Coconut Oil History | Extraction, Discovery, & Modern Uses

Coconut production has a long history with great significance to modern society. The entertainer Harry Belafonte may not have been entirely accurate when he sang that coconut water was “good for your daughter” and “full of iron” or that it could “make you strong like a lion.” But he was praising the one thing about coconut that makes it different from all other plants – the large amount of water in the immature fruit.

Coconut Water

Coconut Production Coconut Water

Modern texts on coconut underrate the value of coconut water or overlook the part it played in the domestication of the coconut. Earlier writers had no such reservations. In 1510, Ludovici de Varthema wrote that “[w]hen the nut begins to grow, water begins to be produced within; and when the nut has arrived at perfection, it is full of water, so that there are some nuts which will contain four and five goblets of water, which water is a most excellent thing to drink …”. As mentioned, many often wrongly call coconut water milk. As early as 1583, by which time the coconut had become well known, Father Thomas Stevens praised the ubiquitous coconut and its refreshing milk [sic], saying, “this is so abundant that after drinking the contents of one nut, you scarcely feel the need of another”.

The immature fruit, used for drinking, will not fall naturally but must be cut from the palm. Bunches are selected just as they reach maximum size when a jellylike endosperm begins to line the cavity of the still-thin and soft shell. At this stage, each nut is full size, full of water with no airspace (it does not splash when shaken), and very heavy. Usually, the harvester cuts one or two entire bunches of nuts and lowers them to the ground on a rope. If they fall, the weight of water cracks or even bursts the soft shell inside the soft husk, whereupon the water drains away and the fruit rots.

Shelf Life And Health Benefits

The coconut that is freshly harvested from a bunch that has been in the sun has a natural effervescence and will hiss with released gas when opened. Nevertheless, nature’s “packaging” of this “product” leaves it at a disadvantage against internationally trademarked colas and mineral waters because young coconuts deteriorate over a few days unless kept cool. Cutting away some of the husks reduces their size so they can be more efficiently kept in refrigerated storage, which extends “shelf life” considerably.

Truck drivers will transport the drinking coconuts hundreds of miles in refrigerated trucks at times. They only tend to do this when the vehicle would otherwise be empty. They also only do this in an affluent urban market that has no other access to coconut. On top of this, many use conventional agricultural treatments to marginalize coconut drinks. People view it as reducing the oil extraction crop of copra. Modern methods of coconut production could be improved to solve this.

At the proper stage, coconut water contains about 5 percent sugar, and a large nut may have as much as 25 grams of sugar. The water also contains minerals, amino acids, and vitamin C. Scientists see that coconut chips can have extremely positive health benefits on the human body. In addition to fermenting quickly, and yielding alcohol and vinegar, coconut water has auxinic and growth-promoting properties when used in plant tissue culture. Historically, humans have attributed many medicinal values to it. There is no doubt that it is a fine oral rehydration fluid for the severe diarrhea of cholera and other diseases. Because coconut water is naturally sterile, it may be injected intravenously to substitute for blood plasma in emergency surgery, and in combination with egg yolk, it finds use as a diluent in artificial insemination.

Coconut – The Tree of Life

Coconut Production Coconut Tree

Depending on the variety, coconut fruit takes from 11 to 15 months to reach maturity. The palm produces a new inflorescence every 3 to 4 weeks. This means the fruit shows all stages of development at any given time. In the fourteenth century, Jor-danus of Séveras thought that the coconut was a “marvel.” He wrote that “both flowers and fruit are produced at the same time, beginning with the first month and going up gradually to the twelfth.” There are flowers and fruit in eleven stages of growth to be seen together. In this respect, it meets the specifications of the biblical Tree of Life. It states, “which bare twelve manners of fruits, and yieldeth her fruit every month.”

According to Peter Martyr (d’Anghiera), writing about 1552, “[s]ome people believe that the waves from unknown regions brought the germs of these trees” (Harries 1978: 270). Four hundred years or so later, it is now speculated that coconut may have originated on the coasts and islands of Gondwanaland, after which a wild form floated into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but not the Atlantic. Domestication subsequently occurred in the Malaysian region (Southeast Asia and the western Pacific). They took wild and domestic forms into cultivation. Then, they introduced introgressive hybridization, producing the wide array of varieties recognized today. This can also play part into the widely recognized coconut oil and coconut oil history.

Coconut Production Original Importance

The original importance of the coconut palm was to coastal communities. With fish and shellfish to eat, coconut provided refreshing, sweet, and uncontaminated drinking water in an otherwise saline environment. No tools were needed to get it, and daily consumption of the water contained in one or two coconuts was enough to ensure good kidney function. The wild type of coconut spread without human interference, but domestication enhanced its drinking qualities in particular. The domestic type depends on human activity for survival and dissemination.

