Coconut Oil Magic Bullet or Well Marketed Moneymaker?

I love Coconut oil and use it in endless ways but lately I am reading a lot about about how terrible coconut production is for the environment, from the destruction of mangrove forests to the transportation of the product from the tropical regions to the rest of the world. So which is it? Should we be using coconut for everything as a magic bullet for our health? Or should we avoid this well-marketed moneymaker to save the environment? As usual, this is an extremely complex issue, and the answer largely varies depending on context.

The impact of the coconut boom

The demand for coconut products has skyrocketed in recent years, creating a 1000% increase in coconut product production from 2008 to 2014. The world’s leading coconut producers are Indonesia, Philippines and India, but across the “Coconut Triangle” in Southeast Asia, farmers have had to find ways to keep up with the demand.

As demand for coconut oil and coconut water has skyrocketed, coastal mangroves, which are essential ecosystems for animals and provide natural storm protection, are being cleared for coconut monocrops, which are low in biodiversity, deplete the soil, and require intensive input of fertilizer. Normally, conventional coconut farming would be more expensive than the alternative, organic, traditional process.  Local governments support their farmers by providing low-cost pesticide chemicals to reduce farming costs and increase production in lieu of protecting the environment. More environmental impact is created from the production and packaging of coconut products and the transport of these products around the world. In addition, coconut farming is rife with unjust and inhumane practices, including dangerous conditions, child labor, poverty for workers and animal abuse.

And there is also processing to think about. Many conventional coconut oil brands are refined using industrialized equipment. The coconuts are dried (cooked) into coconut pieces called copra, which are then shipped again to a plant to make the oil. The resulting oil is brown and contaminated, so they refine it, bleach it and deodorize it, often using chemicals like hexane, which is classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bottom line: coconut products have an impact. But so do all products we use. In order to make smart decisions about coconut products we have to look at them in terms of the benefits they provide and the impact of the alternatives.

Coconuts and our health

Coconut oil is popularly touted as providing an amazing array of health and beauty benefits. But before you rush out and buy a barrel, you may want to think about whether or not these claims are actually true. If they are, is coconut oil the best choice of product for benefit it provides health-wise and environmentally? Let’s take a look.

Skin care and hair care – Coconut oil can be used in a number of ways to fight dry skin, frizzy hair, dry scalp, dry lips, dry cuticles, cold sores, minor skin wounds, dead skin and so on.  For skin and hair, however, remember that there are plenty of sustainable oils out there that are less environmentally damaging and equally beneficial as coconut oil, such as sunflower oil, hempseed oil etc. An environmental bonus would be sourcing these oils locally.

Fighting heart disease – Nutritionally speaking, health claims of coconut products regarding reducing risk of heart disease and lowering cholesterol have been proven false or seriously scaled back. Coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which are less likely to deposit fat in tissue than the long-chain fatty acids in olive and vegetable oils. However, unlike olive and vegetable oils, coconut oil is full of saturated fat, and eating too much of it can actually build up bad cholesterol that causes heart attacks. For another medical opinion, check out what WebMD’s “The Truth About Coconut Oil.”

Hydration – Coconut water does indeed contain some electrolytes (particularly potassium) and slightly less sugar than traditional sport drinks for hydration, but contains far less sodium and (like sports drinks) is less beneficial than water along with the electrolytes ingested through a proper diet Tap water has the added environmental benefits of not requiring added transportation from around the world nor the manufacture and waste from bottles, jars and pouches to transport it in. Therefore, from both a health and environmental standpoint, water is the clear winner here. Add a whole house water filter to your home to help remove any unwanted elements from the water.

Gluten-free baking – Coconut flour may be added to baked goods, smoothies or sauces to replace gluten-based flours for a gluten-free diet (note that its absorbent quality means it will require more liquids in cooking). Coconut flour is also high in protein, low in carbs and higher in fiber than wheat flour, making it a much healthier choice, the fiber in coconut flour is mostly insoluble, so it is good at making you feel full, adding bulk to stool and promoting colon health. But coconut flour is not the only nutritious flour out there.

