CocoLoco – why coconut intake continues to snowball – my @AlbertaatNoon column for December

Today on CBC Radio One’s Alberta at Noon I talked about why the world’s gone loco for coconut and some ideas for using coconut in your holiday baking. The recipes can be found here and the podcast here. I’m on at the 17:44 mark in the show.

Read on for a little more background on coconut’s popularity around the globe.

coconuts at the market near Madurai, Tamilnadu, South India - photo - Karen Anderson
coconuts at the market near Madurai, Tamilnadu, South India – photo – Karen Anderson

You can barely squeeze into an organic market these days for all the coconut products piled at the doors. Coconut water has become the go-to athletic drink, coconut oil is being touted as the next olive oil and the popular Paleo diet fad has coconut meat and flour burgeoning in sales.

It’s a bit of a buyer beware situation.

Most brands targeting the “health-minded” shopper are capitalizing on coconut’s popularity and if you start to read labels you’ll find some of the coconut beverages in particular have a little coconut and a lot of water, sugar and stabilizers like guar gum added. Just in time for Christmas I’ve even spotted a Mint Chocolate “coconut beverage” and a brand new coconut-flavoured cooking spray. I’m not really sure there’s much left that’s healthy in that Mint Chocolate drink; the cooking spray I might actually give a try when doing some of my baking with coconut but then again, I can just spread a bit of coconut oil on my pans with my fingers to be sure of what’s really going into my food.

According to the WHO Food and Agriculture Organization, demand for coconut globally has out stripped production by eight per cent.

Most of the world’s coconut trees were planted over 50 years ago and they are about 20 years beyond their maximal capacity for production. Because there needs to be a massive re-planting in coconut producing countries like the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Mexico there could be an even greater interim shortage looming. To put the quantities needed in perspective, India alone produces 19 billion coconuts just for domestic use.

Man in coconut tree - photo - Karen Anderson
Man in coconut tree – photo – Karen Anderson

In countries like India, Thailand and the Philippines were coconut has always been a staple, popularity is explained by how interwoven the coconut palm tree is in their culture.

But why has the rest of the world gone “coco-loco”?

Sure the Paleo Diet has a lot to do with it but in 1999, a book called The Coconut Miracle was published and it’s been so popular that it’s now in its fifth printing. The author, naturopathic doctor Bruce Fife, attributes so many health claims to coconut – that it really would be a coconut miracle if they are all true. On his coconut research centre website Fife has the titles of 10,000 coconut health claim research articles listed. You don’t get the full articles and that’s understandable but, it would be nice to have a meta-analysis of how many of the studies were done on humans and in the double-blind placebo longitudinal fashion that it generally takes to prove something. Yes, some research is being done but the word research seems a glittering generality to distract people from the lack of specific details.

Health claims for coconut include the following focus areas:
– ease of absorption and digestion to combat diseases of malnutrition
– an ability to improve cardiovascular health, while decreasing cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s based on antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties in coconut’s chemical make up
– promotion of weight loss because of the way it’s metabolized (less storage – more immediate uptake by the body and some claims of increased metabolism)
– and last but not least – beautification of hair and skin (which I can anecdotally attest to after spending time with the beautiful people of South India and after the joy of receiving some of the ancient Ayurvedic coconut based treatments).

My friends in South India do have beautiful skin and hair but to credit all of that to coconut would be reductionistic - photo - Karen Anderson
My friends in South India do have beautiful skin and hair but to credit all of that to coconut would be reductionistic – photo – Karen Anderson

There’s a trend in society for people to take one food and become obsessed with it. If some’s good; more’s better.

On the contrary, Fife, says that one to four tablespoons of virgin (that’s cold-pressed and organic, never heat or chemically expelled product) coconut oil would be the limit of intake recommended. Considering that each tablespoon of coconut oil has 117 calories and that fat really needs to be kept at about 30% of our calories each day it’s good to pay attention to these details. There’s also the question of what kind of fat coconut oil is.

Coconut oil is a highly saturated fat. It is a vegetable based saturated fat with medium chain fatty acids that are absorbed and behave differently than animal based saturated fats in the body. Lots of research has been done on animal fats, as a source of saturated fats and being bad for health but more research is needed about the medium chain lauric fatty acids found in coconut.

Olive oil is still the gold standard for cardio-protective results and reduced mortality. People should not give up olive oil for coconut and this brings out another factor in this discussion.

We can become so focused on analysis of health benefits that we can become orthorexic.

Orthorexia is where people become obsessed about one ingredient or group of healthful ingredients that they become “righteous eaters” to the detriment of their overall health and enjoyment of food. This style of eating possibly stems from societys current reductionist tendencies. Reductionist thinking stems from our modern world’s appetite for coping with overload by reducing what we feed our brains to a steady diet of sound bites.

It seems this way of being has spilled over to food. With so many choices, people become focused on micronutrients instead of on overall balance, healthful enjoyment and moderation where food is concerned. Reductionist eating is like taking a walk in the forest but only focusing on each little leaf and pine needle. You don’t see or enjoy the forest for the leaves and when you focus on micronutrients in food, it’s easy to forget to enjoy food for its own sake – just like that mighty and glorious forest that was lost in the leaves and the trees. Somehow, it seems, coconut has gotten caught up in this way of thinking about food.

OR – Maybe this current trend is just the result of the ability of today’s extremely capable marketing tactics taking advantage of our need to latch onto something – anything – to help us feel less overwhelmed with all the choices we face each day. If someone else is telling us “research” shows this is what you should eat, it helps us overcome our pervasive “analysis paralysis”. Maybe its time to return to some basic principles to guide eating.

there's more to food than coconut - photo - Karen Anderson
there’s more to food than coconut – photo – Karen Anderson

When in India…how about eating with some sense of context?

I’ve just returned from the annual cuisine and culture tour I lead to India with my business partner Indus Travels. This year I took my guests to South India where coconut grows indigenously. The people there use every part of the plant. They do so because its convenient, local and a part of the fabric of their daily lives. They are not alone. One third of the world’s people rely on coconut as their key food and one fifth of the world are relying on it for employment.

In contrast to our reductionist – focus on micronutrients only – way of thinking, in countries where coconut is indigenous, it is enjoyed as part of the local cuisine that’s developed over centuries. People know that it goes well with fish, chicken, tropical climate fruits and vegetables and with spices that complement its mellow rich flavour. Coconut water is enjoyed after a hot day of work. Parts of the coconut are turned into flour, milk, cream, milk, vinegar, beer, wine and it’s freshly grated to add protein and fiber to savoury and sweet dishes. People use it on their skin and hair as part of ancient treatments and they do look rather radiant because of this (and a myriad of other factors!).

So perhaps the principle to guide us here is that if you want to add coconut to your diet, eat a little more Indian, Thai or Filipino, East African, Hawaiian food and learn to mimic how it’s used in these cuisines. Or – use it in your baking simply because coconut flavour in baking is delicious. Coconut is still a fat with 117 calories per tablespoon and that it should be used in amounts that make sense and when and where coconut flavour makes sense. I would never put it on asparagus, for example, as the flavours would fight.

I think coconut can teach us that the actual TASTE of something is always the best reason to use any ingredient.

I posted a few ideas for coconut Christmas baking in my previous blog post and I’ll be posting some great savoury coconut dishes from my trip to South India next. I hope you enjoy all your food and focus on the good times that come with food celebrations. Maybe throw a few coconut goodies in if you care for the taste and if that helps you savour it all.

Happy Holidays from my table to yours - photo - Karen Anderson
Happy Holidays from my table to yours – photo – Karen Anderson

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