It often feels like we in North American are caught in the middle of a coconut craze, and I have to admit, what with the number of personal anecdotes that abound, that it isn’t without reason. While I don’t think anything is a magical cure-all, there are many great uses to coconut oil that warrants purchasing a jar of it—or even a tub.
But just like with any craze, it felt important to me to take a closer look at coconut oil. Does it actually do what fans claim it can do? And at what environmental and social cost?
What is Coconut Oil?
I found a great definition of coconut oil on WedMd (go figure), which states, quite simply, that coconut “is the fruit of the coconut palm. The oil of the nut (fruit) is used to make medicine.”
The website continues: “Some coconut oil products are referred to as “virgin” coconut oil. Unlike olive oil, there is no industry standard for the meaning of “virgin” coconut oil. The term has come to mean that the oil is generally unprocessed. For example, virgin coconut oil usually has not been bleached, deodorized, or refined. Some coconut oil products claim to be “cold pressed” coconut oil. This generally means that a mechanical method of pressing out the oil is used, but without the use of any outside heat source. The high pressure needed to press out the oil generates some heat naturally, but the temperature is controlled so that temperatures do not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Why Coconut Oil?
Again, WebMd’s page on coconut oil came in quite handy: “Coconut oil is high in a saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides. These fats work differently than other types of saturated fat in the body. However, research on the effects of these types of fats in the body is very preliminary.”
How Popular Is It?
A Google search for “coconut oil” on 18 May 2016 yielded “about 30,500,000 results”, which was, understandably, a little overwhelming to start sifting through.
Looking under the “Coconut Oil Uses” category on Pinterest was very eye-opening. The board in question seems endless—with what looked like over a thousand pins. Pins are dedicated to its beauty benefits, including making one’s hair stronger and shinier and making one’s skin smoother and healthier. A search for recipes based on coconut oil yields a pretty big board as well, where one can find coconut oil used in cooking (sweet potato quinoa fritters), baking (chocolate chip cookies and brownies), snacks (raspberry coconut oil bites), and drinks.
WedMD explains how coconut oil “is sometimes applied to the skin as a moisturizer and to treat a skin condition called psoriasis.” It also goes into the medical uses of the oil, which is “used for diabetes, heart disease, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Alzheimer’s disease, thyroid conditions, energy, and boosting the immune system. Ironically, despite coconut oil’s high calorie and saturated fat content, some people use it to lose weight and lower cholesterol.”
Interestingly enough, this website also states that there is “insufficient evidence” for the use of coconut oil in the treatment of the following health complaints: head lice; psoriasis; heart disease; obesity; newborn weight gain; high cholesterol; diarrhea; dry skin; Alzheimer’s disease; diabetes; chronic fatigue; Crohn’s disease; irritable bowel syndrome; and thyroid conditions.
And yet, a Pinterest search for “health benefits coconut oil” includes so-called “proven” benefits for pretty much of all these health complaints.
How Sustainable Is It?
The website Statistica reports that the sale of coconut oil went from 446 thousand metric tons in 2000 to 524 thousand metric tons in 2015. I was surprised; I thought the increase would be sharper and more recent, for some kind of reason. Similarly, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated the world coconut oil production to have actually gone slightly down, from 5.58 million tonnes in 2003-2004 to 5.49 million tonnes in 2016-2017, with a peak of 6.65 million tonnes in 2009-2010.
Human rights concerns
Just like with so many other raw ingredients, coconut farmers seem to not be seeing, for the most part, any increase in their income, despite the fact that their product is making its way to the much more lucrative Western Market.
Ethical Consumer explains that deforestation techniques are not associated with the coconut industry, thankfully. However, the yield and productivity of coconut crops are low, which makes the cost of maintaining and harvesting coconuts very high.
Cold-pressed oils seem to be the best in terms of processing, both because the benefits of the raw ingredient are not affected by heat, because no extra ingredients or chemicals need to be added, and the same presser can be reused ad nauseum. However, there is the question of by-product. I understood that whatever is leftover from cold-pressing coconut to extract its oil can be used to feed livestock
This is of course a concern when it comes to all sorts of products from around the world. It seems that the only things that as consumers we can do in this regard is to reflect on our usage of local versus international products, and on minimizing our consumption. In the case of oil in general, it seems that we do not have much of a choice, as most (if not all?) oils are shipped to North America rather than produces locally. I will have to do more research on this matter.
This is yet another general concern when it comes to any product: what packaging is used? Is it reusable? It is recyclable? Consumers can choose to pick up coconut oil in jars in all kinds of sizes, which gives them the power to pick the ones they can then reuse as general containers before they eventually toss it into the recycling bin.
Carrington Farms’ Virgin, Cold-Pressed, Organic Coconut Oil
Carrington Farms’ Virgin, Cold-Pressed, Organic Coconut Oil as sold in Costco is one of the best deals I could find where I live (it looks like the 78-ounce version of this product). One of the reasons I shop at Costco is that I like their staff-related policies. I didn’t find anything about Carrington Farms’ staff policies, I did find out that the company apparently “engages in ethical business practices, ensuring human workers are properly compensated for their work.” More specifically, it is one of companies that does not “use monkeys or human children to harvest coconuts.”
Although Carrington Farms’ coconut oil is organic and non-GMO certified, I couldn’t figure out if it specifically was fair trade certified. The label doesn’t have a mark stating that it is; however, it does state that the product is from the Philippines, where most fair trade coconut oil seems to come from. It might be, then, that either this coconut oil is indeed not fair trade, or that it is but the company is stuck in the legalities of proving it because they can put it on their label.
The product comes in a big plastic container, so you only need one tub for a family that will last quite some time; this contributes to a decrease in packaging. Furthermore, the container is quite useful for other uses when the oil has been completely used—I know someone who has a few from various friends and family members to store stuff in their garage, another friend uses it for art supplies, and yet another uses it for things like dry rice and quinoa storage.
Crazes make me, well, crazily careful. I find it scary how easily people seem to jump on a certain bandwagon without deeper thinking. While personal anecdotes of the benefits of coconut oil abound—I have a few myself—I find that, just like with everything else, we seem to have forgotten that it is not a cure-all. It’s impossible that one product be the solution to all the woes of one person; it’s also impossible that one product be the solution to the woes of an entire population. It’s also not sustainable to put pressure on one industry—in this case, the coconut industry—in the search for the “magic pill”.
It doesn’t mean we should stop using coconut oil! Quite the contrary, chances are that a moderate use of it as part of an overall healthy lifestyle can bring unique benefits. But I would search for fair trade coconut oil and make the effort of differentiating between personal anecdote and rigorous scientific research, be it modern or traditional.
This specific brand? No, until I figure out if it is fair trade or not. This general product? Yes, with caution, and only if it’s fair trade.