Super-foods are in; sugar and low-fat are out: this is the growing message from the food industry, where the rise in popularity of supposed nutritional powerhouses is propelling a mixture of traditionally healthy staples and freshly discovered fare to a new level.
Driving this trend is an increasing number of consumers searching for ingredients that provide more bang for their nutritional buck, resulting in a new wave of foods promising to deliver everything from weight loss to longevity.
First it was quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), the high-protein, low-carbohydrate alternative to rice and wheat that had the food scene aglow.
Now, the humble coconut is in the spotlight. Previously associated only with tropical islands and pina coladas, the coconut has made a profound entrance to the health food scene, with products such as coconut oil and coconut water flying off the shelves.
One reason for the rise in consumption of this fruit, once discredited nutritionally for being so high in fat, is a global shift in the knowledge and acceptance of the role of saturated fat in the diet. According to recent scientific studies, including this one in the Annals of Internal Medicine, there is insufficient evidence to support the long-held belief that fat, particularly saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease. This knowledge has essentially turned upside down the common belief, originating in the 1970s, that saturated fat is the dietary devil.
Up until recently, it was believed that saturated fat didn’t just make you fat; it could kill you. Now it seems this may not be the case. While this changing body of evidence isn’t a green light to start consuming burgers in large quantities, it is enough to catapult foods such as the coconut into the spotlight.
But the coconut is ruffling feathers on its own accord. Coconut water – the water extracted from young green coconuts – hit the health scene several years back, after celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston were spotting guzzling the stuff post-workout. Touted for its high levels of electrolytes, magnesium and potassium, along with relatively low levels of fructose (fruit sugar), coconut water makes for an attractive and natural alternative to the lab-produced glorified cordials that are sports drinks. While it’s an acquired taste to some palates, sales of this niche drink continue to grow, with launches of coconut water quintupling over the past five years. This is despite its luxury price tag and cult status among die-hard foodies.
Perhaps the most startling growth in the coconut category has been the increasing demand for coconut oil. Once completely disregarded as a high-fat oil (virgin coconut oil is around 90 per cent saturated fat), it is now alleged that the oil can significantly increase good cholesterol levels, as well as help to lower bad cholesterol in the body. Add to this the other apparent health benefits, such as glowing skin and hair, coupled with the food industry’s favourite claim – its potential slimming qualities – and you have a nutritional powerhouse on your hands.
Along with dietary benefits, coconut oil is spruiked as an alternative to moisturiser for dry skin, as a shaving gel for men and as an eye makeup remover. It is also known for antibacterial and antifungal properties, assisting in healing wounds.
Other coconut products are now cropping up in health food stores and grocers, as the food begins to gain more mainstream traction. Coconut butters and coconut milk are gaining popularity among vegans and those who shun dairy products. Snacks derived from coconut chips are slowly appearing on supermarket shelves, complementing the already well-established lines of coconut water and oil.
But the question remains whether coconuts are all they’re cracked up to be.
Nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillian is yet to be convinced that coconut oil has all that many health benefits.
“(The health benefits of coconut oil) are grossly exaggerated in the media, without much scientific evidence to back up the claims,” she said.
“More research is definitely needed here and so it is too early to go recommending this oil.”
The category is showing no signs of slowing, however, with consumer trend data, such as that compiled by consumer tracking company Mintel, showing a 780 per cent growth rate for coconut oil between 2008 and 2012.
Miracle claims aside, is this tropical fruit a super food or simply a super fad? On this question, unfortunately, the jury is still out.
This is the second in a series of articles from Lucy Travers, an entrepreneur in the health and wellness industry who hails from Adelaide and now calls New York City home (the first article looked at the cold pressed juice fad). In addition to her many roles in health-food start-ups, Lucy is also a health coach and writes extensively about health and wellness on her website, www.lucytravers.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @LucySTravers
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