Amid the frenzied search for a cure for COVID-19 that has claimed many lives and continues to infect human beings around the world, one of the country’s natural products has been taking the limelight for its medicinal potential, the VCO or Virgin Coconut Oil against the dreaded contagion.
Of all the hundreds of products that one can produce from coconut, one has been getting a lot of attention lately.
People have suddenly taken quite a bit of interest in VCO or virgin coconut oil.
Described by beauty experts as a superfood, it is currently being advertised by some as the “miracle” supplement to the treatment of the COVID-19 disease.
Certainly, a lot of Filipinos are pinning their hope on it.
But what exactly is VCO? Why is the oil called virgin? How is it produced? How is it different from regular coconut oil?
More importantly, what is in it that makes it suitable as a supplement to the treatment of COVID-19? Can it work its “magic” on the dreaded virus SARS COV2, which is causing the disease?
But, first let us get to know more about VCO, the water white oil.
So why is virgin coconut oil or VCO called virgin?
VCO is called a virgin because it is extracted from a single press using fresh, mature coconut meat instead of copra, which is dried coconut meat. In VCO production, oil is obtained by mechanical or natural means either with or without application of heat resulting in no alteration of the oil.
One might say, thus, that VCO is raw oil – fresh and unaltered with that peculiar nutty, coconut aroma and taste, and water white color.
So while VCO is coconut oil in an unaltered state, refined coconut oil, on the other hand, is characterized by the amount of refining that it undergoes. Characteristically slightly yellow in color, it is, also, odorless and tasteless.
It got its acronym label RBD coconut oil from having been refined, bleached, and deodorized. Further, refined coconut oil has undergone a drying process, which is typically done outside in the sun.
Going on with VCO, Tropical Traditions, which was the first company to import VCO from the Philippines to the US, claims that there is no industry standard definition for “virgin” coconut oil as there is in the olive oil industry for “virgin” and “extra virgin” olive oil.
They were the first company to publish, in 2006, standards for the use of “virgin coconut oil” under the edible oils category. And while, there may be as many processes as there are VCO processors (there are 30 listed under the Virgin Coconut Oil Producers and Traders Association of the Philippines, Inc. [VCOP]), the industry has, lately, been able to develop the Philippine National Standard (PNS) for VCO. As well, some may be following standards set by the Asia Pacific Coconut Community (APCC).
As expected, the numerous benefits that one can enjoy from VCO have spurred its continued local and international demand.
Finally, it is now classified as a nutraceutical product, one which has both nutritional and medicinal properties.
Tracing VCO processing technology at DOST-ITDI
In 2000, DOST-ITDI developed a VCO production process that targets mass production.
Albeit enjoying slight changes in design in 20 years, the ITDI Modified Wet Process may benefit processors from the expected new rush for VCO as current research tests may show potentially therapeutic promise.
A centrifuged process (also known as cream separator process), the wet processing method for VCO of ITDI is a modification of the “traditional boiling method.” Here, coconut milk is passed through a centrifuge to separate the cream from the water. Centrifugation coagulates the proteins present in the milk paving for the natural process of separating cream from the water much faster.
To recover oil, the cream is mildly heated. Heating partly removes unpleasant/acidic odor or rancidity while destroying microbes in the oil.
Further, a pressure filter to make the oil clear and free of sediments is used. This removes as well both free and bound moisture from the oil resulting in the final moisture content of less than 0.1% which leads to longer shelf-life. Together with vacuum drying, these improve oil quality. As well, large volume processors will appreciate that the technology can process 500 nuts in eight hours.
Aside from the wet process, DOST-ITDI has also established another method of producing VCO through the dry process. The dry process involves drying the coconut meat at low temperature, followed by expressing the coconut oil from the dry meat under high pressure and controlled temperature.
VCO: A miracle of nature
VCO does not contain cholesterol. It is composed of different types of naturally saturated fatty acids, mostly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that makes it easily digestible and convertible to energy in the human body. It remains solid inside the body, it is not bad for the heart and it will not cause hardening of the arteries as some may have been led to believe otherwise. While other vegetable oils are hydrogenated to produce its solid form (e.g. margarine) and in the process creating trans-fatty acids, coconut oil contains zero trans-fat.
About fifty percent (50%) of the saturated medium-chain fatty acids in VCO is lauric acid and has been widely studied for its health benefits as a nutraceutical substance.
VCO is fit for human consumption in its natural state. It can be ingested directly by the teaspoon, used as a frying oil, or an ingredient in food preparations. It can also be used to produce non-food items such as scented oils for aromatherapy, creams and lotions, and herbal soaps.
More than this, however, people are now more interested in lauric acid’s monoglyceride form called monolaurin or ML.
Discovered in the 70s by Prof. Dr. Jon J. Kabara, a chemist and pharmacologist, ML was established to have antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties.
ML is formed in the human body when coconut oil is taken in and provides protection against infectious diseases. So will ML in coconut oil work against the virus SARS COV2?
In a series of research studies, Dr. Kabara found that while nontoxic, monolaurin adversely affects bacteria, yeast, fungi, and enveloped viruses or viruses with lipid covering.
He found that the properties that determine the anti-infective action of lipids are related to their structure: e.g., free fatty acids and monoglycerides. The monoglycerides like ML are active; diglycerides and triglycerides are inactive.
Further, of the saturated fatty acids, lauric acid has greater antiviral activity than other fatty acids such as caprylic acid (C-8), capric acid (C-10), or myristic acid (C-14).
Fatty acids and their monoglycerides like ML produce their killing/inactivating effects by several mechanisms.
The first mechanism for antiviral action attributed to lauric acid and monolaurin is that of fluidizing the lipid and phospholipids in the envelope of the virus, causing the disintegration of the microbial membrane.
The second mechanism according to Hornung et al in 1994 is the ability of lauric acid to interfere with virus assembly and maturation.
Witcher et al followed this up with a study in 1993 showing that the third mechanism for antiviral action of lauric acid and ML is dependent on the immune system itself of the patient.
Similarly, in 1982 Dr. J. C. Hierholzer and Dr. Kabara jointly reported the antiviral activity of ML on viruses that affect humans, such as enveloped RNA and DNA viruses.
Conducted at the Center for Disease Control of the U.S. Public Health Service, the study showed that the presence of a lipid membrane on viruses makes them especially vulnerable to lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin.
These findings have been confirmed by many other studies including those conducted by Isaacs et al in 1986, 1990, 1991, and 1992, and by Thormar et al in 1987.
There are a host of other viruses that can be inactivated by lauric acid and ML.
Suffice to say that the SARS COV2 virus is an enveloped coronavirus – similar and yet different from the influenza viruses tested on with lauric acid and ML.
DOST researchers are thus working to determine if lauric acid and monolaurin in VCO will also work its magic on SARS COV2.
DOST Secretary Fortunato T. Dela Peña is leading the department’s clinical trials to test VCO as a possible supplement in treating patients with the COVID-19 disease.
While not directly involved in these clinical studies, DOST- ITDI’s processing technology for VCO which has been established through research and development may just help ensure the continuous supply of this miracle oil for medicinal studies (AMGuevarra and DDGotis \\ DOST- ITDI S&T Media Service)