Last updated: May 2016
In the past three years, sales of coconut oil in Britain have risen from around £1 million to £16.4 million.
The rise in popularity of coconut oil is primarily due to health claims made about this so called ‘superfood’ and its use as a substitute for dairy products such as butter, or cream in ice cream. (See our Non-dairy ice-cream guide).
Unlike the other cooking oil markets, this market is largely dominated by smaller brands which sell organic certified coconut oil. In fact, all the 16 brands in this guide are organic bar one.
However, some have raised concerns about the effects of this rising demand on coconut-growing regions.
Experience from other commodity markets shows us that higher demand and prices in western consumer markets does not necessarily translate into higher wages for the producers.
And this seems to be no different in the coconut oil market.
In 2013, the top producing region was the Philippines, a country where 60% of its coconut farmers live below the poverty line.
A quick survey of UK coconut oil prices found that on average it was sold for £5.50 for a 300ml jar. An average Philippine coconut farming household earns PHP16,000 (£243) a year.
Fairtrade International offers a word of caution against the current boom for coconut products and other so-called superfoods, saying “while it can have many positive impacts for farmers which include new business opportunities for local farmers and higher income it can also bring challenges too which are related to the sustainability of supply.”
They add that, for instance, “The perception that demand could increase further could lead to the clearing of native bush to plant coconut trees, so there are questions about the impact on existing flora & fauna.”
Furthermore, Nora Pittenger from Fair Trade USA listed these main ethical issues with coconut production:
1. Extreme poverty: coconut farmers are among the poorest of the poor in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines; this threatens the sustainability of coconut farming as a livelihood.
2. Unfavourable and variable prices: given that small plots of land are farmed, coconut farmers and farm workers average about one dollar a day throughout the year.
3. Low yields and productivity: particularly as coconut trees age, their inefficiency makes the cost of maintaining and harvesting coconuts extremely high.
4. Mono-crop farming: coconut is mainly grown as a mono-crop; fostering an environment of low crop diversity that can be detrimental to the environment and risky for farmers.
What can consumers do?
To ensure the best conditions for the farmer and the environment, consumers should aim to buy coconut oil which is certified organic and Fair Trade.
Of the brands covered in this guide, there only two companies offering double certification – Lucy Bee and Tiana.
All the rest of the brands, apart from KTC, offer consumers organically certified coconut oil which can help to avoid some of the issues listed above.
In 2018, Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan school of public health, poured scorn on the superfood movement and singled out the fad for coconut oil in particular, calling the substance “one of the worst things you can eat” that was as good for wellbeing as “pure poison”.
Michels based her warning on the high proportion of saturated fat in coconut oil, which is known to raise levels of so-called LDL cholesterol, and so the risk of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil contains more than 80% saturated fat, more than twice the amount found in lard, and 60% more than is found in beef dripping.
Victoria Taylor, a senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation said:
“We know that diets high in saturated fat are associated with increased non-HDL cholesterol in the blood, and high cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.
“There has been speculation that some of the saturated fat present in coconut oil may be better for us than other saturated fats, but so far there is not enough good-quality research to provide us with a definitive answer.
“What we do know is that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats like vegetable oil, olive oil and sunflower oil, and their spreads, has been shown as an effective way to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels, so this would be a healthier choice.
“For the time being, if you like the taste of coconut oil, then, as with butter, it’s fine to use it every now and then. However, it’s best to restrict yourself to small amounts and use unsaturated oils as an everyday choice instead.”
Best Buy Lucy Bee say this on their website:
"All fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. Coconut oil is composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).
"The vast majority of fats and oils in our diets, whether they are saturated or unsaturated or come from animals or plants, are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Some 98 to 100% of all the fatty acids you consume are LCFA.
"MCFA are different from LCFA.
"Nearly 50% of coconut oil MCFAs are lauric acid, the richest source naturally available. This converts to a substance called monolaurin in the body.
"Monolaurin is found in abundance in human breast milk, part of Mother Nature’s immune support that is passed from mother to child. Anything in breast milk must be very gentle on the baby, yet effective at boosting immunity."
Company behind the brand
Tiana Fair Trade Organics sells coconut oil which is organic and certified by Ecocert Fair Trade.
The organisation states that, since 2000, Ecocert: "has encouraged the rise of new business trends by developing the following private standards including EFT (Ecocert Fair Trade) for economically and socially responsible organic fair trade products".
Its standards for fair trade include provisions for discrimination, forced labour, child labour and freedom of association. The standards do not appear to provide a social premium to producers or any guarantees on prices paid for produce.
Tiana's website states that it has a fair trade project that started at the end of 2009 when multiple typhoons hit the Philippines and coconut farmers lost their homes and almost all their income. The Tiana Fair Trade project guarantees a fair price for coconuts which allows coconut farmers to earn at least 25 percent more than the minimum wage requirements in the Philippines.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 The Telegraph, 15th February 2016, The truth about coconuts: superfood or fatty fad?
3 CNN, How Philippines is battling to cash in on coconut craze, 30 November 2015
4 Prices taken from Tesco and Sainsburys coconut oil brand available on its website March 2016
See our Product Guide to Cooking Oils to discover ethical ratings of Vegetable, Rapeseed and Sunflower Oils.