Coconut oil in our diet (ABC Radio National)
Coconut Oil in a Healthy Diet (PDF)
What is it about Virgin Coconut Oil?
Coconut – The Polynesian Masterfood
Coconut Comeback on ABC Landline
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What is it about Virgin Coconut Oil?
Mike Foale, Maleny September 2015
The growing interest in coconut oil in the diet that has developed in the past five years, not just on the Blackall Range but throughout Australia, the USA and Europe, has taken coconut producers by surprise. Oil extracted from copra, the dried kernel of the mature nut, became popular early in the 20th century, as a cooking oil and shortening, but the soy industry in the USA managed to destroy the reputation of coconut oil. They did this by making use of the saturated fat theory that developed in the 1960s when the USA was suffering from an epidemic of coronary heart disease (CHD). A link between fat consumption and heart disease, combined with the observation that saturated fat raised serum cholesterol, presented an opportunity for the soy producers of the US to expand the market for soy oil which is unsaturated and was shown not to raise cholesterol. Many victims of CHD had high serum cholesterol, although it was soon discovered that a high proportion of sufferers actually had only a moderate level but the theory prevailed. Soy producers took hold of the fact that coconut oil was saturated and spread the message that it was an artery clogging threat to a healthy heart. Nobody took any notice of the fact that coconut oil is a staple item in the diet of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. There are even some communities where well over half of the total energy in the diet comes from coconut oil, but the people remain free of CHD! There were contrary voices right from the start of the theory in the 1950s, pointing out that the information used to condemn saturated fat was flawed, but the political strength of the advocates of the theory, including the personal physician to President Eisenhower, prevailed. This was due in no small measure to the soy industry funding the development of the American Heart Association and promotions declaring the superiority of their oil over any saturated oils and fats including coconut, tallow, lard and butter. Decades later, following many expensive trials that have failed to support the superiority of unsaturated fats at the population level, the voices of the dissenters from the saturated fat theory are beginning to be heard. While the oil from copra had long been relegated, outside of the countries of production, to soap making and other industrial uses after further refining, consumers became aware of a new product based on a more gentle, Low temperature approach to extraction, which was labelled Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO). Health-conscious people have embraced VCO, having been made aware of the doubts that have grown over the decades about the supposed danger of coconut oil to health. Once independent-minded people gave it a try and found great benefit to their general well-being, and in fact no risk of a rise in harmful cholesterol, the word has spread far and wide. It remains very difficult for many to adopt VCO however, as they have long followed medical advice to avoid coconut oil, which is actually the official policy of the Heart Foundation of Australia. The inertia of a long accepted belief is very hard to overcome. Mark Twain is reputed to have observed “It is easier to fool someone than it is to convince someone that he has been fooled!” The Heart Foundation and the Australian Dietitians Association both find themselves in that situation now, of having been fooled. Meanwhile VCO adopters are thriving on renewed energy, sometimes accompanied by wished-for weight loss, and an improvement in many ailments of the digestive system. The internet abounds with information about coconut oil and lists many books filled with case histories of people who have benefited greatly, including examples of the alleviation of dementia symptoms, relief from Type 2 diabetes, and great benefits from applying to damaged and aging skin. On a recent visit to Thailand to attend the International Conference on Coconut Oil I discovered that there is a surge of investment in processing of coconut for export of VCO. I was informed that the demand from countries such as Australia, Canada, and the USA, as well as several in Europe, is so great that VCO processing capacity all around the coconut world will continue to grow rapidly. Owners of ancient palms are looking to replace them with a high-yielding new generation. This is good news for our South Pacific Neighbours including Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and Fiji where the smallholders stand to triple their income from nuts going to VCO production compared to copra.
COCONUT – THE POLYNESIAN MASTERFOOD
Mike Foale, Maleny
The great Polynesian migrations out across the south Pacific began around 4000 years ago when huge double-hull canoes set out from islands to the north of Australia laden with groups of fifty or more eager mariners - men, women and children. Their vessels also carried a large supply of mature coconuts, and fishing gear, to sustain them for as long as it took to reach a habitable destination. Eventually such expeditions reached the very limits of the Pacific, from Samoa and Tonga to the Tuamotus of French Polynesia and north to Hawaii. Later there was doubling back to New Zealand. Many of the islands that were colonised by the Polynesians already had wild coconut palms that May have arrived many thousands of years previously, providing a sustaining diet of coconut juice and flesh, combined with local fish. This good fortune ensured that settlement succeeded and gradually the settlers diversified into many other foods, some of these being from seeds that they carried on the voyage.
In view of this sustaining role of coconut in new settlements, why is it that, in recent times, the mention of coconut oil as a possible ingredient of the modern diet causes many of us react negatively with a comment like “but that is full of cholesterol isn’t it? I am afraid of getting heart disease if I consume any of that!”
