Lauric acid, also properly known as dodecanoic acid, is a saturated fatty acid commonly found in coconut and palm oils, as well as in milk. Appearing as a white, powdery substance, its main use in manufacturing is as an ingredient in soaps and shampoos. Infants consume it during breastfeeding, and children, teens and adults ingest it by eating the fruits and oils that contain it. Research suggests it can have multiple health benefits because of its antimicrobial properties, but more studies are necessary to confirm initial results.
Chemical Properties and Appearance
The chemical formula for this substance is C12H24O2. With 12 carbon atoms, it is classified as a medium chain fatty acid. These always have between six and 12 carbon atoms, which distinguishes them from short-chain types of two to six carbon atoms and long-chain versions with more than 12. There are no double bonds between the carbon atoms, so it is a saturated fatty acid. Its molar mass is 200.31776.
According to some sources, it has a scent often described as similar to soap or bay oil. It normally is white in color and occurs as a solid, crystalline powder. The melting point is 109.8°F (43.2°C), while the boiling point is 570°F (298.9°C).
Dodecanoic acid is found naturally in a handful of sources, primarily plant oils and milk. Coconut milk is probably the best-known source, as 45 – 57% of its fats are lauric. Palm kernel oil and laurel oil also have high concentrations of around 50%. Human breast milk has the next highest level at around 6%, followed by goat and cow’s milk, which both have around 3%.
Companies frequently use lauric acid to make shampoo and soap — it is often paired with sodium hydroxide and typically is on product labels as sodium laurel sulfate. Its chemical composition lets it interact with fats, as well as polar solvents, which are substances that dissolve other things and which have a small electrical charge — water is an example. As a result, it can bond with the oils found on hair, after which a person can wash it away. Other common uses include the manufacturing of lauryl acohol, insecticides and cosmetics.
Application in Cooking
Both palm oils and coconut oil, excellent sources of lauric acid, are acceptable for use in cooking. The first type is widely used in commercial food production, because it is relatively inexpensive. The second is prized for its sweet flavor and is often preferred for making particular types of seafood. The use of these options varies by region. In the United States and much of North America, for example, people rely more on vegetable oil, but many tropical countries still predominantly use coconut and palm versions.
In recent years, researchers have stigmatized both these oils as being unhealthy, largely due to studies that suggested that saturated fats, including lauric acid, raise “bad” LDL cholesterol and contribute to problems such as heart disease. In reality, many medium-chain fatty acids can be quite beneficial. Experts also now know that the worst offenders are trans fats, which come from the hydrogenation of vegetable oils and which simultaneously raise LDL and lower “good” HDL cholesterol. They recommend avoiding hydrogenated oils for this reason and suggest that, in general, saturated fats such as dodecanoic acid should make up no more than 10% of a person’s dietary calories. A better understanding of the different types of fats and their health implications is leading to coconut and palm oils becoming more popular.
Role in Medicine
Medical professionals suspect that lauric acid has potential health benefits, possessing antimicrobial properties. They know that, when consumed, it combines with glycerol to form
, which is a compound the body uses to destroy lipid-coated microbes. People use it in treatments for conditions such as
, cold sores, the common
and even preventing the transmission of
/AIDS from mothers to their babies. Some studies also suggest that it can increase metabolism, similar to other medium-chain fatty acids. There is not sufficient evidence to support many of the claims made, however, so most researchers agree that more research is necessary to form definitive conclusions.
Using techniques such as melting-point depression, scientists use lauric acid to study the molar weights of unidentified substances. By completing these processes, they are able to make some conclusions about what the unknown item might be. In many cases, this basic identification is necessary to ensure the safety of researchers and to determine how to proceed with more tests or experiments.