Dhaka, Bangladesh
High-fat oil and low-paid farmers: the cost of our coconut craze

High-fat oil and low-paid farmers: the cost of our coconut craze

(From previous issue) And what of coconut oil's myriad other medicinal claims? Insufficient evidence. "We can't say it's going to be preventing or curing Alzheimer's," says Patel. It does have its uses - frying at very high temperatures being one of them. It remains stable when very hot, so, unlike olive oil, it won't start smoking and breaking down into toxic substances if you're doing a stir-fry (sauteeing with olive oil is fine though - anything below 242C, or 210C for extra virgin). Having said that, if you're not vegetarian, you can also fry with lard at high temperatures, which is a mere 32% saturated fat. Vegetable oils, such as sunflower, should be avoided, she cautions: "They are omega-6 polyunsaturated oils, which we should be consuming less of, as they promote inflammation." A little coconut oil for occasional high-temperature frying and added flavour is the way to go. "In a curry or stir-fry it tastes amazing," says Patel. All fats contain about the same calorific content, she adds, "but remember to keep saturated fat to 10% of your overall energy intake, which accounts for 20-30g a day, depending on gender. In 2tbsp of coconut oil, you have 24g of saturated fat." Dairy-free is increasingly viewed as a healthy option, too, but Patel doesn't recommend substituting coconut milk for cow's milk. She points out that a Pret a Manger mango and coconut yoghurt pot contains slightly more saturated fat than a Mars bar (although with less sugar). "Very similarly to coconut oil," says Patel, coconut milk "has a higher amount of saturated fat than milk. It is low in protein and low-calcium and it contains a high amount of calories. Portion control, I would say." If you can't have dairy but you are not allergic to nuts, Patel recommends alternating almond or rice milks instead, "from a calorie point of view". Meanwhile, the coconut craze ploughs on, regardless of what boring old scientists have to say, and there's more to the market than food and drink. The beauty industry is doing a roaring trade in coconut products, and the husk around the outside is used for making rope, mattresses and car seats, while a cruder form of oil is processed as a base for eco detergents. Coconut sap is sold as a sweetener and you can make buildings out of coconut wood. Coconut farming, however, is a different story. Contrary to the marketing images of coconuts being plucked from Brazilian paradise, "95% of coconuts are harvested by small-scale farmers, rather than in industrial plantations, and 90% of those small-scale farmers are in Asia Pacific," says Angie Crone, who manages Fair Trade USA's coconut programme. It has been working with growers in the Philippines since 2013, and more recently in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, the financial spoils from the coconut craze do not tend to reach growers. "Around 40-60% of the 3.5 million coconut farmers in the Philippines are living in poverty, on less than a dollar a day," says Crone. Many farmers only have one processor they can sell to, so it's take or leave the fluctuating prices offered. Meanwhile, there's talk of illegal, lucrative exports of precious coconut saplings to China. So should mass coconut consumption join quinoa and avocados as a source of guilt for western consumers, who find themselves yet again fuelling rainforest-slashing cartels? Peter Thoenes, a trade analyst for oil crops and oil crop products at the FAO, thinks not. "After many years of trying to promote value in coconut, these markets are now starting to grow, and this is a very welcome trend," he says. Meanwhile, the 9,000 farmers working with Fair Trade USA and cooperatives formed with government support, are starting to invest in seedlings to replace unproductive senile trees. They are also learning about diversification, which ensures there are cash crops, such as cacao, coffee and chilli peppers, to sell locally while waiting for young trees to mature. Freedom from monocropping (growing the same thing year after year) comes with an added environmental bonus. Because Fair Trade USA is spearheading work with coconut farmers, most Fair Trade-accredited brands come from the US, but among those available in the UK are coconut oils from Tiana, Nutiva and Spectrum; coconut water from Naked Juices; Hope Foods' organic spreads; and skincare from Eco Lips and Cocokind. "Typically, small-scale farmers are using fewer pesticides and there's more biodiversity because they're able to plant other things," says Crone. Farmers are starting to build up calamity funds, too, in preparation for natural disasters, and building demo farms to learn about best practices. "All of this will then bolster the supply-chain challenges." Wait, did she just say "supply chain challenges"? "Demand is growing at 10% but production in Asia Pacific, where the majority of coconuts are grown, is only growing at about 2%." Let the stockpiling begin. o This article was amended on 13 July 2017. An earlier version said that a 330ml carton of Vita Coco coconut water "will set you back 254 calories". The correct figure is 59 calories. The earlier figure was based on erroneous nutritional information on Vita Coco's UK website at the time of writing. A further amendment was made on 14 July 2017 to clarify that the lawyer Jack Fitzgerald has a current lawsuit against Viva Labs, not Vita Coco. Mr Fitzgerald was previously involved in a lawsuit against Vita Coco.

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