Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tropical Plant Fats: Coconut Oil, Part I

Traditional Uses for Coconut

Coconut palms are used for a variety of purposes throughout the tropics. Here are a few quotes from the book Polynesia in Early Historic Times:
Most palms begin to produce nuts about five years after germination and continue to yield them for forty to sixty years at a continuous (i.e., nonseasonal) rate, producing about fifty nuts a year. The immature nut contains a tangy liquid that in time transforms into a layer of hard, white flesh on the inner surface of the shell and, somewhat later, a spongy mass of embryo in the nut's cavity. The liquid of the immature nut was often drunk, and the spongy embryo of the mature nut often eaten, raw or cooked, but most nuts used for food were harvested after the meat had been deposited and before the embryo had begun to form...

After the nut had been split, the most common method of extracting its hardened flesh was by scraping it out of the shell with a saw-toothed tool of wood, shell, or stone, usually lashed to a three-footed stand. The shredded meat was then eaten either raw or mixed with some starchy food and then cooked, or had its oily cream extracted, by some form of squeezing, for cooking with other foods or for cosmetic or medical uses...

Those Polynesians fortunate enough to have coconut palms utilized their components not only for drink and food-- in some places the most important, indeed life-supporting food-- but also for building-frames, thatch, screens, caulking material, containers, matting, cordage, weapons, armor, cosmetics, medicine, etc.
Mainstream Ire

Coconut fat is roughly 90 percent saturated, making it one of the most highly saturated fats on the planet. For this reason, it has been the subject of grave pronouncements by health authorities over the course of the last half century, resulting in its near elimination from the industrial food system. If the hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease and other health problems is correct, eating coconut oil regularly should tuck us in for a very long nap.

Coconut Eaters

As the Polynesians spread throughout the Eastern Pacific islands, they encountered shallow coral atolls that were not able to sustain their traditional starchy staples, taro, yams and breadfruit. Due to its extreme tolerance for poor, salty soils, the coconut palm was nearly the only food crop that would grow on these islands*. Therefore, their inhabitants lived almost exclusively on coconut and seafood for hundreds of years.

One group of islands that falls into this category is Tokelau, which fortunately for us was the subject of a major epidemiological study that spanned the years 1968 to 1982: the Tokelau Island Migrant Study (1). By this time, Tokelauans had managed to grow some starchy foods such as taro and breadfruit (introduced in the 20th century by Europeans), as well as obtaining some white flour and sugar, but their calories still came predominantly from coconut.

Over the time period in question, Tokelauans obtained roughly half their calories from coconut, placing them among the most extreme consumers of saturated fat in the world. Not only was their blood cholesterol lower than the average Westerner, but their hypertension rate was low, and physicians found no trace of previous heart attacks by ECG (age-adjusted rates: 0.0% in Tokelau vs 3.5% in Tecumseh USA). Migrating to New Zealand and cutting saturated fat intake in half was associated with a rise in ECG signs of heart attack (1.0% age-adjusted) (2, 3).

Diabetes was low in men and average in women by modern Western standards, but increased significantly upon migration to New Zealand and reduction of coconut intake (4). Non-migrant Tokelauans gained body fat at a slower rate than migrants, despite higher physical activity in the latter (5). Together, this evidence seriously challenges the idea that coconut is unhealthy.

The Kitavans also eat an amount of coconut fat that would make Dr. Ancel Keys blush. Dr. Staffan Lindeberg found that they got 21% of their 2,200 calories per day from fat, nearly all of which came from coconut. They were getting 17% of their calories from saturated fat; 55% more than the average American. Dr. Lindeberg's detailed series of studies found no trace of coronary heart disease or stroke, nor any obesity, diabetes or senile dementia even in the very old (6, 7).

Of course, the Tokelauans, Kitavans and other traditional cultures were not eating coconut in the form of refined, hydrogenated coconut oil cake icing. That distinction will be important when I discuss what the biomedical literature has to say in the next post.


* Most also had pandanus palms, which are also tolerant of poor soils and whose fruit provided a small amount of starch and sugar.

40 comments:

Todd Hargrove said...

