Coconut oil is extracted from the kernel or meat of matured coconut harvested from the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Throughout the tropical world it has provided the primary source of fat in the diets of millions of people for generations.
Coconut oil is uniquely different from most other dietary oils and for this reason, has found use in a multitude of applications in food, medicine, and industry. What makes coconut oil different from most other dietary oils is the basic building blocks or fatty acids making up the oil. Coconut oil is composed predominately of a special group of fat molecules known as medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). The majority of fats in the human diet are composed almost entirely of long chain fatty acids (LCFA).
The primary difference between MCFA and LCFA is the size of the molecule, or more precisely, the length of the carbon chain that makes up the backbone of the fatty acid. MCFA have a chain length of 6 to 12 carbons. LCFA contain 14 or more carbons.
The length of the carbon chain influences many of the oil's physical and chemical properties. When consumed, the body processes and metabolizes each fatty acid differently depending on the size of the carbon chain. Therefore, the physiological effects of the MCFA in coconut are significantly different from those of the LCFA that are more commonly found in the diet.
MCFA and LCFA can also be classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fatty acids. Coconut oil contains 92% saturated fatty acids. All of the MCFA in coconut oil are saturated. They, however, are very much different chemically from the long chain saturated fatty acids found in animal fat and other vegetable oils.