This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Trouble in Paradise: Coconut Water Wars and Coconut Oil Controversies, first released on October 11, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
WOMAN: Coconut oil kind of swept in and became the darling of the decade.
DR. OZ: And it certainly did. So we’ve been uncovering some headlines. These are, this is some of the coconut oil hype, specifically one, our headline said: “Five ways you can use coconut oil to lose weight.” Another said, one said, “why everyone’s obsessed with coconut oil.”
OBAMA: I know what I’ll do, like. Right after the next president’s inaugurated. You know, I’ll be on a beach somewhere.
OBAMA: Drinking out of a coconut.
SINGER: She put the lime in the coconut, she drank ‘em both up. She put the lime in the coconut, call the doctor, woke ‘em up…
NICOLA TWILLEY: Awesome, now I’m going to be singing that all day. Honestly, it’s not often you’ll find Dr. Oz and President Obama on the same page, but if there’s one thing that can bring us all together, it is, apparently, the coconut.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And we have a Gastropod listener who certainly agrees.
DENIS SELLU: Yeah, my name is Dennis Sellu, and I am a longtime listener.
GRABER: Denis is both a Gastropod fan and a coconut superfan—in fact his avatar on Zoom is a coconut.
SELLU: Growing up in Sierra Leone, there’s like, a lot of coconut-y dishes. I remember going to the beach with my parents. And as I grew up, as I got older and older, I just enjoyed more and more coconut.
TWILLEY: Denis was into coconuts way before coconuts were cool.
SELLU: [LAUGHS] Basically, yes. I started looking into it more and more and seeing it becoming more and more cool. You know. And I’m like, well, you know, there’s a reason for it. It deserves its coolness.
GRABER: As he says, Denis has been digging into coconuts himself and he’s read all sorts of cool stories about them, but he hasn’t been able to answer quite all of his coco-nutty questions.
SELLU: For me, It’s like a lot of things I learn, I learn surface level and then I want to dive deeper.
TWILLEY: You know, I think I know a podcast that does that.
GRABER: Denis’ wish is our command this episode, as we take a bite of the coconut. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode we’ve got Moana, Gwyneth, Captain Bligh, JFK, and more, all lined up to help us tell the story of the curious coconut.
GRABER: This episode, how the same fruit that gives us the shredded white stuff we enjoy in candy bars also sustained sailors for months at sea, and today it might be helping make nuclear fusion a reality.
TWILLEY: All that, plus the scoop on whether you should believe any of that hype about coconut oil. This episode is supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, in support of our coverage of biomedical research, and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics.
GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
KAI MCPHEE: You can stick your straw in there or you can just tip it back, either way.
TWILLEY: Oh God, that’s delicious.
GRABER: That’s so good.
TWILLEY: That’s fabulous.
TWILLEY: This was the freshest coconut water we’ve ever had because we were drinking it on a coconut farm.
GRABER: Nicky and I recently traveled to Hawaii, because Hawaii is a perfect spot for tasting and reporting on a huge variety of tropical delights in one place. And coconuts today symbolize tropical delights on tropical coasts all over the world. Including Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii.
MCPHEE: It’s hard to look in any direction in Hawaii without having dozens of coconut trees in your skyline at all times. And they’re very important to the cultural history of Hawaii and Hawaiian people. But that’s true for basically every culture around the world where coconut trees grow.
TWILLEY: This is Kai McPhee, and he is a coconut farmer. His dad started the farm about 20 years ago, and he has about 200 coconut palms.
MCPHEE: So on this planet where you find coconut trees, it’s that tropical belt around the equator. It’s from about 20 to 20 degrees of latitude on either side. Outside of that, you won’t see them anymore. In the US, only the southern tip of Florida and Hawaii, these are the only two places where coconut trees can grow.
GRABER: From where we stood on Kai’s farm, we could see the Pacific Ocean gleaming blue, not too far away from us. And it made sense we could see it—because coconuts love the ocean.
