People Are Going Crazy For Coconut Oil – But Few Know About This Terrible Truth

The worst kept secret in the beauty industry these days relates to the magical, all-natural product that can do it all. We’re talking about coconut oil, of course, and you’ve probably heard someone singing its praises for these reasons and more. But for all of its beauty-related benefits, coconut oil hides a dark secret – one that might make you think twice about using it in your daily self-care regimen.

Coconut oil comes in a myriad of different forms. Of course, you can find it in kitchens the world over. It contains significant enough levels of saturated fat to allow it to be cooked at very high temperatures and not break down. Other vegetable oils do so, which can release toxins and hurt your health.

But coconut oil has become a staple in the beauty industry now, too. After all, it nourishes even the driest skin. Indeed, if you apply a thin layer over cracked heels at night and then slip into socks, you’ll likely wake up with softened feet. You can even use it as a facial moisturizer, so long as your skin doesn’t have a naturally oily surface.

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Coconut oil makes a great natural deodorant, too. It has antibacterial properties that kill the scent of sweat, no artificial chemicals required. A layer of the stuff can also help out with cracked cuticles. And at the end of a long day, you can rub it over makeup to gently remove your mascara, eyeliner and more.

For these and other reasons, the sale of coconut oil has skyrocketed in the United States and beyond. In 2019, for example, the country consumed around 490,500 tons of the tropical product. That figure was an increase on the year prior, during which Americans went through roughly 475,000 tons of the stuff.

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In spite of its rising popularity and myriad of uses, coconut oil doesn’t necessarily deserve its scot-free reputation. As it turns out, the tropical product has one major flaw – and few users know about it. So, before you start slathering it on, brush up on your coconut oil knowledge – it may not be the right product for you.

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In the right environment, a palm tree produces coconuts all year long, yielding up to roughly 120 of the bristled brown fruits annually. The ones that fall naturally when they’ve matured tend to produce the best flavor of all. But most producers will pluck coconuts from trees themselves to get the ball rolling more quickly.

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To create coconut oil, producers have to crack open the fruit to access its fleshy center. This part is called the kernel. From there, they can create the popular product in one of two ways. First, they might use the copra method. The term “copra” refers to the fruit’s kernel after it’s been dried out. The oil that results from this technique is the crude version of virgin or extra virgin varieties.

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To make copra-based coconut oil, producers start by splitting coconuts in half, then scooping out the kernel. They then take the fruit to a dryer, which could be a solar-powered machine, a type of kiln, or simply a rack dangled over an open fire. The drying process will normally last for three or four days, regardless of the method utilized.

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Once the copra is ready, it goes to an oil-seed mill, where it has to be refined. This process also requires the oil to be bleached and deodorized, since the crude product takes on a brownish color. To extract the edible oil, producers have to heat their copra to about 195 °F.

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In the end, the coconut oil will be white and perfectly safe for consumption. Meanwhile, the by-product of processing has a mealy texture full of fiber, which makes it the perfect food for livestock. Virgin and extra virgin varieties of coconut oil tend to be the higher quality option in comparison to copra-based jars.

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Most virgin or extra virgin coconut oils come from fruits that have fully matured and fallen on their own. Not only that, but producers carefully extract the kernel after they split the fruit. They only take the white fleshy bits from the center, which preserves the coconut’s color and flavor during processing.

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From there, though, producers can create virgin or extra virgin coconut oil in a few different ways. For example, they can use a screw-shaped press to reap oil from the coconut kernel. They might choose between a cold or warm press, the former of which helps to preserve nutrients and flavor. However, cold-pressed coconut results in a smaller amount of oil.

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Other coconut oil producers will rely on the centrifuge method instead. Rather than using the intact kernel, they shred up the fleshy fruit and heat it up. As it gets warmer, it separates into coconut milk and cream. They skim off the latter, then put the former into a centrifuge, which pulls the oil from the liquid.

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Finally, coconut oil makers – especially those who craft their tropical cooking staple at home – can try fermenting it. The process begins with an extra-long heating session. Coconut milk, you see, has to be warmed for 36 to 48 hours. Then, it has to sit for another stretch, during which heavier and lighter compounds separate naturally.

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Fermentation creates curds within the coconut oil, so it’ll have to be heated a second time to clean it up and separate all the components. After that, producers filter and store their final product. And while this process creates a virgin or extra virgin variety of coconut oil, it’s not as cleanly done as expeller-pressed or centrifuge-separated options.

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It’s these methods that bring coconut oil from the palm tree to the shelves of your local grocery store. And whether or not you use it, you probably know just how popular coconut oil is. Worldwide, some 30.8 million acres of land are dedicated to growing coconuts, which indicates just how big its production has become.

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Indeed, coconut oil does have plenty of benefits for our bodies both inside and out. People use coconut oil as an ingredient in their cooking just as commonly as they add it into their moisturizing skincare routines. For all the good that coconut can do, though, the fruit hides a dark secret.

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And it’s not the first tropical oil to carry with it some serious consequences that consumers have to contemplate before using it themselves. Palm oil is even more popular than coconut oil – 49.4 million acres of land are dedicated to its production, in comparison. But making it comes at a huge cost to the planet.

