A lot of eyebrows were raised when epidemiologist and researcher Professor Karin Michels called coconut oil ‘pure poison’ at a conference in July.
Other experts — Dr Leigh Erin Connealy, Founder and Director of the Center for New Medicine & Cancer Center for Healing, for instance – disagree. Dr Connealy describes coconut oil among other healthy oils as a ‘vital component of any anticancer food plan’, according to a recent Hindu report.
Where does this leave a country full of people with coconut oil rooted in their cooking and culture?
Fads are consuming our lives, some would argue they are eating up our intelligence.
We are left wondering as to what in our lives is a fact and what is fiction, pushed into living in a cloud of confusing misinformation.
As humans we are neither craving nor merely eating phytonutrients, antioxidants, good cholesterol or fats. It is food that we crave, celebrate and eat. It is food that heals our minds, body and souls.
Memories around food have a primordial place in our lives. They hold true through the arc of our entire life. With perhaps few exceptions, memories also inform and influence the arcs of lives that follow ours. Of course memories our parents had are beyond doubt influencing ours.
The very grip, the same memories had also on their forebears. That knowledge ought to make us appreciate the value of moderation.
Whilst it can be boring and does not claim to be the curer to every illness that ails us, it is often the answer to what might truly fail us and lead us to unnecessary illnesses.
Coconut fat is not that healthy elixir loaded with every life enhancing and age defying phytonutrients that many assume it to be. But there is also never a need to eliminate it from our diets due to it being the “pure poison” that Professor Michels will have us believe.
When used instead of shortening, butter, and other animal fats in cooking, or as a finishing oil to impart flavor in sauces and curries, it is a relatively better option.
It is not though a better choice of fat to use in cooking than most vegetable oils. Olive, sunflower, peanut, mustard and canola, are way better oils to use than coconut oil for daily cooking and consumption.
The question that coconut fat presents our lives with is an existential one. Are we chasing the Chimera that is the multi-billion dollar industry selling diet plans and fads, or are we truly interested in living mindfully and without shame and guilt?
Diets promoted by telegenic doctors and holy men with a hotline to God, come loaded with the false promise and power to heal. Their promotion is not entirely based on the premise of healing and wellness alone, but oft more in line with trends that have been studied by the producers and financers, handlers and champions.
These missionaries of good health are in reality people in sync with trends of the moment. Confident that these will bring lucrative success whilst easily warming hearts and minds. They connect with the guttural and logical connection to the lives and history of the people they influence and swindle. In end knowingly harming those they claim to be healing.
Science has failed us just as often as religion. Media savvy, self-serving scientists have been persuaded to allow personal agendas and gains, to skew their reading of facts. Unleashing for the masses a roller coaster of scientific data that is as emotionally challenging as it is a stretch from fact and truth. Making science seem even more a mythology to those it actually could serve the most.
Long term studies with large groupings of people observed, verified by indisputable facts, are read by two similarly educated people and lead to two entirely different reactions. These in turn influence two very disparate outcomes. Pushing those wanting to believe in science towards those naked emperors of religion and those coached-for-profit doctors that sell their narrative.
When science is reduced to a shrewd pre-determined extrapolation of self-serving sound bites, it becomes as vexing a danger to public health, as life threatening disease, and blind faith that can easily breed civil wars.
Coconut oil is not the danger to public health. It is the vehicle that comes carrying it, that is suspect. History has celebrated it with an honesty of evaluation afforded all ingredients.
Logical minds used coconut oil where available, with what grew locally and with intelligent measure. Economics of poverty kept its use in check. It found a friend in a lifestyle that was more rugged, requiring more physical activity and produced more sweat.
The onslaught of television and its media savvy pundits falsely and loosely interpreting science have insured that science is correctly viewed with suspicion. Truth viewed as fiction. Fiction viewed as truth.
Just as dangerously armed are the seemingly pious and harmless insta-ready holy men. Preaching from that place of infallible stature, their utterances can hardly be doubted. Their motives never challenged. Their words become Biblical truth. Their memories past, treated as divine. Practicing what they preach a sure road to nirvana.
In this unsavory environment, it becomes even more critical for us to eat more savory food, but prepared with greater and more mindful care.
Rich in phytochemicals with healthful antioxidant properties, coconut oil has its place in the kitchen and in our foodways. Like other vegetable oils, the refined coconut oil we consume for the most part, has much less of these antioxidants. But we must remember, that even the use of extra-virgin coconut oil comes with the less than virginal, and clearly unhealthy effects of saturated fat. Any beneficial properties are outweighed without doubt.
I will not be replacing coconut oil in my pantry with any other fat. That would be silly and a mindless act. When preparing foods where memories lead me to my jar of this beloved fat of my people, I shall happily go to it, take a few tablespoons, use it in the preparation of veritable feasts where it makes sense to entertain the senses with its unmatched magic. I shall bring deliciousness to the fore. Celebrate a wonderful ingredient. Give respect to my elders for its discovery and for the recipes shared. Be thankful that I have choices and a table full of food to eat. Family and friends to share meals with. I shall be grateful for my blessed life.
Put to use with the story of coconut oil, shall be my blessing of having the ability to think critically.
A most essential ingredient necessary for living a wholesome and mindful life.
The writer is a Michelin Star chef, educator and author.