Stephan,

I just watched a BBC series called Tribe that I thought you or others might find interesting. A guy named Bruce Parry visits various tribes in Papua New Guinea, Africa, South Pacific, South America or Mongolia. He stays for three weeks and basically lives like one of the fam. The vids are available for rent (at Scarecrow for Seattleites) and cover like fifteen hours with fifteen different tribes. There is quite a bit of info provided on hunting and food prep techniques. One very obvious theme is that animal foods are valued highest. Starch is a common staple. Very little fruit or veggies. Lots of drug use! Very interesting stuff. More info at http://www.bbc.co.uk/tribe/

LeonRover said...

When I was 8 or 9 I read "The Coral Island" by R M Ballantyne, a boys' adventure whose heroes were three cabin boys who survive a shipwreck in the Pacific.

Ralph, the older one knows about the liquid in immature coconut and describes it as being more refreshing than lemonade. Ralph also manages to use the fibres of the palm to construct a sail, and about the edibility of breadfruit.

These descriptions of the primitive life made a deep impression on me.

So too, did the description towards the end of the book of consumption of a "victory protein" known as "long pig" . . . .

Tatiana said...

Thank you for this informative article.

Anna said...

LeonRover,

Thanks for the book recommendation. I have requested it from my public library. Sounds like good summer reading for my grade school aged son.

Matt Stone said...

Thanks Todd. That show looks badass. Hard to get outside of the UK, but they do sell it on Amazon.

Ned Kock said...

Of course you know this Stephan, but it is worthy noting that we are talking about a different type of SFAs here, medium-chain SFAs, particularly lauric acid. These SFAs are not packaged into VLDL particles, but absorbed directly into the blood from the intestine. So coconut oil is not likely to have an impact on VLDL particles and their derivatives (IDL and LDL particles).

Also, and I hope I am not tiring you with this, but always in isolated populations you are likely to see genetic adaptations to a particular diet. These may not be present in other populations, as they can evolve rather quickly into fixation in the original population:

http://healthcorrelator.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-long-does-it-take-for-food-related.html

We are talking about a few hundred years, not hundreds of thousands.

This is not to say that a non-Kitavan (or descendant) will experience food poisoning by eating like a Kitavan. But the body responses may not be as positive as that of a Kitavan (or a descendant of Kitavans).

Alina said...

Stephan,
Do you have any theories on why the rate of diabetes in women was average? I would think a diet high in coconut fat and seafood would be protective from metabolic disorders?

meenraja said...

Stephan, The Indian state of Kerala had a similar food intake profile, namely high intake of coconut and coconut Oil supplanted by lots of fish. Till about 1980 the population had hardly any heart problems compared to rest of India. However beginning in 1980's they found that the heart attack rate started climbing rather drastically among the population, baffling the doctors. However one clever statistician in about mid 1990's correlated the reason to the fact that since 1980 the state started exporting most of its fish to the Middle East making it prohibitively expensive for the local population to consume fish. The reasoning was as long as they ate fish along with the coconuts , the fish was providing beneficial cover to the saturated fats. However when they stopped consuming the fish, the coconuts were not very kind to these people. The research reports can be found on line for further study.

Stephan said...

Hi Todd,

That sounds great, I'll have to rent it.

Hi Ned,

I agree that coconut SFAs are different from animal fat SFAs. However, the mainstream conception doesn't make that distinction; it simply condemns all SFAs.

I also agree that adaptation begins to occur basically immediately. But I doubt there's been enough adaptation in a few hundred years to make them well suited to a food that's toxic to other races.

Hi Alina,

They were also eating sugar and white flour. That's a possible explanation.

Hi Meenraja,

Didn't they also start using industrial seed oils around that time, as well as more white rice and less hand-pounded rice?

Jerry said...

Thanks Stephan, I've been waiting on a good series of articles on coconut oil. I've added it to my diet, but I have become a bit worried on my rise in LDL.

Deadlysting81 said...

Stephan,

Normally I don;t go out of my way to eat canned foods, but since I don't live in a location that has access to fresh coconuts, I often pick up a few cans of coconut milk in Whole Foods and will mix in a quarter cup when I have some frozen blueberries or raspberries, as I find this to be a tasty combination.