MCPHEE: So the preferred natural habitat of a coconut tree, it’s the same as me, as close to the ocean as possible. Right in the sand, that’s where they thrive. And that’s where coconut trees have been thriving for a very, very long time.
TWILLEY: Coconuts have adapted to prefer salty water and sandy soil and ocean breezes. But the real reason they particularly like the beach is because they are sun worshippers.
MCPHEE: Sun bathing. All day, every day. They’re professionals. That’s why they grow a hundred feet tall. They’re trying to out-compete all the plants around them for full sun. So you can think of a palm frond as a giant solar panel. It’s just soaking up solar energy all day.
GRABER: You might have seen on the beach yourself—or in photos—that coconut trees kind of lean over the water. That’s because the fronds are also picking up reflected sun from the water, so they get sun in all directions, like those little metal reflectors people used to use for sunbathing before we all learned about the dangers of skin cancer.
TWILLEY: Fortunately coconuts seem to be immune to that. But the other huge reason coconuts like the beach is because they rely on the motion of the ocean for reproductive purposes.
MCPHEE: Okay. You can think of a coconut as the seed of a coconut tree. It’s the only way a coconut tree can sprout and grow. So think about the way that most plants and most trees spread their seeds around our planet: blowing in the wind, getting pooped out of a bird on the top of a hill. It’s just not an option for a coconut.
GRABER: It’s just too big. So the coconut seed has to either fall onto the sand and roll down the sand away from its parent, so it can find a sunny spot to grow in, or it has to fall straight into the water where it can float for months to find another beach to land on and grow.
TWILLEY: Apart from sunbathing, reproduction is what coconuts are all about. They truly have embraced the sun, sand, and sex lifestyle.
MCPHEE: Once the tree starts to produce coconuts, it becomes hyper productive. They’re very good at what they do.
GRABER: Coconuts produce fresh fruit basically all year round, they are constantly going through the process of flowering and making new coconuts. If you’re a coconut farmer, you can harvest coconuts 12 months a year.
TWILLEY: Coconuts take a really long time to go from baby nut to fully mature—about 14 months. And based on when in that 14 month span you decide to harvest them, you’ve got a variety of options for how to consume them.
MCPHEE: Six months is about as young as I would consider harvesting a coconut.
GRABER: Kai took us over to his coconut cracking station. Which you might also call a tree stump. He’d chosen a few coconuts of different ages for us to try, he got out his machete, and we started with the youngest one, the skin was still pale green.
MCPHEE: Okay. So when a coconut is on the younger side, like this one here, it’s relatively easy to open if you have the right tools.
[SHARP CHOP, STRIPPING WOOD]
TWILLEY: Kai used his machete to shave the husk away.
MCPHEE: Okay. See the shell there? That’s the next layer.
GRABER: First, we drank our fill of the refreshing, lightly sweet water, and then Kai chopped the whole thing in half to reveal a kind of wobbly jelly-like center.
MCPHEE: And this is not the coconut that you would find in any commercially available coconut food product. So the only way you’d ever get to try this kind of younger, softer meat is straight from a fresh coconut.
TWILLEY: Forget the shredded dry stuff you know from cakes and candy bars altogether. At this stage, the white lining of the coconut husk is a lot thinner and a lot more gelatinous. It sort of glistens, and you can almost scoop it out with just a standard knife.
TWILLEY: Mm! Still has a bite to it.
GRABER: Mm-hmm. Tastes like coconut.
TWILLEY: Mm-hmm. It’s delicious.
GRABER: Very fresh tasting. Mm-hmm.
TWILLEY: I would have this in a salad.
GRABER: Oh, I would just eat it.
TWILLEY: Green papaya? It’d be amazing.
GRABER: While we were enjoying the young coconut, Kai reached over and got an older one for us, it had turned a little more of an yellowy-brown color with age.
MCPHEE: Okay. So it’s much lighter now because there’s basically no moisture in the husk anymore. Another good way to tell—[WATER SLOSHING]—is this sound. We call that a shaker. If you hear space in the coconut, you know it’s not a young coconut anymore.