This is a sign of how thorough a job the marketers of competing edible oils, especially soy, have done over recent decades in spreading a false impression that coconut is not a safe and healthy food.. How could the mainstay of the nutrition of the fabled Polynesian travellers have been brought so low? Besides the great traditional role of coconut in the Pacific and coastal south-east Asia, coconut oil was once a mainstay as a cooking oil as well as use in recipes that required shortening, and for margarine making in developed countries. Nowadays only desiccated coconut remains widely popular locally, while coconut cream excites increasing interest as an ingredient in Asian cooking.
So how did the competing oil marketers manage to demonise coconut oil and generally exclude it from the choices of dietary oil in Australia, the USA, Europe, and in all places where there is a choice between different oils for frying, cake making and margarine manufacture?
Coconut oil had become very popular and was traded globally, from the late 19th century, for edible use as well as soap-making with supplies coming from hundreds of coconut plantations established by eager investors. During the second World War the major coconut exporting countries became part of a war zone so that trade in coconut oil ceased. The price of edible oils sky-rocketed giving rise particularly to great expansion of the soy industry in USA while cotton-seed, sunflower and rape-seed oil producers also did well.
After the war the flow of coconut oil resumed at a highly competitive price leading the soy processors to search for a means of discrediting this threat to the new-found prosperity of oil-seed farmers and processors. They funded laboratory feeding trials with rats and rabbits in the 1950s showing that if the animals consumed only coconut oil as the fat component in their diet they became sick while animals consuming soy oil remained healthy. Blood cholesterol rose sharply on the coconut diet.
A great debate ensued from this work as the cocktail of fats in coconut oil is dominated by saturated forms while soy is predominantly unsaturated. As there was a correlation between blood cholesterol level and the development of heart disease in many human patients, those with a stake in unsaturated fat marketing forcefully campaigned for the elimination of saturated fats from the recommended diet. Not only was coconut oil condemned but also dairy and animal fats in general.
Over subsequent decades the incidence of heart disease continued to rise in USA and eventually great damage to health due to trans fats was recognised. Trans fat is generated when unsaturated fats are converted to margarine using a process not now allowed in Australia, or over-used as cooking oil. Because of the sustained campaign against saturated fats many consumers came to mistrust all fats in the diet, giving rise to the huge range of “low fat” and “no fat” products now available in the super-markets.
The reality is that fats are very important for good health, and a good balance of the three main forms – saturated fats, mono-unsaturated fats, and poly-unsaturated fats – is absolutely essential. The Polynesians, whether they were conscious of it or not, had achieved that balance by combining coconut and fish in their diet. It has taken decades of the “fat wars” for the role of essential fats to be understood in the developed world, and for the complementary role of the non-essential fats to be accepted.
The two essential fats are known as omega 6 and omega 3. It just happens that soy contains both of these, explaining why it did well in the 1950s laboratory trials. Soy and many vegetable oils are short of saturated fats however, and coconut oil in particular contains some “medium chain” (ie small molecule) fats that have great collateral health benefits. Provided the diet also contains some omega 3 (from flax seeds, or fish oil) and omega 6 (from most vegetable oils, or from poultry fat and lard) coconut oil speeds up metabolism (ie raises the energy level) - this assists some to lose weight; it has potent anti-biotic actions against skin infections; it imparts stamina during physical exertion; it is an outstanding cooking oil due to the greater stability of saturated fat when heated; it can raise good cholesterol when adequate omega 3 and omega 6 oils are part of the diet.
Keen users of coconut consume up to 50 mL oil equivalent per day. Virgin coconut oil has become readily available having borrowed the description from olive oil, and being pressed or otherwise separated from the coconut kernel without the application of a high temperature. Organic Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is readily available in health food and specialist shops. Refined coconut oil is less expensive and has a stronger flavour while the chemistry is similar to VCO and it is not much dearer than the “runny” cooking oils that are so popular in Australia.
The kernel of the mature coconut is one third oil as well as being rich in fibre and protein. Fresh nuts are available in small quantity in north Queensland, but the fear of injury from falling fruit that has gripped some local government councils led to extensive and tragic felling of palms on public land. The only source of fresh nuts in Australian shops at present is Polynesia, particularly Samoa. Unfortunately the time taken to assemble a container-full, transport it to Sydney and then distribute the nuts to interstate markets ,results in many nuts becoming stale and unuseable before sale. There is no “use-by” date on the nuts so purchase is risky unless the vendor splits the nut before sale. That procedure allows stale nuts to be discarded so that the client is assured of a good purchase. Coconut oil as VCO or from the mature nut could become a great addition to the average diet.
References. Got to www.coconutresearchcenter.org for general health information; www.kokonutpacific.com.au for details about Virgin Coconut Oil; www.cocosplit.com for a demonstration of tool to split a mature coconut in half.