Do you think that consuming a can of this stuff on a weekly basis would be problematic, not because of the fat content, but because it's canned? The label lists the ingredients as coconut, purified water, and guar gum, but I recently came across an article that made the following claims

"Almost all commercial coconut milks and creams have additives to prevent the water from separating from the coconut oil, and also have sulfites added to keep it white longer. Sometimes these additives are so small, that the FDA does not require them to list them on their labels as ingredients."

While I enjoy the flavor (and the convenience of the canned option), I am always wondering if this route is in my best interests over the long term.

Anna said...

Deadlysting81,

It's soooo easy to make coconut milk. You can buy dessicated/dried unsweetened grated coconut and soak it in warm water, then strain out the solid coconut. If you let the "milk" sit a bit the "cream" will rise to the top for easy skimming (otherwise stir before using).

For under 2 bucks (sometimes for not much more than a buck) you can also buy mature brown coconuts at just about any grocery store and grate your own fresh coconut. Be sure to choose coconuts that have a lot of liquid sloshing around and feel heavy for their weight. If they feel "dry" or if there are hairline cracks, leave them and look somewhere else for fresher coconuts. They are probably old and moldy inside.

Holding the coconut in one palm over a vessel or sink (to catch the liquid), knock the back (blunt) side of a heavy meat cleaver (or a hammer) all around the "equator" (the 3 "eyes" will be one "pole" and the slightly pointy opposite side will be the other "pole". It should break into two approx halves, spilling the liquid (which isn't "milk" and unlike the juice of young coconuts, it doesn't taste great in a mature coconut, so discard it).

You can remove the white coconut meal, and peel off off the brown skin with a vegetable peeler, but the easiest way to grate it is in side the shell with a coconut grater.

Coconut graters are sold for under $20 or so in markets that cater to immigrants from India, the Philipines, Vietnam, and other Asian/Pacific Island countries. Do a browser search for stores in your area then call first to make sure they have one in stock. The one I have sticks to the counter top with a suction pad, then the coconut half is placed against the grating blades. Turn the crank with the other hand and blades rotate and clean out the coconut half ( the grated coconut spills onto a plate or shallow bowl underneath).

Then soak in warm water, strain, and viola, you have very fresh coconut milk. Refrigerate and use within 3 days (it goes "off" very quickly).

I then spread out the grated coconut solids on a sheet pan and dry them slowly in my oven (set on the lowest setting so it doesn't toast, with the door cracked open with a wooden spoon to let the air circulate and lower the temp a bit more). Stir now and then to expose and redistribute the wet coconut. When completely dry store in an airtight container (it won't mold if it is dry enough).

I get about 2 bags worth of grated coconut and 2+ cans worth of coconut milk/cream from one mature brown coconut that costs less than $2. It really isn't that much work with a coconut grater, either.

There are quite a few YouTube videos on opening and grating coconuts as well as making coconut milk, so if you need a visual example, I suggest searching there. There are other traditional graters too, attached to a small stool, but I think the the rotary grater does a great job.

Anna said...

Deadlysting81,

It's soooo easy to make coconut milk. You can buy dessicated/dried unsweetened grated coconut and soak it in warm water, then strain out the solid coconut.

Anna said...

deadlysting81

You can also start from fresh coconut. Buy mature brown coconuts choosing coconuts that have a lot of liquid sloshing around and feel heavy for their weight. If they feel "dry" or if there are hairline cracks, leave them and look somewhere else for fresher coconuts. "Dry cracked coconuts are probably old and moldy inside.

Holding the coconut in one palm over a vessel or sink (to catch the liquid), knock the back (blunt) side of a heavy meat cleaver (or a hammer) all around the "equator" (the 3 "eyes" will be one "pole" and the slightly pointy opposite side will be the other "pole". It should break into two approx halves. Discard the center liquid from mature coconuts (it doesn't taste as good as juice from immature coconuts).

Coconut graters are sold for under $20 or so in markets that cater to immigrants from India, the Philipines, Vietnam, and other Asian/Pacific Island countries. Do a browser search for stores in your area then call first to make sure they have one in stock. The one I have sticks to the counter top with a suction pad, then the coconut half is placed against the grating blades and pressure is applied. Turn the crank with the other hand and the grated coconut spills onto a plate or shallow bowl underneath. It's fast and easy.

Then soak the grated coconut in warm water, strain, and viola, you have very fresh coconut milk. Refrigerate and use within 3 days (it goes "off" very quickly).