TWILLEY: By this age a coconut is tough. You may remember the scene in Cast Away where Tom Hanks is struggling to open a coconut and the rock he’s using breaks before the coconut does. Coconuts can defeat most objects. Even a machete.
MCPHEE: Chopping it with a machete is very inefficient. What we want to do with this coconut is basically peel the husk off. And the most traditional way to do that is using what’s called a husking stick. That’s just a sharp stick sticking out of the ground. You push the coconut down onto it and peel the husk away using the leverage of the stick. Even on the largest industrial scale you can imagine, this is still the way the majority of coconuts are processed around the world, one at a time by hand.
[SHARP CRACK, HUSK PEELING]
GRABER: Kai shoved the coconut down onto the husking stick and peeled away the husk.
TWILLEY: If you picture a grown-up coconut in cross section, you’ve got the yellowy outer skin, that’s pretty thin but it’s waterproof. Then you’ve got an inch or so of brown hairiness. And then you hit a tough dark brown shell.
GRABER: Kai cracked into that inner shell with the back of a machete.
[CRACK, HISS OF AIR]
MCPHEE: So you can hear the vacuum break. So it’s a good sign of freshness. One more tap on the back.
TWILLEY: Once he’d got it open, we could see, the interior of a fully mature coconut looked really different. The shell was dark, dark, brownish black, and the coconut meat was quite a bit thicker, about three quarters of an inch, and it was blinding brilliant white.
GRABER: We stared longingly at the coconut meat, but we still couldn’t have a taste—as anyone who’s ever tried their hand at splitting open a whole mature coconut knows, unlike the young coconut, you can’t just grab a knife and easily get that stuff out. It is hard.
MCPHEE: Well, this is a traditional coconut shredder. This is the business end here. Just kind of a half-moon serrated blade that is affixed to something you would generally sit on. This might be the most common household utensil on the planet.
GRABER: It was a little stool that had a serrated, curved blade sticking out at the end so you could sit on it and lean down just a little to scrape the inside of the coconut.
MCPHEE: This does two things at once. It removes the meat out of the shell and it shreds the meat at the same time.
TWILLEY: What you end up with is this very pretty mound of soft, glistening snow-like coconut meat.
MCPHEE: And this is going to have the full strength flavor of the coconut now, so you’ll be able to taste the creaminess of it. You could feel the oil on your fingers. That’s pure coconut oil.
TWILLEY: Oh, it feels like, lovely and moist and fluffy. It’s delightful. Mm!
GRABER: It was chewy because coconut meat has a lot of fiber in it. It was also just a little bit sweet, and it had an amazing creamy mouthfeel. Kai also showed us how he could easily make coconut cream by literally pressing the shavings between his fingers.
MCPHEE: Okay, you see that? So that’s full fat coconut cream because we didn’t add any water to it yet.
TWILLEY: You want to, you want to smoosh?
GRABER: I want to do some smooshing. Ooh. I’ve just rubbed it onto my arm. I’ve just rubbed it onto my arm. That’s lovely.
TWILLEY: This is like a spa, spa interview. Don’t mind us, we’re just rubbing fresh coconut cream all over our bodies.
TWILLEY: This is something I hadn’t really realized, but at the point when you press that fresh coconut, that’s coconut cream. And then if you thin it out a little with some water, it’s coconut milk. Like the kind you buy in a tin.
MCPHEE: Coconut oil is the final culmination of processing mature coconut meat. First you have to extract the cream, then you can process the oil from the cream.
GRABER: You’ve seen coconut oil in stores—the most common way to get that is to dry the coconut meat to get some water out, press it, and then separate out the clear fat from everything else using either enzymes, or a centrifuge, or even microbial fermentation.
TWILLEY: Microbes! Drink! Coconut water, obviously.
