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Behold the coconut!

April 30, 2018

Behold the coconut!

Behold the coconut:
A shell of thatch
Woven over a meal
Of water, meat, and milk;
A bellyful contained
In a taut basket Suspended from
A sun-Blissed tree.

           

I first fell in love with coconut oil when I fried with it. The clean light taste was a welcome addition to my wok, and almost instantly, the days of overheating butter, or having to stick with the trusty but occasionally bland olive oil, were behind me. With a smoke point of 3500 and a melting point of 760, it has a moderate heat range, and a mellow flavor that stays as a quiet backnote to foods like potatoes and vegetables. It has a variety of heat and non-heat applications, both in and out of the kitchen.

            In the kitchen, coconut oil is often a go-to for vegan and vegetarian needs, though it can pair with carnivorous offerings equally well. It does not provide the same crustiness that butter can bring to pan-frying, but its lack of smokiness, I feel, can make up for other shortcomings. Blending it in the pan with olive oil and a few drops of sesame can keep the tropical hint quite mellow. Adding a pat can allow for a little of that browning action. I also like using coconut oil with a little sprinkle of sea salt on rice noodles to keep them from sticking, in coffee to help regulate the caffeine rush, and, just a drop on my blender blades to keep the rust at bay. It can be used in pastries as well but the recipes can need a fair bit of tweaking if they were originally butter-based.

            Outside of the kitchen, its uniqueness translates into an ideal science lab substitute for soy oil, and coconut, is, in fact, the only other oil high enough in fatty acids to retain its shape when frozen in casting in lab tests ().The only other oil that works the same in this lab use is a soy-based oil, so it is understandable that coconut oil would remain important in this scenario. Coconut oil also works well as a 30% ratio in diesel fuel, and is used in aviation as a lubricant (A.G., Raj, et al.).

For everyday items, coconut oil is used in makeup, soap, shampoo, balms, and massage oil blends, to name a few items. Its density of rich structure, binds well in mixing with other fats, and provides a silky feel and thorough coverage. Although enthusiastically marketed in the health and beauty world, my esthetician friends have told me that coconut oil is too heavy for daily skin use in many cases, and can clog small or fine pores.

            Soap is one of coconut oil’s most ideal uses. Here, the fatty-acid chains can convert into a rich, sudsy lather that doesn’t need to overload or strip the skin, and the subtle, barely-there scent easily hosts a range of smells and fragrances.

            Being a widely useful oil makes for plenty of demand. This in itself is not a bad thing; there are plenty of farmers and families who rely on the coconut as one of their main crops: not just for the oil, but also for the milk, flesh, and outer covering (“coir”), which are also widely used.

            The coconut, like many other ‘nuts’, is a drupe, or fruit, except in this case, it is the flesh of the fruit from which the oil is extracted, not the seed. Traditionally, pressing from dried coconut flesh, “copra”, has allowed farmers to avoid waste and rotted fruit, and to move with the market more so than fresh extraction would. With the advent of ever-newer technology, and in some cases, corporate sponsorship, fresh pressing is slowly becoming more achievable, and of higher consistent quality(“Are All Coconut Oils Created Equal?”).  As much coconut farming is carried out more by small farmers than large corporations, the advent of local co-ops and buyer’s groups is a key part of the small farmers’ ability to bargain for fair prices, especially as some buyers or shippers of the end product are at the least, branches of large corporate structures.

            For many nut crops, the trees grow best in some kind of community with other plants and animals, such as exists in a forest or hedge. The coconut tree, however, turns this tendency on its head, as it is a bit of a loner. The preferred habitat of the coconut tree is a sandy strip of beach between forest and ocean. The trees, survivors that they are, will, with their roots, find and hold a local fresh water supply, and the forest behind them, will, in turn, be shorted that supply. In addition, the tops of the trees are small and spiky, prohibiting birds from nesting. The lack of nesting birds means no nutrient-rich guano is fertilizing the coconut trees. In this case, nature takes her course, and the tree competes itself out of business as its harvest lessens each year. What this means for the coconut as a cash crop, though, is that it becomes steadily more labor-intensive just to maintain a standard harvest level each year(Fleming).  

            To conclude, a judicious use of coconut oil can bring its benefits to home, kitchen, and lab, but overuse encourages a rising tide of wide-elbowed palms, jostling the forest and its inhabitants out of the way. For the curious, here is a link to a chart of the chemical composition of virgin coconut oil (you will need to scroll down a page once you are there):

 

http://coconutboard.nic.in/HealthBenefits.aspx#VirginCoconutoil

 

Resources:

 

Gopala Krishna A.G.,* Gaurav Raj, Ajit Singh Bhatnagar, Prasanth Kumar P.K. and Preeti Chandrashekar . “Coconut Oil: Chemistry, Production and its Applications – A Review.” Online article. Indian Coconut Journal. January layout. Pp 15-27. Viewed online April 26 2018 at: file://ccserver/FolderRedirection/station/Downloads/Indian_Coconut_Journal_2010_15-27.pdf .

“Are All Coconut Oils Created Equal?”, et al. Blog. The Coconut Coop. Website. Accessed April 12, 2017, at: http://www.thecoconutcoop.com/blog/ .

Bergeron, Louis. “Coconut palms bring ecological change to tropics, Stanford researchers say.” Report. January 20 2010. Stanford News. Website. Accessed October 17 2017 at: https://news.standord.edu/news/2010/january18/birddrop-palm-trees-012110.html .

Brouwers, Lucas. “Coconuts: not indigenous, but quite at home nevertheless.” August 01, 2011. Thoughtomics. Blog. Scientific American. Website. Accessed November 10, 2017 at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtomics/httpblogsscientificamericancomthoughtomics20110801coconuts-not-indigenous-but-quite-at-home-nevertheless/ .

Coconut Development Board. Website. Accessed November 21, 2017 at: http://coconutboard.nic.in/HealthBenefits.aspx .

Fleming, Amy. “High-fat oil and low-paid farmers: the cost of our coconut craze.” Article. July 12 2017. The Guardian. News website. Accessed October 01 2017 at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jul/12/high-fat-oil-and-low-paid-farmers-the-cost-of-our-coconut-craze .

Good, Jennifer. “Healthiest Cooking Oil Comparison Chart with Smoke Points and Omega 3 Fatty Acid Ratios.” Article. April 17 2012. Baseline of Health Foundation. Website. Accessed November 01 2017 at: https://jonbarron.org/diet-and-nutrition/healthiest-cooking-oil-chart-smoke-points .

Grant, Amy. “When Are Coconuts Ripe: Do Coconuts Ripen After They Are Picked.” Article. Updated March 30 2016. Gardening Know How. Blog. Accessed October 17 2017 at: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/coconut/when-are-coconuts-ripe.htm .





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