Coconut products are the latest rage when it comes to everything from diet to skin and hair care to detox to hydration to gluten-free cooking. Yet I’ve read a lot of articles lately 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 (CNN). 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, expanding monoculture farming, using pesticides to boost production and cutting down coastal mangrove forests that are essential to preventing coastal erosion (particularly during typhoons), maintaining soil health and providing important habitats for wildlife.
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.
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. Dr. Axe lists “20 Secret Ways to Use for Coconut Oil For Skin” including easy homemade DIY recipes for skin and hair care products. This article by Today debunks the efficacy of some of those uses, but hails others. 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 and kukui nut oil (XO Vain). An environmental bonus would be sourcing these oils locally.
Detox – Coconut oil is said to contain anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties, which started the fad for using it in oil pulling therapy — the process of swishing oil around in your mouth for 20 minutes a day in order to “pull out” the toxins in your body. According to Science-Based Medicine, there is no scientific evidence to suggest oil pulling actually works to remove toxins from the body or cure body ails, whether with coconut oil or any other vegetable-based oil. The mechanical act of swishing liquid through your teeth seems to provide some cleaning powers along the lines of mouth wash, yet (according to studies) not as effectively.
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. As the article “Stop Going Cuckoo for Coconuts” from Mother Jones points out, 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 (Mother Jones recommends oranges, spinach and kidney beans, for example). 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.
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. According to Livestrong, 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. Click here for a number of other alternative flours that are all healthier than white wheat flour.
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 no 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. Here’s a look at how coconut oil stacks up against other cooking oils.
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. This 2009 study on the life cycle assessment of vegetable oil production shows that coconut oil is one of the least environmentally impactful vegetable oils on the market (even including the impact of transportation), though the analysis does not take into consideration the significant boom in production that has occurred since, nor the ethical issues and wildlife destruction of coconut farming.
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 Crisco – Health wise, this comparison is a no-brainer. While both oils are made of saturated fat, Crisco is also full of trans fats, processed at high temperatures that remove the naturally occurring nutrients, and hydrogenated to keep it in a solid state that simultaneously removes the benefits of any polyunsaturated fats (Huffington Post). Crisco is downright terrible for you. For those of you who can’t do without Crisco to make your pastries light and flakey, do yourselves a favor and try switching to coconut oil instead. I switched to coconut oil for my grandmother’s beloved pie crust recipe a few years ago and have never looked back.
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. Some certifications, such as Fair Trade and Fair for Life confirm that certain coconut products are ethically produced and also comply with some good environmental practices.
For sustainable and fair trade coconut oils, try Kelapo, Lucy Bee, Dr. Bronner’s or Nutiva. For coconut water, try CoCo Libre, Naked, or Harmless Harvest, or try buying dehydrated coconut powder from Big Tree Farms and making your own coconut water, which reduces shipping emissions and packaging waste. Try organic fair trade coconut flours from Nutiva, Arrowhead Mills or Tiana and organic fair trade coconut sugar from Big Tree Farms.
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.
Featured article of the day: Besides the efficacy of its oil for skin care, hemp is an extremely sustainable, environmentally friendly, versatile and profitable crop. Check out all the ways we can use hemp, from clothing to building to phyto-remediation (just read the article) in the Huffington Post’s “Why Hemp, The Sustainable Wonder Crop, Is Sweeping The Nation.”
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