GRABER: And then there’s one final coconut food product you can get out of the fruit that I’d never heard of before, and it’s apparently super rare. So, basically, when a coconut seed sprouts, it sends out three shoots—one becomes the roots, one becomes the trunk, and the third goes into the husk to process nutrients to feed the new baby tree.
MCPHEE: Eventually it’ll fill the whole cavity in here and it’s tapping into all the internally stored resources, all the fat energy, all the moisture that’s in here. This is like the battery pack for the coconut sprout.
TWILLEY: And that battery pack is apparently very tasty. It’s a delicacy known as sprouted coconut.
MCPHEE: That part that is going into this coconut, it engorges itself inside. And once it’s fully engorged, it has a very light, airy texture, kind of like an angel food cake. But it’s angel food cake that is practically sopping wet with coconut oil. So it’s very rich. Here in Hawaiian culture it was reserved for royalty
GRABER: Kai did not have any engorged coconut sprouts for us to try, unfortunately. Nor are we royalty, so maybe it’s just as well.
TWILLEY: Podcasting royalty, surely? Next time, maybe.
GRABER: But obviously, as you all can now tell, coconuts are pretty awesome—they grow year round, you can eat them at many different stages and enjoy a variety of delicious treats. Plus the trees live for 80 years! They’re great!
TWILLEY: So great that it seems like they were invented twice.
MARY NEWMAN: Well, there’s two kind of ideas: India and more of the Pacific Ocean area. And so there’s probably two origins.
GRABER: Mary Newman is one of two authors of a recent book about coconuts. And it turns out this two-origin theory she’s describing is really recent science. National Geographic sponsored a big project to collect coconut DNA from 1,300 trees from around the world, and they were able to narrow in on what look like two distinct populations, one around the Indian Ocean and one in the Pacific basin.
TWILLEY: Scientists say what this probably means is that people started cultivating coconuts independently in those two places. Because they’re awesome, like we said.
MCPHEE: In almost every culture around the world where coconut trees grow, this plant is referred to as the tree of life. The tree that bears life. The tree that brings everlasting life.
GRABER: Coconut mythology is obviously based on how great the tree is for humans—and speaking of humans, remember how we said that there are three shoots that grow out of a coconut? Well, when you crack open the husk and see the coconut shell, the spots where the three shoots sprout from are dark circles, and together they kind of look like a face.
NEWMAN: I mean, it’s brown and it’s got hair and it’s got three holes. Usually people think of it as two eyes and a mouth. And there’s lots of creation stories about where it came from. And most of them have to do with a head being cut off and being planted. And it grew up to be a coconut tree.
TWILLEY: In all these stories, if you plant a human head, a coconut tree will sprout. Don’t try this one at home, kids.
GRABER: In one of the origin stories of the coconut told on a small South Pacific Island, two brothers were out in a canoe, and the devil came and said he was going to flip their canoe over and eat them.
NEWMAN: And so the brothers started fighting. And the one won and killed the other brother. And he cut his brother’s body into little pieces and kept throwing the little pieces to the devil. And the devil was quite happy with the little treats he was getting and eventually went away. So he had fed everything but the head, so he came back to shore and he planted the head. I guess he felt a little bad at that point. I don’t know. And that grew up to be a coconut tree.
TWILLEY: Thus showing that no bad deed goes unrewarded.
GRABER: And a reward it was, because the coconut trees were absolutely essential for survival for the people who lived on islands in the Pacific. As folks in Moana know well.
SINGERS: Consider the coconut (the what?)
Consider its tree
We use each part of the coconut, that’s all we need
We make our nets from the fibers
The water is sweet inside
We use the leaves to build fires
We cook up the meat inside
Consider the coconut
The trunks and the leaves (ha!)
The island gives us what we need
TWILLEY: We are a food podcast as you might have noticed, so we have been focused on the food and drink you can get from a coconut. Which is already a lot. The coconut was a huge, huge source of sustenance for people living in coastal tropical areas—fat, fiber, minerals.
