All Hail the Coconut

Coconuts are the world’s most important nut. Three hundred billion of them are grown and harvested globally every year, an unimaginable number. However when you consider the vast growing range of the coconut tree, and the fact that the trees have no season — so they produce nuts year-round — it’s easy to see where you’d end up with a whole lot of nuts. I wrote below on the general utility of coconuts and coconut trees, but didn’t talk much about the role they’ve historically played in the food world. Here I’ll do my best to give you a sense for it.

Most of us — outside the tropics — think of coconut in terms of bagged shreds. Sure we pick them up sometimes, mostly to make cakes or cookies. However in reality shredded coconut represents only a small fraction of the coconut we all consume every year. Most of the coconut we eat actually comes in the form of coconut oil, which is, and always has been, the most widely used part of the coconut.

Coconut oil is in some senses the world’s most perfect vegetable oil. It’s abundant and cheap. It’s easy to harvest and refine. And being mild in flavor to begin with, it can be easily deodorized and so made utterly flavor-neutral. That right there is a very big deal, at least from a food manufacturing standpoint. But even more important than that, coconut oil contains huge amounts of naturally-occurring saturated fat. Which means it’s solid at room temperature, great for making things like baked goods or mixes that won’t weep fat into their packaging. But saturated fats have another major advantage over unsaturated fats (the kind you find in liquid oils): they’re far less susceptible to rancidity, and so help give food products much longer shelf lives. Add it all up and you have a food manufacturer’s dream oil.

No surprise then that for much of the 20th Century, coconut oil was the industry’s most widely used fat. It was incorporated into cookies and crackers, snacks, candy bars, cake mixes, beverages and TV dinners. Most conspicuously, it was one of the primary fats in margarine. So for at least five decades, coconut oil was absolutely everywhere in food. Until.

…the 1960’s, when American health authorities suddenly became extremely concerned about saturated fats. Studies began to come out linking saturated fat with a wide variety of human ills, from obesity to cancer, high blood pressure, and above all heart disease. The anti-saturated fat drumbeat soon grew very loud and persistent, and it wasn’t long before coconut oil began disappearing from ingredient labels. By the year 2000 or so, coconut oil had become a rare an exotic substance in the grocery aisles, though not in the the skin care and cosmetics aisles, where you could still find it in most everything.

But then came 2006, and the Women’s Health Initiative. All of a sudden saturation was good again, and coconuts and coconut oil came raging back. Indeed today the coconut is being hailed as a superfood. What does it do for you? Well now instead of stopping your heart, it lowers your risk of heart disease, and raises your levels of good cholesterol. It helps you burn fat, cuts down your risk of epileptic seizures, helps you lose weight, cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and reduces your risk of harmful infection. All for the low, low price of just $19.99!

Oops. For a second this felt late night infomercial. But the point here is simply that, sensationalist claims aside, the coconut is back in a very big way. Coconut water alone has become a $1 billion industry in the US. Demand for coconut milk — which apparently improves your immune system, lowers your blood pressure, and reduces you likelihood of heart attack or strokes — is up by several hundred percent over ten years ago, driven mostly by increasing interest in Latin and Asian cuisine and the rise in vegan cooking. And of course with all that has been steadily rising demand for coconut meat (copra), coconut cream, coconut flour, the list goes on. Indeed at least a third of all new food products that are coming to market right now have at least some coconut or coconut oil in them.

So everything’s coming up roses for coconut producers, save for the fact that just as interest in the coconut is being renewed on a global scale, global production is stagnating. The reason: because the mid-century drop-off in demand led to a corresponding drop-off in the planting of coconut trees. Now the older trees are dying off, but the small producers who make up the majority of coconut growers in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, are hesitant to plant more. The reason for that, because new trees take between 10 and 30 years to mature, and their families, who live at subsistence level at best, have yet to even have lunch today. So prices for coconut products will likely go up in the near- to medium-term, though as prices rise, production has a way of increasing, no matter what the obstacles.

All of which is to say that the odds are excellent that we’ll all be eating (and drinking) a lot more coconut. Might be a good time to invest in coconut futures. No joke. They’re out there.

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