Ten years ago, most of us would not have counted coconut oil as a kitchen staple. Fast forward to the present and we are frying with it, baking with it, some of us even eating it straight from the jar by the spoonful. The rise of the coconut has been a meteoric one. British consumers spent £100 million on coconut products last year. The lion’s share of this, £64 million, was spent on coconut water – the celebrity-endorsed drink packed with electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Coconut water’s credentials as a hangover cure, weight loss aid or even its life-saving powers when used as a last-resort alternative to blood plasma in intravenous transfusions have elevated it to superfood (superdrink?) status. It’s big business too – PepsiCo is vying to snap up Vita Coco, which generated over $1 billion in sales last year, as consumers increasingly shun fizzy drinks for ‘guilt-free’ alternatives. Coconut water’s sibling, coconut oil, is on its own ascendancy, with annual sales rising sharply from £1 million to £16.4 million over the past three years.
Why has coconut oil become so popular so quickly? The endorsement of the ‘clean eating’ movement has played a large part. The oil is a staple across clean eating gurus Susan Jane White, Sarah Britton, Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley and Joe Wicks’s recipes on account of its richness in saturated fats (particularly medium chain triglycerides, MCTs), its subtle flavour, natural sweetness and high smoke point. Evangelical celebrities have played their part too – model Miranda Kerr claims to eat four straight spoonful’s a day. And coconut oil’s powers are not confined to the kitchen, it has become an all-round beauty magic bullet too, used in shampoo, moisturiser, make-up remover, mouthwash, lip balm and even as wound care. Not everyone’s choice of cooking oil is influenced or dictated by diet trends or top models though – many of us simply enjoy this delicious new addition to our culinary arsenal.
But is coconut oil too good to be true? Other health foods that have risen to rock star status have had their reputations tarnished by social and environmental issues. When quinoa became an overnight superfood sensation its inflated value left local Bolivian communities who have grown and eaten it for over 7,000 years unable to afford it. Almond milk successfully took over soy in the alternative milk market, only to be inextricably implicated in California’s record droughts, which have caused farmers to pump ground water reserves at dangerous levels to keep up with the global appetite for the nut. And the avocado’s recent ubiquity and fetishisation has been tainted by the deforestation, environmental degradation and depletion of water supplies the fruit’s popularity is causing – it even has ties to Mexican drug cartels.
Oils alone are a veritable mine field of issues and mixed messages. Rape seed oil arrived on the scene, with blankets of bright yellow fields suddenly seeming to stretch across swathes of the UK, where it was heralded as the local alternative to imported olive oil. Rapeseed’s reliance on the intensive use of neonicotinoid pesticides though – linked to a 30% decline in native wild bees – has led to EU scrutiny and many eschewing it except for the rare, organic cold-pressed versions. And the massive advent of palm oil – estimated to be in 50% of packaged goods in supermarkets including washing detergents, cosmetics, confectionary and ready meals – has had a near-cataclysmic impact. The deforestation, climate change, pollution and human rights abuses caused by palm oil production have been well documented. The industry’s direct hand in animal welfare abuses and habitat degradation has become its biggest bête noir, with the orangutan becoming a tragic icon in the fight against palm oil – 90% of orangutans’ natural habitat has been destroyed for oil production, leaving them at risk of extinction within the next five to ten years.
Will the coconut oil boom have a similarly destructive impact on the environment, animals and the communities that produce it? It seems unlikely. Mainly because coconuts do not lend themselves as easily to mass production as the palm fruits that yield palm oil. It takes the average coconut tree 10-30 years to reach peak production, where it will yield approximately 400 coconuts a year, and almost every one of those coconuts will be picked by hand – the trees are stubbornly resistant to cooperating with machinery. Furthermore, around 95% of coconut growers are small-holders, in stark comparison to palm oil production, owned and controlled by a handful of corporate giants.
This lack of big business, and the coconut tree’s inherently slow productivity and low yields have prevented the kind of mass deforestation seen in palm oil production, however coconut oil is hardly issue free. Most coconuts come from coastal India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Philippines. Coconut farmers are typically poor, and unsurprisingly the fat prices paid for coconut products in western health food stores and supermarkets are not reaching the producers: the average Filipino coconut farmer is estimated to earn $1 a day. Another issue is that in the race to keep up with the world’s appetite for coconut products, the trees are increasingly being grown as monocrops, with government-subsidised fertilisers being rolled out to increase cultivation. One great advantage with coconut oil is that, having been popularised by the health food movement rather than the processed food industry, there are countless brands, like Tiana and Tree Harvest, offering fair trade and organic options. These ethical brands also tend to produce cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, which is extracted without the use of heat, so the oil retains more of its health properties and naturally sweet and nutty flavour.
The concern that’s harder to get around, and difficult to ignore when we’re indiscriminately using the tropical oil to roast vegetables, condition our hair or just dumping spoonfuls straight into our coffee, is that this elixir has crossed the world to reach our homes. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in the tropics, the food miles clocked and the carbon dioxide produced to deliver your coconut oil is substantial. While this doesn’t mean that we must kick our coconut oil addiction entirely, just as it’s taking hold, perhaps we might have to curb our excesses and consume it with the kind of mindfulness with which we buy other goods from far flung places. Coconut oil may not be the new palm oil, but perhaps we shouldn’t use it for absolutely everything after all.
Photograph: Meal Makeover
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