GRABER: But that’s not all the coconut provided. Like you hear in Moana, you can use the fronds and wood and even the fibrous husk to weave ropes. You can build houses and make fun things like hats. Kai was wearing a coconut-frond hat when we met him.
MCPHEE: It never comes off.
TWILLEY: So: we have this marvelous fabulous coconut palm, lucky humans in a couple different places start cultivating it, but how do we get from there, to now, where the coconut is everywhere—anywhere with a beach in the tropics, you’ll pretty much find a coconut palm.
GRABER: This is a surprisingly controversial story, and that’s where we’re going, after a message from our sponsors.
GRABER: So the coconut seems to have originated in two places, in the southern Pacific, around the Philippines and New Guinea, and in the Indian Ocean, on the coasts of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. And so the question is: how did coconuts spread out from there?
NEWMAN: Of course the thought, first thought was that just floated. The second thought is that humans moved it and they probably moved it because coconut is a great thing to take if you’re on a trip. Well, I don’t take it on any trips. But, if you’re going on a seafaring voyage, the water inside a fresh coconut stays for quite a few months. Starts tasting worse and worse as it gets along, but the water stays. So you have a fresh source of water.
TWILLEY: You can obviously eat your traveling coconut if you need food, and then any that are still left when you arrive—you can plant them and do all the things people in Moana suggest, hats, houses, the whole shebang.
GRABER: Archaeologists know for a fact that Polynesians brought coconuts with them on their canoes as they spread out and colonized islands such as Hawaii. The question is whether there were coconuts there already or not.
MCPHEE: Okay. So this—yeah. This is getting into controversial territory here. Do I believe that the first voyaging canoes of Polynesians that came to settle these islands 1500 years ago had coconuts on their boat? Absolutely. We’re talking about nature’s perfectly packaged sports drink. I’d have sunk the boat with coconuts if I was going on that trip. But for me to think that coconuts had not previously arrived, before humans, you just can’t convince me of that.
TWILLEY: Kai’s argument is: First of all, you have to think about how long coconuts have been around. There have been coconut fossils found in what’s now Gujurat, in India, that are thought to be 37 million years old.
MCPHEE: And, in the ocean, coconuts can float extremely well. They can float for months at a time. They can travel thousands of miles in that time. So every day around the world, millions and millions of coconuts fall out of coconut trees into the oceans. All of the oceans around the world are full of coconuts. Chock-full, billions of them at all times. In the ocean they’re adrift. They can reach every corner of the planet, and they do, but only in that tropical region do they have the ability to sprout and grow.
GRABER: And so Kai agrees that, yes, when the Polynesians showed up on the Hawaiian shores about fifteen hundred years ago, they’d definitely have brought coconuts with them. But Kai thinks that coconuts were already there, too.
MCPHEE: I have a strong belief that coconuts are very likely one of the very first plants to have ever grown on these islands. I can’t think of another plant that would’ve been, first of all, been able to arrive to the islands before coconuts, but also been more perfectly suited to establish themselves there. This is what the coconut does. It’s a pioneer plant. And it is set up to do just that.
TWILLEY: Without a time machine, a definitive ruling on whether coconuts first arrived solo or with humans is going to remain elusive. There’s some fairly recent small scale archaeological evidence of coconut pollen deposits on the islands that pre-date human settlement, so it’s possible Kai is right and some coconuts established themselves before humans arrived. But pollen deposits skyrocket after Polynesian colonization, so a lot definitely did come with humans.
GRABER: Because every single time any sailors came across these wondrous plants, they took them along for the ride. Polynesian sailors carried them around the South Pacific. Arab sailors likely carried coconuts from India to the east coast of Africa as early as 2000 years ago.
TWILLEY: And then later, Portuguese sailors brought them on their travels all around the East Indies and back to the Western coastline of Africa.
GRABER: And Spaniards brought them to the Caribbean and Central and South America.
