The Cooking Oils War

“You would have to be blind not to notice the number of coconut palms on Koh Samui. In fact the same has to be said for the remainder of Thailand. Samui has been dubbed “the coconut capital’ of the country because it sends more than 2,000,000 nuts to Bangkok each month.

The ubiquitous coconut has played a healthy role in the staple diet of tropical dwellers for as long as time itself. In 1939 an American dentist called Dr. Weston A. Price published a book called “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” His thesis was that the standard American diet high in sugars and flour caused nutritional deficiencies that were the root cause of poor dental health. In order to write his book he travelled the world examining the teeth of people in what were considered to be more primitive cultures who had not been exposed to poor American eating habits. He went to the South Pacific and found island inhabitants eating a staple diet built around coconuts. These people enjoyed overall good health and had reasonable body fat in spite of a diet high in saturated fat. A further study releasing similar findings from the same area was published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in 1981.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 so beginning the US participation in World War 11. They invaded the Pacific islands and occupied coconut growing areas like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Prior to hostilities these countries had exported their products to the West where coconuts had played an important role in food production. Suddenly this supply ceased and the producers had to look for substitutes. This was how the polyunsaturated oil story began!

Soya beans had been introduced to the USA from China as long ago as 1770. The product was used at first as animal feed, but in 1904 the noted scientist George Washington Carver noticed the beans had high protein content making them suitable fodder for humans. In spite of Henry Ford’s effort to make a car from soya beans, production did not really take off until the war years. Soya oil became a major substitute for the tropical saturated varieties. The Soya Bean Growers of America invested a lot of money in this crop and when the war ended they were not happy to see their industry dwindle because of the re-importation of coconuts and palm oil. The Association hired a powerful public relations company whose job it was to extol the virtues of soya and denigrate the benefits of coconuts. Soya became a health product and coconut was portrayed as a danger to heart health. The largest producer of Soya beans was the United States!

In the 1950s the medical profession was spurred on by this propaganda to claim that saturated fats like coconut oil were the main cause of heart disease because they stimulated the production of cholesterol, whilst polyunsaturated oils like sunflower, soya, corn, sunflower and Canola worked to protect the body from the ravages of LDL, otherwise known as “bad” cholesterol. This was blatantly untrue, but the world came to believe the spin put forward by the Soya Producers and their allies. Saturated fats were demonized and cast aside!

Coconut Oil contains medium –chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Most other vegetable and seed oils are composed of long-chain fatty acids. These LCFAs are difficult to digest; they stress the digestive system and put additional pressure on the liver and pancreas. As they don’t break down easily excess is stored as body fat, thus perpetrating another myth that all fats make you fat! Conversely the MCFAs contained in coconut oil are considerably healthier because they are smaller and can be digested easily. They go directly to the liver where they are released as energy; there is no need for them to be stored as body fat. Experts have found that coconut oil stimulates the body’s metabolism and supports blood sugar levels. This results in weight loss and not gain!

Frying is not the healthiest way of preparing food. It is dangerous because it destroys the anti-oxidants present in the oils. This oxidizes it making it rancid. Olive oil is monounsaturated. It is a healthful oil which is great for preparing salads but has a low burning point that causes it to smoke at relatively low temperatures. This means it is unsuitable for frying. The one oil that resists heat induced damage is coconut. Use this instead; throw out all the other oils and start cooking with extra virgin coconut oil which is plentifully available on Koh Samui. The brownish heat treated versions are usually rancid, avoid them for cooking but go instead for the clear, clean smelling variety sold by many shops. Please note that frying oil should not be re-used. Once it has been heated toss it out and use a fresh batch for the next cooking foray.”

This article by Alister Bredee first appeared in the “Samui Gazette” of December 14th 2011