going in for this two or even three times, which is meaningless and was never intended.

At the same time we have separate examinations for separate objects such as the Clerical, the Scholarship, the Law examinations etc; and it would be a great saving of time and effort if we could hit upon a single examination which would at least be an obligatory test for all candidates for the Clerical Service, the Law and so on.

Several schemes have been under consideration. The examinations of the University of London promised at one time to supply the want, and their quality finds most favour in the eyes of our principal education authorities in Colombo. But we have been warned that it is exceedingly doubtful, now that that university has been reconstituted, whether the Colonial Examinations will be continued. We are still awaiting a final answer from the new Senate. Till that point is settled every other alternative must be considered.

'Independent' view

The Ceylon Independent reports that the scheme for the proposed Ceylon University is still under consideration and the pros and cons continue to be discussed. Mr Burrows' interest in the matter has not abated in the least and he is endeavouring to the utmost to further higher education in Ceylon. Of course, the principal point is whether Ceylon is ripe enough for a university and Mr.Burrows has obtained the cooperation of some of our leading educationists to help him in deciding the important question. Some time must however elapse before the matter is fully thrashed out.

Note: It was not until January 1921 that the University College was opened in Colombo.

Medical students

In the May term, 12 new male students joined the senior division making up a total of 64 students taking the course for the licence, of whom two are females. In the junior division, 19 new students were admitted making a total of 99 in this class.

Prize to learn Sinhalese

Mudaliyar A. Mendis Gunasekera offers a prize (value: Rs. 50) for the encouragement of Sinhalese in English College and Higher Schools from last year. It's titled the 'Diamond Jubilee Prize'.

In 1899, ten candidates competed and the prize was won by G. C. Samarasekera of Royal College. There were only three to compete in 1900 and again a Royalist, C. Dias won the prize.

Driest spell

The weather for the first part of the year was exceptionally dry. Up to May 22, only 13.10 inches of rain fell on 49 days. This period is the driest on record.

Four botanical gardens

Ceylon now boasts of four botanical gardens. Apart from the main one in Peradeniya, there are three others - at Henaratgoda (Gampaha), Anuradhapura and Badulla.

Deposits increase

More and more people are saving money in the Post Office Savings Bank. Over a period of ten years, the number of depositors shows a marked increase. In 1891, the number of depositors stood at 17,387. The figure recorded in 1900 was 51,000. The number of post offices has increased from 98 to 147 and the average number of accounts per office increased from 171 (1891) to 353 (1900).

- Media Man

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