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My Journey to Using Coconut Oil

I am  a repentant Ghanaian Coconut Boy.

To the uninitiated, that means, I grew up on the West Coast of Africa, in Ghana and was mostly found at the seaside, where coconuts abound. And no, I never could climb the darn trees! Not even if my life depended on it. But the fruits were our constant refreshment and it’s meat, our nourishment everyday, after swimming and body surfing in the ocean waters.

 

Coconut Children

 

tropical coconut palms fringe a sandy beach

 

As a child, I remember that my grandmother (God rest her soul) was a very industrious woman.  She would cook and sell anything.  From iced blocks of water, to a local delicacy at that time, known as “bandfo bisi” (literally translated as the “bandsmen’s kola nut” – the caffeine in kola nuts, was used to help keep them awake during the long night hours of playing music – so we were told.  Why, this particular delicacy was called so, I have no idea!)

bandfo_bisi
“Bandfo bisi”, made with corn flour. Delicious, but…hard as a cracker when cold!

 

Now, one of the items she made, which was also my favourite, and since I loved cooking, she was always willing to allow me to help every time she was making them, was coconut toffees.

Making them was relatively straightforward:

Dried coconut meat (copra) is grated, thoroughly mixed with water and strained through a cheese cloth.  The result is actually known as “coconut milk“.

Now, this milk is mixed with some sugar and gradually brought to a boil, and, with constant stirring (that’s usually where I came into the picture), it would gradually simmer down into this brown very thick goo, that would be poured out on to a wooden chopping board and rolled, cut and cooled (just as you would do with regular candy).  The end result would be this. A healthy treat:

coconut toffees
Coconut Toffees

Well, for my wages, I would slyly (or so I thought) take out about a quarter of them and sneak them back into my room, to enjoy my well-earned booty, while my cousins took the day’s production out to sell.  Needless to say, they were quite popular with young and old alike, but children swarmed them.

But I digress.

As the milk was boiling down, a layer of clear oil would appear at the top of the mixture. My grandmother would carefully scoop this liquid out and put it into another pot set aside for that specific purpose. Now, it is about this oil I want to talk about.

My grandmother would take this coconut oil and …… do all sort of things with it, including frying delicious fish and shrimps (my favourite) , cooking stews, cooking in rice (yes, we could do that too) and apply topically as a skin lotion, hair conditioner and wound and skin rash or abrasions healing agent.  I honestly don’t recall if there was anything that we didn’t use that coconut oil for.

Now fast forward to the 21st Century (yes, I am that old 🙂 ) and the general thinking is “out with the old, in with the new”.  The new kid on the health block  was Vegetable Oil (all of them, but especially the Famous Four: Canola, Safflower, Sunflower and Soybean).

 

cooking_oil

 

These oils became our “super oils”. They were responsible for “lowering cholesterol”, “reducing the incidence of heart disease”, had been “fortified with vitamin A” and a host of other claims.

The other nut oils, including coconut oil, had been tarred with a very thick brush and painted as the bogey man in healthcare.  Indeed, when my Dad suffered a stroke and was given a list of foods and oils to avoid, coconut oil featured prominently on that generic list!

We went along with the flow.  The only oils you would find in my home were soybean oils (which we were told were the healthiest), sunflower oil (which we were told was good for the heart and lowered cholesterol) and the ubiquitous olive oil (EVOO was the bomb! And it still is).

But I still had questions about the health claims about vegetable oils. I just did nothing about it.

All this came to a head one very eventful week, when I had to visit a client’s site to review his processes for producing soybean oil. I moonlight as a management consultant once in a while, you know. 🙂

I learnt the production processes of vegetable oil completely (it was my job to understand the client’s operations even better than my client) and I was comfortable with everything as the company was using a “traditional” method pf production (expeller method), until we got to the way forward.  One word immediately flew my red flag at full mast:

Hexane

Hexane is a petroleum derived solvent which is used in most, if not all, modern extraction of all vegetable oils to extract the maximum oil from the oil seed, and  at the lowest possible cost.

It is toxic. Plain and simple.

I asked that in a closed-loop production process, are they always able to recover the equivalent amount of hexane used at all times.  I was told that there would always be some losses due to retention in the extracted oil and losses to the environment, so I should make cash allowances for replacement and refilling.

That, coupled with the fact that almost all (if not all) soybeans are genetically modified and heavily dosed with pesticides (a fact I didn’t know until that trip),  made me start looking at bottles of vegetable oil in a completely different light, from that day onwards.

In Ghana, people literally “drink” vegetable oil.  Picture this: In 2004, Ghana, a country of about 20 million people at that time, spent nearly US$28 million on importing vegetable oil (about 170,00 metric tons).  Now, this was aside what is produced in country, of about 100,000 metric tons in the same period.  These figures had a projected growth of over 5% per annum, from 2004.