Coconut in the human diet – an excellent component
Mike Foale, CSIRO, Brisbane
Concern about loss of income from coconut production stems largely from a loss of value of coconut-derived products. Our crop was “trapped” for more than a century in an industrial mode, supplying copra for oil to be used as a feed stock in European and north American food and manufacturing (soap, detergent) industry. Then coconut oil was largely rejected as food in favour of rival edible oils in particular, relegating it largely to the lower value detergent and soap industries. This is a travesty of one of nature’s most beneficial foods and coconut industries everywhere must turn their attention urgently to informing the market-place, to restore sanity to the status of coconut in human affairs.
Consuming coconut oil in a pure form is highly beneficial to human health, energy and well-being. This conclusion can be drawn from the central place of coconut in the traditional diets for coastal people for hundreds of generations. European navigators visiting coconut coasts from the 15th century onwards were amazed at the health and strength of the inhabitants whose very simple diets were based on coconuts and fish. Urbanisation and loss of this essential combination of ingredients has seen great deterioration of health and well-being in many of those regions.
Not only have coconut foods and fish become more scarce, as the population has grown, but medical advice, under the influence of a marketing push by rival oils, has been to eliminate coconut from the diet. Rather than improve heart health, as claimed by those processing poly-unsaturated fats, there is published evidence of an increase in problems of heart and circulatory health in both India and Sri Lanka. The challenge to coconut marketers and policy-makers is to overcome the “cringe” away from coconut that has grown under the pressure of advertising and misguided health advice.
The origin of coconut’s troubles was in the “saturated oil hypothesis” generated in the USA to explain the rise in cardio-vascular disease in the mid-20th century. Experiments with laboratory animals showed that a diet rich in coconut oil (which contains 92% saturated fatty acids – see the table) led to an increase in cholesterol and vascular disease, compared to a diet rich in soy oil, which is mostly unsaturated.
The original experiment was done before the role of what are now known as “essential omega-3 fatty acids” had been discovered. As it happens there is no omega-3 component in coconut oil while there is some in soy oil. The most reliable source of omega-3 is fish oil, which explains why the traditional combination of coconut and fish had supported such good health. The experimental animals, which showed degenerative vascular disease in the experiment, were suffering from an acute deficiency of omega-3.
In order to overcome the bias against coconut oil we need constantly to remind the potential user that coconut was traditionally a winner, and that there are thousands of recent case histories of coconut use by people in the industrialised world, that have shown great benefit to health. One of the more recent health challenges in industrialised countries is obesity, which now seems clearly to be related to overuse of carbohydrate combined in many cases with the use of trans fats in the diet, and the accompanying mal-function of the insulin mechanism for its disposal in the bloodstream. Excess carbohydrate leads to increased fat deposition and also to increased hunger resulting in over-eating.
Many users have found that coconut oil, which contains a mix of fatty acids quite different from any other oil except that of the oil-palm kernel (see table), can bring about loss of weight (due to increased rate of energy “burning” in the body), an increase in energy and vitality (mediated by overcoming suppressed thyroid function), and often suppression of internal and external infections by bacteria, yeast and fungi. The list of potential benefits of coconut oil included here summarises these benefits. It is important to remember that raw coconut kernel and the derived coconut cream and milk are rich in coconut oil which delivers its benefits in these forms as well as in the form of pure oil.
There are some books and web pages listed below, which provide supporting information for the claims made in this article. See in particular “The healing miracles of coconut oil” by Bruce Fife (amazon.com), the discussion group at coconut-info.com, Chapter 11 of my book “The coconut odyssey – the bounteous possibilities of the tree of life” (publish.csiro.au), and the web pages: westonaprice.org; coconutresearchcenter.org; and kokonutpacific.com.au. Dr Mary Enig, a lipid chemist formerly of the University of Maryland has written extensively about the chemistry of edible oils. See particularly her book “Know your fats”.
In recent years there has come onto the market so-called virgin coconut oil. The term “virgin” has been borrowed from other oil industries but essentially it refers to the first pressing of oil from the raw material. Such coconut oil has been prepared in different ways (eg: fermentation of coconut milk and natural separation; low temperature drying and pressing). This oil is consumed directly, in an amount up to 50 ml per day, by many looking for a health benefit, and it also provides a high quality raw material for drinks, cooking, lotions, soaps and shampoos. The price in the market has the potential to return to the coconut producer up to ten times the income that can be earned from copra. Once this price correction has been made for many producers as the market expands, the coconut economy will be rejuvenated. All the problems of inadequate funding for research into production issues such as genetic improvement, protection against pests and diseases, nutrition to get maximum production from palms, and production system management, would disappear.
Further Reading about coconut products and health