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In Indonesia, for example, the production of palm oil has led to major deforestation of the country’s rainforests in favor of plantations that produce the sought-after ingredient. In order to make the space for these production sites, the lands are set alight. The fires that then rage have an even more adverse effect than they otherwise might, because the ground is comprised of peat.

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Peat contains as much as 28 times more carbon than regular soil. In fact, if it sits for millions of years, it’ll transform into coal. So, as plantation owners clear the Indonesian rainforests, they burn trees and peat, which can send roughly 6,500 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per two and a half acres.

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Indonesian palm oil production also creates dense clouds of air pollution, which sicken the individuals that breathe it in. The fumes even sent thousands of people from nearby countries to the hospital in 2013. In fact, Malaysia and Singapore had to shut schools in order to keep their populations safe.

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Animals suffer because of palm oil production, too. The Indonesian rainforests have a rich array of creatures living within them. Examples include tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants – all of which are endangered. In fact, the United Nations has stated that after 2020, it’s unlikely that orangutans will survive beyond protected territories because their environment has been so destroyed.

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The Sumatran elephant could also face a similar fate, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In a 2013 report, the group urged people to act now in order to save the mammals, which could disappear entirely in three decades. The I.U.C.N. reported, “Effective action on the ground should be taken immediately to protect Sumatran elephants from extinction.”

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But it’s not just the burning of trees that poses a problem. Those who work to extract and create palm oil on these plantations often face exploitation on the job. Some of the producers rely on child labor, as well. According to a 2020 report by the World Wildlife Fund, “These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address, because it doesn’t have to be this way.”

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Fortunately, some strides have been made to revolutionize the palm oil industry before it’s too late. In 2004 the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil formed to standardize quality production. It also set guidelines for sourcing the product from reputable suppliers, a step that the WWF deemed to be vital in its 2020 report.

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Many people know the downsides of palm oil production and use, though. What may be more surprising is the fact that coconut oil has its negatives, too. Specifically, coconut oil has a huge environmental impact – and it may even be worse than that of palm oil, especially in the long run.

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As previously mentioned, coconut oil production takes up less space than palm oil production – 30.8 million acres of land for the former, 49.4 million acres for the latter. But coconut palms grow on tropical lands, where the natural biodiversity is one of a kind. So, taking that away in favor of growing more of one type of tree can be a disaster for the environment.

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As such, coconut oil production adversely affects more species than any other oil crops – and that figure includes palm oil. The I.U.C.N. has found that coconut oil production poses a threat to roughly 20 different species per ton or so that’s produced. Olive oil is next on the list, threatening around 4 species per ton. Then comes palm oil.

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Already, coconut oil may have already contributed to the disappearance of some tropical species. Two types of animal – the Ontong Java flying fox from the Solomon Islands and the Seychelles’ Marian white-eye bird – haven’t been seen since the mid-1940s. Much of the land they used to inhabit has since become plantations for coconut production.

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Experts have their eye out for other species threatened by coconut oil production, too. They include two creatures from Sangihe, an Indonesian island. These are a primate called the Sangihe tarsier and the Cerulean paradise flycatcher. Meanwhile, the Balabac mouse-deer – which you can find on a trio of Philippine islands – is also in danger.

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Of course, it’s not just coconut oil that’s hurt the ecosystems in which it’s now grown. Palm oil, of course, has pushed the orangutan and Sumatran elephant close to total extinction. And in Spain, approximately 2.6 million birds died during the olive harvest, as workers vacuumed up the prized fruit.

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Despite all this, neither olive oil nor coconut oil has gotten as much attention as palm oil for their negative effects on the environment. Conservation scientist Erik Meijaard has authored a study on the subject. He hopes that would change as people learn about the negative side-effects that coconut oil has on biodiversity.

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Meijaard, who also chaired the I.U.C.N.’s Palm Oil Task Force, spoke to Bloomberg in July 2020. He said, “Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment. As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut.”

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It might be hard for customers to change their minds about coconut oil, too. Most of them have switched to coconut-based products because they think it’s better for the planet. As such, Meijaard concluded that buyers have to be better informed of what they’re buying into before they purchase products deemed eco-friendly.

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The report read, “It remains challenging to identify and weigh which species and environments have been or will be threatened by production of which products, and in which contexts, but such measures are needed. New measures can enable consumers to make better choices. While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not.”

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Meijaard echoed this sentiment in a July 2020 piece he wrote for The Conversation. The conservationist explained, “Like the production of any commodity, the coconut can be grown in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts and maximizes the social benefits for local people, as well as the health of those that consume it.”

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Indeed, in Meijaard’s initial report, he and the rest of the study team reiterated the fact that people didn’t have to avoid coconut oil for good. Such a harsh step would mean they’d have to skip out on other popular products. This would include olive oil, for its detrimental effect on birds.

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Instead, it’s all about giving the customer the chance to learn about what it is they’re actually buying – and to demand better. The study’s co-author was Douglas Sheil, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Speaking to Bloomberg in July 2020, he reiterated this point of view himself.

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Sheil said, “Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impact. We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.” With that, Meijaard wrote for The Conversation, we might see the systemic change that the food industry needs in order to protect the planet.

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