Especially among my Fante people from the Central Region, we have been described as so enamoured with using edible oil, that it is told that if it was possible to even fry tea water, we would definitely do so! So our usage was definitely higher (my wife and I are both Fante, so go figure).

So, imagine what could be going on in the bodies of people, if even minimal levels of hexane are evident in the oil we use and all the jury still being out on GMOs and their long term effects on the human body.  These were my thoughts as I drove back to Accra, a couple of weeks later.

So, I started reading.  The more I read, the less enthralled I became with the entire vegetable oil juggernaut. But I still considered it the lesser of two evils. After all, they were not artery clogging like those saturated fats-containing oils, right?

WRONG!!!!

I will not bore you with the details and scientific mumbo jumbo for the pros and cons, but by early 2013, I started hearing of (was I late to the party? You tell me) articles and rumours of articles from respected reviewers and scientists, about new findings showing how UNHEALTHY vegetable oils were and – surprise! – how HEALTHY and HEART-HEALTHY the natural oils such as coconut oil, were.

Now, I am quite a sceptic, especially when it relates to online information and thus go by the biblical principle of getting 3 or more witnesses to prove a matter. So after reading from authors such as Dr Mercola, I just put them aside and continued on my merry way, with just a lot less vegetable oil usage than we had been doing in the past (one could never be too careful, you know).

Anyway, the rumblings wouldn’t go away. I started reading more and more articles, write ups and medical information about the upside down pyramid, that was the edible oil industry.  What was considered good, no longer was so and what was once demonised, was now being hailed as the anathema for a plethora of ills.

Here is how one writer put it:

 

“Filled with Medium Chain Fatty Acids and Lauric Acid, coconut oil is an all star of the saturated fats. Since the fat composition in cells in the body is largely saturated fat, it is important to get enough of it from healthy sources. Coconut oil does not oxidize easily at high temperatures or go rancid easily, making it a good choice for cooking and baking. It also makes a great natural moisturizer and can be substituted for butter.”

 

Now, how did we get it so wrong?  In the words of my dearly departed father-in-law, “the old is always good“.  Was he right after all?

Let me tell you how successful the crusade against the old edible oils had become in my society.  It was so well done that, it was considered backward to be seen, “smelt” or heard using coconut oil in cooking.  So good that it was only the poorest of the poor who used it and if anyone you know dared use it, the person became the whispered topic at dinner conversations, where people would sadly shake their heads and sigh deeply on how such and such was buying a ticket into an early grave. “Why on earth will anyone still use coconut oil or palm kernel oil??”

So well done was this campaign, that it became increasingly difficult to see coconut oil in any respectable outlet aside pharmacies and beauty shops,where they were sold for topical use.

At a point, I made a decision.  What is all the hype about coconut oil? So I checked it out.

With all the information under my armpits (figuratively speaking), I spoke with a sceptical wife and naturally inquisitive children and on that day, we agreed to stop buying vegetable oil for a month and use only coconut oil.

Now, they all looked at me.  Where was I going to get quality coconut oil consistently?

My first thoughts were to go to any village with coconut trees and find out any of the people there producing real oil and buy from them. The logistics of that seemed daunting didn’t look like it could be sustainable over the long term. And I still worried about the strong scent such coconut oil always had. Societal acceptance was still strong on my mind at that time.

As luck would have it, my sister had just come across virgin coconut oil and was looking for someone to share it with.  Not knowing of my recent epiphanies, she hesitated in calling me and when she finally did, quickly told me to try out this new oil she had received, which had very little scent and looked so clear that you would think it was water.

I waited for her to finish speaking and asked a very simple question: “Can I always get a constant supply of that coconut oil?”

Shocked silence.

Then I told her what I had found out and what we were looking for. So she gave us one small bottle of clear, expeller-pressed and filtered coconut oil and showed me the source.

I went to buy 3, 5-litre gallons the next week.

Now, over 1 year down the line, we are still using coconut oil exclusively at  home.  My elder daughter has started using it for oil-pulling (more of that later) and I have found another source of consistent supply of organic coconut oil.

In a subsequent post and in line with our principle of recommending only what we have verified and used, I will  be talking and illustrating how the coconut oils we use, are produced and where you can get some to buy. Of course, if you buy through FarmerJohn Organics, we will receive a small commission.

What are the Benefits of Using Coconut Oil?