Anna said...

deadlysting81,

One more thing to get the most value from your coconut -

After making the coconut milk, spread out the grated coconut solids on a sheet pan and dry them slowly in an dehydrator or the oven (set on the lowest setting so it doesn't toast, with the door cracked open with a wooden spoon to let the air circulate and lower the temp a bit more). Stir or shake a few times to expose and redistribute the wet coconut. When completely dry store in an airtight container (it won't mold if it is dry enough).

I get about 2 bags worth of grated coconut and 2+ cans worth of coconut milk/cream from one mature brown coconut that costs less than $2. It really isn't that much work with a coconut grater, either. Cans of coconut milk are $1-3 each.

There are quite a few YouTube videos on opening and grating coconuts as well as making coconut milk, so if you need a visual example, I suggest searching there. There are other traditional graters too, attached to a small stool, but I think the simple rotary grater does a great job.

Anna said...

Sorry, I kept getting error messages that there were too many characters so I broke up my comment text.

Ak Sağlık said...

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Health

WilliamS said...

DeadlySting:

I, too, used to use canned coconut milk, but lately I tried Coconut Cream from Tropical Traditions. It's bottled, not canned, and, supposedly, 100% whole, organic, coconut meat. You can mix with water, if you like, to make "coconut milk." The coconut cream is absolutely delicious. The only negative I've noticed is that it can separate since it has such a high coconut oil content; there's a video on the site showing how to fix that and it's not difficult.

http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/coconut_cream_concentrate.htm

I also bought some shredded coconut meat from them, also delicious.

Anna said...

WilliamS,

I think the Tropical Tradition's Coconut Cream you linked to is very similar to the Wilderness Family Natural's Coconut Spread product. A "natural" food store near me sells it but they also sell direct online.

The WFN product is also is packaged in a glass jar. Often when I buy it the oil has separated and risen to the top (the same way oil rises to the top with natural peanut butter and almond butter). When I open a new jar I sit it in a pan of water over very low heat to warm and soften, then I stir the oil back into the coconut solids. It stays mixed unless it gets warm again. I store it in a room temperature cabinet.

meenraja said...

Stephan,

Thanks for your comments. I do agree that some amount of industrial oils might have started creeping into their life styles. However the people of Kerala have always consumed parboiled rice, which is not as harmful as white rice, but maybe not as healthy as hand pound rice. BTW can I request you to do a report on Kimchi. Which is fermented vegetables used in Korea. Seems like it is a very healthy food with lots of anti cancer properties.

Stanley said...

"Diabetes was low in men and average in women by modern Western standards" -- average in women by modern Western standards? Even if this is based on Western standards in 1982, I'm astonished. I really wonder how the Kitavan could eat so many carbs and stay fit, whereas these Tokelauan saturated fat junkies managed to foster so much diabetes among their women. What could they possibly have done wrong? Were they eating supersized fries and drinking Coke with their coconut meat?

JBG said...

Putting in at Google: coconut grater
led me on a wide-ranging goose chase, so perhaps it is useful to put here the links I found that might be useful.

Four modest manual instruments:

http://grocerythai.com/coconut-grater-twin-tips-p-945.html

The above link goes to one of the four; use the links on the page to access the three others.

Here is a raft of mechanized versions, all the way up to commercial copra machines:

http://catalogs.indiamart.com/products/coconut-grater.html?gclid=COylzoub7qICFRAMDQodjmWUZw

JBG said...

That last link didn't seem to take. Try this: http://tinyurl.com/39xrhcu

JBG said...

Toward the end of the list on:

http://tinyurl.com/39xrhcu

there are a number offerings that look like this one:

http://www.indiamart.com/company/1723310/

which I presume is like the one Anna was telling about.

Haven't yet found a site that seems easy to order from, but at least I know what to look for in town.

JBG said...

Here's a site where one can buy a coconut shredder:

http://youngcoconuts.com/coconutshredder.html

Not cheap: $50 including S&H

They claim the clamp-on-table feature is importantly better than the vacuum pad. The site includes a helpful video.

I often smile at the instructions provided for things like this. Item one here is (without elaboration):

1. Crack the mature coconut in half.

Fortunately, Anna has given us a method that sounds safe. Videos show methods involving prying the way in with a chef's knife, or giving a good broadside whack with a meat cleaver, both of which sound dangerous to me.

darwinstable said...

