Health Articles

Is Coconut Oil Safe for Infants and Young Children?

I am often asked if infants or young children can be given coconut oil. My answer is most definitely! There are many benefits to adding coconut oil into the diets of infants and young children.

Mother’s milk supplies a rich source of fat necessary for the proper growth and development of the infant. A portion of this fat consists of a group of very special saturated fats known as medium chain triglycerides (triglycerides consist of three fatty acids joined together by a glycerol molecule). These fats are vital for the health of the developing baby. For this reason, they are considered conditionally essential fatty acids. Without them, the baby’s health would be seriously compromised.

When coconut oil/medium chain triglycerides are included in infant formulas, they improve fat and protein absorption and produce faster weight gain, particularly in premature infants.1-2 For this reason, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are routinely added to commercial and hospital infant formulas. The source of these MCTs comes from coconut oil. Coconut oil is nature’s richest source of these unique fatty acids.

The vast majority of fats and oils in the human diet are composed of long chain triglycerides (LCTs). One of the advantages of MCTs over the more typical long chain triglycerides (LCTs) is their speed and efficiency in digestion. MCTs digest very quickly, with minimal effort and stress placed on the body. LCTs require pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile in order to break them down into individual fatty acids. MCTs, on the other hand, break down so quickly that they do not need pancreatic digestive enzymes or bile, thus reducing stress and conserving the body’s enzyme reserves. The digestive systems of young infants are still developing and LCTs put a great deal of strain on their bodies. Some of these nutrients are incompletely digested and, therefore, do not provide their full nutritional potential. Not so with MCTs. Consequently, MCTs provide a superior source of nutrition to infants than LCTs.

Because of the improved digestion and absorption of the MCTs, the assimilation of other nutrients is also enhanced. Studies show that MCTs improve the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium, some of the B vitamins, the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K, beta-carotene), and some amino acids. Since it is easily digested and provides a quick and easy source of nutrition, coconut oil has been recommended as a means to fight malnutrition. Simply adding coconut oil into the normal diet can significantly enhance the availability of the nutrients already present in the foods.

This concept was successfully demon-strated by researchers in the Philippines.

Dr. Carmen Intengan and colleagues tested a structured lipid consisting of 75 parts coconut oil and 25 parts corn oil and compared that against soybean oil in the treatment of malnourished preschool-age children.

The study involved 95 children aged 10-44 months who were 1st to 3rd degree malnourished. The children were from a slum area in Manila. The children were regularly brought to the feeding center at specified times. They were given one full midday meal and an afternoon snack daily except Sundays for 16 weeks. The diets were identical in every respect except for the oil. Approximately two-thirds of the oil in their diet came from either the coconut oil/corn oil mix or soybean oil. The children were allocated to the two diets at random: 47 children received the coconut oil diet and 48 children the soybean oil diet. The children were weighed every two weeks and examined by a pediatrician once a week. At the start of the study the ages, initial weight, and degrees of malnutrition of the two groups as a whole were essentially identical.

After the 16 weeks, results showed that the coconut oil diet produced significantly faster weight gain and improvement in nutritional status compared to the soybean oil diet. The weight gain was not simply due to fat accumulation, but to growth.

Figure 1 illustrates the weight gains of the children at monthly intervals on the two experimental diets. As can be seen, there was a significantly faster weight gain in the children on coconut oil over those on soybean oil. A mean gain of 2.08 kg (5.57 lb) after four months was recorded for the coconut oil group, almost twice as much as the weight gain of the soybean oil group of 1.22 kg (3.27 lb).3

MCTs are not only good for improving health of malnourished infants but also for those with digestive or nutrient absorption disorders. Numerous studies, some as far back as the 1960s, have shown that MCTs improve nutrient status, growth, and overall health of infants suffering from a number of malabsorption disorders ranging from cystic fibrosis to liver disease and obstructive jaundice.4-8

In addition to improving nutritional status, MCTs also protect infants from infections. During digestion MCTs are broken down into individual fatty acids. Medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) possess potent antimicrobial activity that deactivate or kill disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi. A young infant’s immune system is still developing and not yet capable of fighting off many infectious organisms. MCFAs along with the mother’s antibodies in breast milk provide protection against these infections during their first few months of life.

Coconut oil also provides an assortment of other health benefits including protection against cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, and heart disease; improvement of blood circulation; and stimulation of healing.9

For these reasons, infants and small children can greatly benefit from the addition of coconut oil into their diets. For infants that are still nursing, the best way to feed them coconut oil is by way of the mother’s breast milk. When the mother eats coconut oil her milk will naturally become enriched with a high percentage of MCT. This way both the mother and child benefit from consuming the oil. If bottle feeding, ¼ to ½ teaspoon of coconut oil can be added to the warm liquid.

For older children, the oil can be added to their food. As a general guideline, children weighing between 12-25 pounds can be given ½ to 1 teaspoon of coconut oil daily. Children weighing between 25-50 pounds can be given 1-2 teaspoons and 50-100 pounds 2-3 teaspoons. You can give your children a little more or less without worry. Keep in mind that coconut oil is a food, so it is not toxic even in large doses; however, too much at any one time can produce runny stools.

References
1. Roy, CC, et al. Correction of the malabsorption of the preterm infant with a medium-chain triglyceride formula. J Pediatr 1975;86:446-450.
2. Tantibhedhyangkul, P. and Hashim, SA. Medium-chain triglyceride feeding in premature infants: effects on fat and nitrogen absorption. Pediatrics 1975;55:359-370.
3. Intengan, CL, Dayrit, CS, Pesigan JS, Cawaling T, and Zalamea IY. Structured lipid of coconut and corn oils vs. soybean oil in the rehabilitation of malnourished children—a field study. Phil. J. Internal Medicine. 1992;30:159-164.
4. Tantibhedhyangkul, P. and Hashim, S. A. Medium-chain triglyceride feeding in premature infants: effects on calcium and magnesium absorption. Pediatrics 1978;61(4):537.
5. McKenna, MC, et al. Linoleic acid absorption from lipid supplements in patients with cystic fibrosis with pancreatic insufficiency and in control subjects. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 1985;4:45-51.
6. Jensen, C. et al. Absorption of individual fatty acids from long chain or medium chain triglycerides in very small infants. Am J Clin Nutr 1986;43:745-751.
7. Leyland, F.C., et al. Use of medium-chain triglyceride diets in children with malabsorption. Arch Dis Childh 1969;44:170-179.
8. Tanchoco, CC, ea al. Diet supplemented with MTC oil in the management of childhood diarrhea. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2007;16:286-292
9. Fife, B. Coconut Cures: Preventing and Treating Common Health Problems with Coconut. Piccadilly Books, Ltd. 2005