Caption:Dry coconuts, which are plentiful in PNG and the Pacific. - Picture courtesy of Origins Pacific (www.originspacific.com.fj)
By ANNE MOORHEAD
What can you tell a Pacific Islander about coconuts? Surely, after centuries of building their lives around the 'tree of life', they know everything there is to know.
But in fact, there is a well-kept secret that not only islanders but also the rest of the world should know.
Recent research has shown that virgin coconut oil, a pure derivative from fresh coconuts, has health-giving properties.
In fact, some are calling it a 'miracle oil'.
Of course, we have all heard of miracle foods before, but this time science is providing hard evidence that virgin coconut oil can protect against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many infections caused by bacteria and viruses. It may also help you lose weight.
Of all the cooking oils commonly used around the world, including olive oil, it seems that virgin coconut oil is by far the healthiest and most nutritious.
But why is this not widely-known? And worse, why do many people actually believe that coconut oil is bad for you?
The answer lies in misunderstanding and misinformation.
"Saturated fats were linked to raised cholesterol and heart disease in the 1950s," says Dr Epeli Nailatikau, a Fiji-based medical practitioner and Director of the Strauss Herb Company. "Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, and so it was blacklisted. But we now know that the research was flawed. The fats found in coconut oil, far from being bad for you, are extremely beneficial."
Unfortunately, the damage was done; and then the US soybean and corn industry jumped on the bandwagon.
Eager to capture the lucrative cooking oil market in the US, they promoted their unsaturated, 'healthy' (and American grown) oils at the expense of oils grown in the tropics.
So powerful were their marketing campaigns that consumers as far away as the Pacific Islands were influenced, and switched from their home-grown and healthy coconut oil to imported oils.
With imported foods of all kinds replacing traditional foods, it's no coincidence that around this time, diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes started to become common in the Pacific region.
Now the truth is out, and it's time to spread the word. Here are some key facts about virgin coconut oil.
· Because of its chemical make-up, virgin coconut oil is very stable. This means it has the longest shelf life of any cooking oil – it won't go rancid even after a year or more on the shelf.
· This chemical stability is one of the reasons coconut oil is so healthy and good for cooking. Other oils degrade into dangerous, potentially cancer-causing compounds when heated, but virgin coconut oil remains safe up to temperatures of 230°C.
· Virgin coconut oil does not raise blood cholesterol levels – in fact, studies show that it improves the balance of good and bad types of cholesterol. The oil stimulates the thyroid, and this results in cholesterol being converted into beneficial anti-ageing substances, which help prevent heart disease, senility, cancer and other diseases associated with age.
· Stimulating the thyroid can also speed up metabolism, which could help with weight loss. Also useful for dieters – virgin coconut oil has fewer calories than other food oils; and when eaten it is rapidly absorbed and converted into energy rather than being stored as fat.
· Virgin coconut oil boosts the immune system, fights infections, aids digestion, and protects, moisturises and heals the skin and hair.
· Only unrefined virgin coconut oil has these benefits. Low-quality coconut oil made from copra, which has often been 'refined, bleached and deodorised', has lost many of its health-promoting properties.
This is the first of a series of articles that will tell you much more about virgin coconut oil – how and where it is produced, and how you can use it in your cooking, as an aid for weight loss, as a source of energy for sportsmen and women, and as a beauty product.
We will talk to the people who know the most about virgin coconut oil, from the researchers who are uncovering the science behind its properties, to the producers who are committed to fair trade, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability, and we'll also hear from some people who are already reaping benefits from it.
Virgin coconut oil has a great deal to offer, and we believe you should know about it.
In addition to its health benefits, virgin coconut oil has additional benefits for the environment and for island communities.
Virgin coconut oil probably has the smallest carbon footprint of any cooking oil, as it is mainly produced by small companies or by rural smallholder farmers using low-tech systems. In addition, coconut palms are very resilient plants and will be able to help people adapt as sea levels rise and conditions change.
Thus, virgin coconut oil helps doubly in the fight against climate change.
Finally, the growing virgin coconut oil industry is supporting many poor communities on remote islands, where people have few opportunities for earning money. For them, the tree of life can also provide their livelihoods.
Coconuts are part of the heritage of Pacific Islanders, and virgin coconut oil is a remarkable product that we can all benefit from.
Anne Moorhead is a science writer and editor. She was commissioned by the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project for this series of articles on virgin coconut oil. Implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the FACT project works to increase the volume, value and diversity of Pacific Island agricultural and forestry export products.