The coconut preceded the Polynesians in those parts of the Pacific region to which it could float, and the Polynesians took domesticated forms to the islands that they settled. Before the development of the copra industry, coconut was a multipurpose plant on small Pacific islands, and its food potential was neither more nor less significant than any other use. But another use was in interisland transportation. The islanders in the Pacific Oceans discovered that coconut husk fibers could be important in building and rigging ships. Moreover, they took young fruit on board as self-contained, individual servings of uncontaminated drinking water.

The coconut palm was first grown as a plantation crop in the 1840s. The industrial process for making soap, patented in 1841, required a cheap source of oil, which coconut oil could provide. Then, between 1846 and 1867, the development of dynamite from nitroglycerine had the remarkable effect of turning glycerine, a once discarded by-product of soap manufacture, into a more profitable item.

Thus, for builders of industrial and political empires, the coconut was a cheap source of raw materials and also of war materials. The stock market featured the “coconut boom” as well in the early twentieth century. This caused farmers to establish coconut plantations throughout the tropics.

World War I And Coconut Production

World War I clearly demonstrated the strategic importance of the coconut. German territories in Africa and the Pacific represented this. They showed this by taking away extensively large plantations as reparations. As a result, the Japanese administered the Caroline, Mariana, and Marshall Islands. In 1942, they added other important coconut-growing countries to their collection. Indonesia and the Philippines accounted for more than 50 percent of the world supply of copra at the time. This is the oil-extracting dried white flesh of the coconut. World production came from:

  1. Indochina,
  2. Malaya,
  3. Borneo,
  4. New Guinea,
  5. The Solomon Islands
  6. The Gilbert Islands

Other Associations With The Coconut

Coconut Production Crab

Humans have also associated other animals with the coconut. Two are of cultural interest in relation to coconuts, as well as being foods in their own right: the coconut crab and the palm weevil. The coconut crab, or “robber crab” (Birgus latro), is a massive land-living crab that can climb coconut palm stems and is reputed to cut off nuts before returning to the ground to eat them. Its association with the coconut is not purely fortuitous.

The coconut travels long distances over the Indian and Pacific Oceans by interisland floating and can easily carry the small postlarval stages of the crab. This would account for the equally widespread distribution of an otherwise terrestrial crab. The crab only spends about 30 days of its larval life in coastal waters. Charles Darwin observed that the coconut crab “grows to a monstrous size” and “is very good to eat.” Unfortunately, humans have eaten the crab to the point of extinction. You can no longer find it on many islands where it once was.

Pests And Help In Coconut Production

Palm weevils (Rbynchophorus spp.) are a severe pest of coconut groves. They dill palms directly by burrowing in the stem and indirectly as a vector of the red ring nematode. The palm weevil grubs grow as large as a man’s thumb. Subsistence cultivators can collect hundreds of them from fallen or felled palm stems. When fried in their own fat and eaten, the larvae provide a protein- as well as an energy-rich diet.

Another insect activity related to the coconut is the gathering of pollen by honeybees. Today, health food shops sell coconut pollen. People collect this similarly to other pollens with a trap at the hive entrance. It removes the pollen pellets as the bees return from foraging. You could also order it directly from male flowers. Coconut breeders routinely harvest and process male flowers for kilogram quantities of pollen. Here again, the year-round flowering of the coconut means that regular supplies of pollen are easy to maintain.

Europe And The Coconut

Coconut Production Coconut Oil

Europe advertised coconut oil as healthy when it was first made available. Now, noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, are of more concern. Western societies have discontinued the routine use of frying fish or making margarine with coconut oil. This was long before the diet-conscious became wary of coconut oil. Natives in India continue to use it directly for tropical diets and for vegetable ghee. This shows ample opportunity for the importance of coconut production.

The human body can absorb coconut oil easily and almost as rapidly as butterfat. Scientists attribute this to the low molecular weight of the fatty acids. In common with other vegetable oils, coconut oil contains virtually no cholesterol. There are objections to its food use because of the high saturation of its fatty acids. In the United States, “tropical oils” have come under attack from pressure groups. Critics overlook the use of coconut oil for nonedible purposes. They also ignore that many of its food uses are to improve the quality of factory-prepared products. Locals still cook extensively with the coconut, but only in coconut-growing countries. In fact, it may turn out that naturally saturated medium-chain coconut oil is healthier than artificially hydrogenated short-chain vegetable oils. The history of coconuts has long resembled complexity and much to learn still about this wonderous fruit. 

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