There is a lot of crap processed food in New Zealand too, which is cheap. If they started eating that, and that is what the polynesians typically eat there, then that would also contribute to their higher risk of heart disease. So maybe its not that coconut oil is great just that its not bad for you???

Stephan said...

Hi Deadlysting81,

The honest answer is I don't know. On principle, I think canned foods are inferior to fresh foods. I'm not too concerned about the additives (but maybe that's because I haven't looked into it). I've thought about the possibility that canned coconut milk is high in AGEs. It could be, but I'm going to guess it's not. I do eat canned coconut milk myself. I'm sure it would taste better fresh.

I have a coconut shredding attachment for my wet grinder. When I bought it used, the person who sold it to me wrote me the next day and asked me to throw the attachment away because I could hurt myself on the "sharp" blades. I told her I wouldn't let any lawyers use it.

Hi Meenraja,

Thanks. I do like kimchi. I'm not planning to write about it yet, but who knows. I did a post on sauerkraut a long time ago.

Hi Darwinstable,

I think that's at least partially true.

David said...

Regarding Deadlysting81's comment that included

"Almost all commercial coconut milks and creams have additives to prevent the water from separating from the coconut oil, and also have sulfites added to keep it white longer. Sometimes these additives are so small, that the FDA does not require them to list them on their labels as ingredients."

I doubt there are sulfites in the Whole Foods coconut milk or any other high quality brand. Notice that there is quite a bit of separation and how it changes color after a while? Of course there certainly are plenty of brands out there that list sulfites on the label - just head to one of the other grocery chains and see what's on their shelves. Fortunately there are several that do not.

Regarding omitting ingredients because of small quantity, added sulfites must always be listed because of the risk of anaphalactic reactions in those who are hypersensitive. Many asthmatics, for instance.

Brant Evans said...

How and why do you hydrogenate a fat that is already 90% saturated?

chris said...

"How and why do you hydrogenate a fat that is already 90% saturated?"

It might be that the non-saturates are separated from the rest, the way palmolein is.

Brant Evans said...

That's pretty crazy. So the logic there would be, "Saturated fat is bad for you, so we'll take the unsaturated part and use that. But to make it semisolid and have better preservative properties, we'll go ahead and artificially saturate it."

Is that pretty much the idea?

Dr. T said...

I just want to thank you for your hard work on the blog. We have learned much from you. Thanks,

Kenny Tourgeman, MD
Ev Med Forum/ASEM

"Guppy" Honaker said...

This is a fascinating study. A Mormon, I know a lot of Polynesians. (A huge percent of the Polynesian population is Mormon.) It's interesting to note how the islanders who move to the USA and eat as we Americans typically eat develop health problems more rapidly and seriously. Alas, I do not like coconuts, so I'll stay with my flaxseed oil and olive oil!

- David

Aloe Vera Juice Benefits
Holistic Health Info.

guyberliner said...

Brent Evans:
Here's a breakdown of some of the various "fractions" derived from virgin palm oil:
http://www.americanpalmoil.com/foodproducts.html#2

These various fractions have different physical properties (eg, viscosity); the more solid ones are used in shortening. The more liquid ones are sometimes mixed with other oils (eg seed oils), for applications that call for a pourable liquid. Probably the reason for hydrogenating them would be the same as any other oil: shelf life. Otherwise, the more pourable the oil, the more unsaturated, and hence more vulnerable to rancidity.

slaningham said...

I've been eating so many almonds for fat that I forgot about coconut and coconut oil. Thanks for the post.

Jen said...

The US version of BBC's Tribe here:
http://dsc.discovery.com/beyond/?%20bclid=16731114&clik=fanmain_leftnav

Deadlysting81 said...

Stephan and all who chimed in,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and tips with me. They are highly appreciated.

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Jake said...

Funny, I just blogged an article about coconut at: Life Changing Facts About Coconuts

Must be something in the air :)

DavidLJ said...

My former partner of twenty years was Sudanese, and like many or perhaps most of her African girl-friends was a liberal user of coconut oil on her skin.

I think this habit may be the reasons so many elderly African women have such beautiful skin.

-dlj.