Vegetarian protein – Easier to digest than meat and eggs, coconut meat is a great alternative protein source that is high in fiber, amino acids, iron, potassium and folate. Is it the only vegetarian protein out there? Of course not. But it can be added into a vegetarian diet along with the usual legumes, beans, seeds and grains for protein with benefits. Beware of eating too much, however, as coconut can have a detrimental effect from the saturated fat and (in many dried versions) added sugar.

Other health benefits – Coconut oil has been hailed as a cure for Alzheimers, a weight loss product, an energy source for endurance athletes, and treatment for diabetes, epilepsy and liver disease, but research on these claims is scant or early stage at best. Coconut oil may one day be proven to have a slew of medical benefits, but for now there is little or not a lot of scientific evidence to support these claims.

Coconut oil in cooking

Deciding which oil is best for cooking may depend on health as well as environmental factors. The nutrition industry has changed its opinion over time about which oils are healthiest, flip-flopping from butter to margarines and then decidedly back to butter, for instance. But the environmental picture looks a bit different.

Coconut oil versus other vegetable oils – If heart health is your concern, you probably want to steer away from coconut oil’s saturated fats and stick with top picks for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty oils, like olive oil and canola oil. This comprehensive guide to cooking oils by Eat Clean lists 14 oils to choose from using multiple health and nutritional factors. Environmentally speaking, coconut oil production is actually not so bad compared to other oils, although consideration must be given to the significant boom in production that has occurred in recent years, and the ethical issues and wildlife destruction of coconut farming that is happening due to the increased demand.

Coconut oil versus palm oil – Palm oil suffers from similar environmental and ethical issues as coconut oil production, but palm farming has been painted as a particularly evil practice by environmentalists for its destruction of the rainforest and mangroves and for animal endangerment. Yet palm oil is in high demand for many day to day products like margarine, peanut butter and chocolate. Coconut oil and palm oil production have fairly equal life cycle environmental impacts. Given the choice, always search for sustainable, organic and fair trade versions of either.

Coconut oil versus butter – It’s been proven over and over that butter is healthier than margarine. But what about coconut oil? Both butter and coconut oil have a high content of saturated fats, and both contain vitamins and nutritional value as well. Health-wise it is recommended to use either, but sparingly. Environmentally, coconut oil fares much better than butter, which creates environmental impact not only from production, but also from cow farming and producing the food for the cows (methane, methane, methane). Unfortunately, even margarine is significantly better for the planet than butter. For more on that, check out Grist’s “The Bitter Truth About Butter’s Environmental Impact.”

The most sustainable solution

Although the production of coconut oil has a lower life cycle environmental impact than most other oils, that does not mean coconut is a sustainable crop, nor does it excuse coconut farming of its harmful and unethical practices. Plus, the more we buy coconut products, the more land is needed for coconut farming, which equals more deforestation and harm to wildlife in the vein of palm oil production. If you do choose to use coconut products, be sure to look for organic, fair trade and sustainable brands. 

If you choose to use other oils instead of coconut oil, always try to buy local and/or organic. For cooking, regardless of which type of oil you choose, be sure to get “cold-pressed” to retain all the nutrients in processing.

What can you do today?

Revisit your coconut product (and palm oil product) choices and determine where you can make healthy and environmentally beneficial changes. When buying coconut products, always choose organic and fair trade coconut products. Don’t buy into the coconut craze without doing your research — many of the claims about coconuts benefits are false. Cook with coconut in moderation.

How to Choose Eco-Friendly Coconut Oil

But there are things to look for when choosing more eco-friendly coconut oil:

  1. Coconuts picked from biodiverse, organic, rural coconut farms.
  2. Shipped a short ways to a facility, where they are processed from beginning to end, to save on carbon emissions that come from shipping multiple times.
  3. Facility is a healthy and safe work environment, and workers are treated with respect.
  4. Hand-processed (husked, chopped with a machete, and pressed) in small batches without the use of large industrialized equipment.
  5. Kept raw instead of cooked, so that the oil does not need to be bleached or deodorized after pressing. Filtered using a cheesecloth.
  6. Any processes that use electricity, like electric graters for shredding, get their energy from solar panels.

In short, if you choose coconut oil that is made locally using more traditional methods, you’ll get a higher quality, more sustainable coconut oil that is both nourishing to your skin, and the planet.