TWILLEY: Sailors would deliberately plant them wherever they dropped anchor along their travels—the coconut trees would grow and become like a freeway service station: a one stop shop for food, oil and, importantly, fresh drinking water.
MCPHEE: So you can think of a coconut tree as a giant water filter. This tree is pulling tons of water out of the ground on a constant basis. Sometimes that water’s brackish, sometimes it’s straight out of the ocean. And it’s pushing that water 60 to 80 feet into the air. Through this really dense, fibrous trunk. So along the way, it becomes highly purified.
GRABER: Coconuts were so essential to sailors that they even were one of the triggers for probably the most famous shipside mutiny of all times, the mutiny on the Bounty.
CAPTAIN BLIGH: There is a thief among us. Yes, there is a thief on board this ship. Last night, my personal store of coconuts was well up to the top of the netting. And this morning- well, look for yourselves.
TWILLEY: This is Anthony Hopkins and along with Mel Gibson, they are playing the parts of real life historical people, William Bligh, captain of Her Majesty’s Vessel the Bounty, and crewmate Fletcher Christian.
BLIGH: Now if the thief will not declare himself—
FLETCHER CHRISTIAN: I took one. [LONG PAUSE] I was thirsty. I took one of your coconuts. I thought it of no consequence.
BLIGH: Impound the personal stores of every man on Mr. Christian’s watch. And put them on half rations.
GALL: Aye-aye, sir.
TWILLEY: No spoilers here, but after Fletcher stole a coconut, and Bligh cut their rations, the men revolted, and everything went a bit tits up.
GRABER: There’s more to the story, of course, you can read about the real thing or watch the 1984 movie, but the point is, as we’ve said, coconuts were absolutely critical on a long sea voyage.
TWILLEY: So coconuts were a daily delight in the tropics and a travel essential for sailors, but back in Europe, they were super exciting and rare.
NEWMAN: There was coconut shells that would be brought back to Europe and they were decorated with jewels. There was one theory that if a king drank from a coconut shell and it didn’t turn a funny color or something like that, it would tell you that it wasn’t poisonous. But these cups are in museums now.
GRABER: These goblets are surprisingly ornate and beautiful, the shells are intricately carved and they’re bedecked with gold and silver. There’s one in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and we have images on our website and social media.
TWILLEY: Coconut shell goblets were a thing in Europe, but only for the most elite. But by the late 1800s, various Europeans had figured out how to dry shredded coconut to preserve it, so they could ship it back home. And then somewhere along the line, delicious shaved coconut became a fibrous, sweet straw-like substance that people put on cakes and baked into cookies. So how did that happen?
GRABER: In the US, the story largely begins in 1894 with a man in Philadelphia appropriately named Franklin Baker.
NEWMAN: He was a flour merchant, and he was selling flour to Cuba. And whoever he sold it to didn’t pay him in cash, paid him in coconuts. And so he got in Philadelphia, a shipload of coconuts and he had, as the story goes, he had never seen coconuts before and didn’t know what to do with them. And probably was a little annoyed [LAUGHS] that he got paid in coconuts instead of money. But anyway, the story goes that he asked a secretary, what do I do with these things? And apparently she came up with a lot of the ideas we still have today of putting them in dessert, sprinkling it on top of cakes and cookies and all the sweet uses.
TWILLEY: The long and short is that Franklin Baker added sugar as a preservative, his secretary came up with the recipe suggestions, and the sweetened desiccated coconut of my childhood nightmares was born. There was nothing worse than finding that stuff on top of an otherwise perfectly delicious birthday cake.
GRABER: It was definitely a part of my childhood, too, though I didn’t mind it at all, I actually liked it. It also was a key ingredient in every Passover seder, we always had macaroons at the end. Not the almond macaron, but rather the coconut macaroon, we’ll have the story of that linguistic mixup in our special supporters’ newsletter, you can get on the list by going to gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: Jewish holiday traditions aside, the people that really embraced sweetened shredded coconut were Southerners. Like Mary’s mother.
