Leaders and members of the Philippine coconut industry launched a coconut roadshow on Friday, September 8 at the San Gabriel Hilton Hotel in San Gabriel, Los Angeles.
The show was the first out of four being held throughout the United States meant to share the outlook of the Philippines’ booming coconut oil industry that was recently threatened by a report by the American Heart Association (AHA) report.
Sponsored by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), the United Coconut Association of the Philippines (UCAP), and the Philippine government, around 20 coconut industry companies and organizations came together to promote coconut products for both food and non-food markets.
Key speakers at the lunch panel included Virgin Coconut Oil of the Philippines (VCOP) founding member Marco Reyes, and United Coconut Association of the Philippines (UCAP) President Dean Lao, Jr. Renowned Filipina chef Cecilia de Castro also made an appearance.
Booming coconut oil industry
Coconuts have been picking up a lot of momentum in the West, most recognizably through coconut water, which has been flaunted by celebrities and influencers boasting its health benefits.
According to the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community (APCC), coconut water exports from the Philippines almost doubled from 647,000 litres to 1.8 million litres between 2008 and 2010. In 2015, the numbers soared to 61 million litres.
As the popularity of coconut water increases, many have ventured into coconut’s other forms. Coconut oil, specifically, has become increasingly popular and was the focus of the event.
“Coconut oil is the most versatile oil,” said Reyes, mentioning its use in food, health care, and personal care.
As the world’s largest producer of coconut oil, the Philippines has been seen a positive outlook on the trend with its biggest markets being the United States and Europe who have seen coconut oil consumption in both food and non-food markets.
The UCAP and the VCOP predict Philippine coconut production to be at 2.244 million metric tons (MMT) in copra terms, or 1.29 MMT as coconut oil in 2017 — that would be a 9.3 percent increase from their 2016 estimate of 2.052 MMT.
Key drivers for the coconut oil industry were its health benefits and its ability to cater to the “green and wellness” movements.
Health benefits ranged from improving memory and brain function, improving digestion and reducing stomach problems, and boosting metabolism.
Lao gave the example of coconut oil use in personal care which has been fueled by the trend of using natural products free of synthetic ingredients.
The beverage market saw a move from sodas to fruit juices, but since the latter tend to be high in sugar, the market for different flavored waters has opened up, he added.
“All health and wellness trends point to coconut,” said Lao.
On the issue of fair trade, Reyes said, “Coconut oil allows more participation with farmers.” Many coconut products from the Philippines are acquiring the Fair Trade logo which Reyes explained allowed portions of the product prices to go to farmers.
The internet and demographic shifts were also said to be key drivers. Google searches for coconut oil specifically have spiked up since 2010 as have the number of coconut health-related searches. According to Reyes, the trends coincided exactly with export shipments.
Countering AHA claims
Amidst the current industry boom, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report in June on the linkage between saturated-fat consumption and heart disease based on the analysis of data and studies over many years. The study startled many who saw coconut oil as being healthy.
Touching on coconut oil’s health reputation, the study mentioned that 72 percent of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy food”, while only 37 percent of nutritionists did.
The study stated that coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, a percentage much higher than fats and oils like butter, lard, and beef. It also reported that multiple studies found that coconut oil increased LDL, a cholesterol known to be a cause of heart disease.
At the end of the paragraph on coconut oil read, “We advise against the use of coconut oil.”
This startled many coconut devotees, and advocates immediately began defending coconut oil with counter studies. Reyes said the AHA report was very selective and missed out on a lot of important information.
For example, while saturated fats do tend to raise LDL cholesterol, many studies point out that variations in their chemical structures can create different cardiovascular effects. They further point out that coconut oil contains lauric acid which also raises HDL, a “good” cholesterol.
It’s also been noted that the AHA has been recommending a reduction in dietary saturated fat to reduce risks of cardiovascular diseases, yet heart disease continues to be America’s number one leading cause of death.
This isn’t the first time the coconut industry has experienced the backlash. In the 1980s, a media campaign targeted coconut oils and other tropical oils as being responsible for heart attacks due to their saturated fat content.
“It’s actually a rehash of that same advisory,” said Reyes to the Asian Journal.
The anti-tropical oil campaign encouraged food companies to consequently begin replacing tropical oils with partially hydrogenated oils which contain trans fats, something that is widely avoided today. As trans fats were found to be bad, they were removed from processed foods and food companies went back to using tropical oils.
“The main difference today, is that we have more information now,” said Reyes, mentioning AHA’s relationship with Big Pharma.
The AHA has been outed before for connections with big pharmaceutical companies, including those that make and market statins which are drugs prescribed to help lower cholesterol.
According to a report by the Huffington Post, AHA received $21,570 from statin maker AstraZeneca in 2010 to run a course on “emerging strategies with statins.”
Reyes also stated the fact that coconut oil has long been used throughout history as a food ingredient in many countries around the Pacific. His presentation dated coconut usage all the way back to the Ayurvedic period in 5000 B.C.
Coconut consuming countries have had very little incidences of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease prior to the introduction of the Western diet, he said.
“We’re as passionate now as we were before on our coconuts,” said Reyes. “But we understand that this is something still new to non-coconut producing countries like America and Europe.”
The roadshow will continue until September 22, and will visit Florida, Colorado, and Baltimore. (Rae Ann Varona/AJPress)