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Lauric Acid

As one of the medium-length long-chain fatty acids, lauric acid is part of the class of organic compounds known as lipids, which are vital in the construction of cellular membranes and act as a source of food under starvation conditions. Contrary to popular beliefs, natural coconut and coconut milk are good for the health, mostly because of their high lauric acid content.

View a second image of lauric acid.

As a natural biochemical, lauric acid from coconut and palm kernel oils comprises 44 to 53 percent of their total fatty acid contents. Newly genetically engineered laurate canola (rapeseed) oil provides about 36 percent lauric acid, while the milk fat and butter from ruminant animals, such as cows, offers about 3 percent. Synthesized or extracted for the pharmaceutical industry, lauric acid is known for its antimicrobial properties, and as the precursor to monolaurin, a more powerful antimicrobial agent that is able to fight lipid-coated RNA and DNA viruses, several pathogenic Gram-positive bacteria, yeasts, and various pathogenic protozoa. Most recently, lauric acid derived from coconut oil, and the related monolaurin, have been examined as part of the drug therapy for treating HIV infections by reducing the patient's viral load. However, pure lauric acid cannot be ingested because it is severally irritating, but when lauric acid is chemically bound to glycerol (trade name lauricidin), there are no gastrointestinal problems.

At one time, coconut and palm fats and oils received negative press because of their high levels of saturated fats. Unlike the long chain triglycerides found in seed oils and hydrogenated coconut fat, medium chain triglycerides featured in unadulterated coconut and coconut milk do not raise serum cholesterol nor contribute to heart disease.

Known as dodecanoic acid to a biochemist, lauric acid features 12 carbons, 24 hydrogens, and 2 oxygen atoms, and a molecular weight of 200.32. As a solid, lauric acid forms colorless or white needle-like crystals with a faint odor of bay oil, melts at about 44 degrees Celsius, and boils at 225 degrees Celsius. While it is soluble in ether and other organic solvents, lauric acid is insoluble in water. Usually coconut oil is highly modified in cosmetics, food products, and animal feeds to prevent rancidity and extend shelf life, but as a result, the lauric acid is converted from a beneficial substance into a probable carcinogen. Industrial applications of lauric acid and its derivatives include the fatty acid as a component of alkyd resins, wetting agents, a rubber accelerator and softener, detergents, and insecticides.

Contributing Authors

Omar Alvarado, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.


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