Below are just a few of the benefits of using coconut oil that I found out:

 

  • Coconut oil IS beneficial for the heart. Containing about 50% lauric acid, it helps in actively preventing various heart problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
  • It is an excellent skin massage oil. It is an effective moisturizer on all skin types, including dry skin. It’s benefit on the skin is comparable to that of mineral oil. However, unlike mineral oil, there is no chance of having any adverse side effects on the skin from the application of coconut oil. It is therefore a safe solution for preventing skin dryness and flaking. Additionally,  it delays the appearance of wrinkles and sagging of skin which normally accompany aging ( my grandmother had very beautiful skin, well into her 80’s and she always told us it was because of the coconut oil – trust us, we didn’t believe her and just put it down to great genes – if only we had known then, but it is not too late anyway). Coconut oil also helps in treating various skin problems including psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema and other skin infections.
  • Helps in weight loss, since it contains short and medium-chain fatty acids that help in taking off excessive weight. It is also easy to digest and it helps in healthy functioning of the thyroid and endocrine system. Also, it increases the body’s metabolic rate by removing stress on the pancreas, thereby burning more energy and helping obese and overweight people lose the weight.  That largely explains why people living in tropical coastal areas, who use coconut oil daily as their main cooking oil, are not usually obese or overweight.
  • It is also good for the immune system. It strengthens the immune system since it contains antimicrobial lipids, lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid which have antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties. The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin which research has supported as an effective way to deal with viruses and bacteria that cause diseases like herpes, influenza, cytomegalovirus, and even HIV. Coconut oil helps in fighting harmful bacteria like listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori (that causes stomache ulcers), and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia.
  • When used as cooking oil, coconut oil helps to improve the digestive system and thus prevents various stomach and digestion-related problems including IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). The saturated fats present in coconut oil have antimicrobial properties and help in dealing with various bacteria, fungi, and parasites that can cause indigestion. Coconut oil also helps in the absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
  • Coconut oil has been shown to prevent and even cure candida. It provides relief from the inflammation caused by candida, both externally and internally. It’s high moisture retaining capacity keeps the skin from cracking or peeling off. Furthermore, unlike other pharmaceutical treatments for candida, the effects of coconut oil are gradual and not drastic or sudden, which gives the patient an appropriate amount of time to get used to the withdrawal symptoms or “Herxheimer Reactions” (the name given to the symptoms accompanying the body’s rejection of toxins generated during elimination of fungi). But a note of caution: systematically and gradually increase dosage of coconut oil used and don’t start initially with a large quantity.

 

  • Coconut oil is very effective against a variety of infections due to it’s antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. According to the Coconut Research Center, coconut oil kills the viruses that cause influenza, measles, hepatitis, herpes, SARS, and other serious health risks. It also kills bacteria that cause ulcers, throat infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and gonorrhoea. Finally, coconut oil is also effective in the elimination of fungi and yeast that cause ringworm, athlete’s foot, thrush, and diaper rash.

Aside the above, coconut oil is beneficial in the following conditions:

Diabetes: Coconut oil helps in controlling blood sugar, and improves the secretion of insulin. It also promotes the effective utilization of blood glucose, thereby preventing and treating diabetes.

Liver: The presence of medium chain triglycerides and fatty acids helps in preventing liver diseases because those substances are easily converted into energy when they reach the liver, thus reducing the work load of the liver and also preventing accumulation of fat.

Kidney: Coconut oil helps in preventing kidney and gall bladder diseases and helps to dissolve kidney stones.

Pancreas: Coconut oil is also believed to be useful in treating pancreatitis.

Bones: As mentioned earlier, coconut oil improves the ability of our body to absorb important minerals. These include calcium and magnesium which are necessary for the development of bones. Thus, coconut oil is very useful to women who are prone to osteoporosis after middle age.

Stress relief: Coconut oil is very soothing and hence it helps in removing stress. Applying coconut oil to the head, followed by a gentle massage, helps to eliminate mental fatigue.

Dental care: Calcium is an important component of our teeth. Since coconut oil facilitates absorption of calcium by the body, it helps in developing strong teeth. Coconut oil also stops tooth decay.

HIV and cancer: It is believed that coconut oil plays an instrumental role in reducing a person’s viral susceptibility for HIV and cancer patients. Preliminary research has shown an indication of this effect of coconut oil on reducing the viral load of HIV patients (Reference).

Coconut oil is often used by athletes, body builders and by those who are dieting. This is because coconut oil contains less calories than other oils, its saturated fat content is easily converted into energy, and it does not lead to accumulation of fat in the heart and arteries. Coconut oil helps boost energy and endurance, and generally enhances the performance of athletes.

Now, am I an expert, doctor or biochemist? No. I am an ordinary farmer.

Am I convinced about the health benefits of coconut oil? Most definitely. Absolutely.

Would I recommend it to my friends and family? I definitely will, without apologies.

This is my personal journey of discovery.  I will encourage you to also do your independent search and research and arrive at your own conclusions. It should be worth it.  We have only one life to live and it is our responsibility and in our own selfish interest, to live it right and live it long.

In the eternal words of Mr Spock; Live Long and Prosper.

So, Mama (my grandmother), your coconut boy has come home and brought his entire family along and a host of new friends as well.

 

coconut oil in a bowl

 

 

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