NEWMAN: And we only have basically three recipes from my mother that have been preserved that we happen to have. One’s for a coconut cream pie, the other one’s for a coconut ambrosia, with sour cream, coconut, pineapple, oranges, all together, basic potluck dinner kind of thing that you would take for a dessert. And then another one’s a cookie bar that you put toasted coconut on. So it seems odd that from, you know, a mother from 1950s would have three recipes and only three preserved. And all of them use coconut.
GRABER: It sounds odd but it’s actually not, because the south was the first region of the US to really embrace the coconut because it was the closest to the Caribbean. Ships brought coconuts in to Southern ports, and Southern cooks quickly took advantage of the bounty to create all sorts of coconut desserts.
TWILLEY: Speaking of bounty.
VOICEOVER: Bounty is moist, tender coconut. Covered with a thick, smooth, chocolatey coating.
SINGER: Paradise… I think I’ve just found a taste of paradise…
TWILLEY: Bounty Bars are *the* coconut chocolate bar in the UK, and Canada, and even Australia, where they somewhat misguidedly also seem to have a cherry flavored version, which sounds even worse than the original. A Bounty bar was the only chocolate bar I would kick out of bed as a kid.
GRABER: But it turns out that the famous British candy bar is actually a knock-off! That story, after the break.
GRABER: The original coconut candy bar is the Mounds bar, it was popularized by an Armenian immigrant in Connecticut named Peter Halajian, who changed his name to Peter Paul. He owned a candy company, and he acquired the coconut chocolate candy bar from another Connecticut company.
TWILLEY: Peter Paul’s Mounds were a huge hit.
SINGERS: Chocolate and coconut! Coconut and chocolate! Mounds by Peter Paul.
TWILLEY: Already, by the 1930s, Peter Paul was the world’s largest purchaser of coconuts, and then in World War II, the U.S. military added Mounds to ration packs.
GRABER: Peter himself died in the late 1920s, but the folks in charge of the Peter Paul company doubled down on their coconut success story, and they tweaked the candy bar by adding whole almonds, they wrapped it in milk chocolate instead of dark. In 1946 they released the new tweaked Mounds bar, which they called the Almond Joy.
SINGER: Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t! Almond joy’s got nuts. Mounds don’t. Almond joy’s got real milk chocolate. Coconut and munchy nuts too.
TWILLEY: This is Geoff’s favorite jingle of all jingles.
GEOFF MANAUGH: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t!
TWILLEY: It is apparently in the jingle hall of fame. Thanks to being married to Geoff, I have heard this jingle many many times, and yet I have still never tried either bar. And that’s because one, as I may have mentioned, I hate sweet desiccated coconut and two, in the UK, where I grew up, like I said, we had the Bounty Bar, which I now find out was not only disgusting but also a total knock-off.
GRABER: Because the candy company Mars, which is based in the US, they saw how successful Mounds and Almond Joy were, and they couldn’t compete here, but they introduced their own imitation, Bounty, in 1951 to the UK and then to Canada and Australia, too.
TWILLEY: And compared to the quirky delights of the Mounds and Almond Joy jingle, the Bounty bar ads were, let’s say, more adult in tone.
VOICEOVER: The pure taste of coconut.
SINGER: But while I’m waiting…
VOICEOVER: Bounty is moist, tender coconut.
SINGER: Try a little tenderness…
VOICEOVER: Drenched in a sea of chocolate.
SINGER: Try a little tenderness.
GRABER: If you think the jingle sounds….hot and heavy, you should see the actual video. Anyway. To go back to the Peter Paul company, they not only provided candy bars to the US troops in World War II, but they also turned the shells from their spent coconuts into charcoal and gave that to the US army for their gas masks.
MCPHEE: Under the husk is the hard shell. And when it’s young, it’s soft. But as it matures, it gets real hard and dense like a hard wood.
TWILLEY: Coconut shells are extremely dense and filled with the tiniest tiniest little holes, they call them micropores, because they’re so tiny. They’re invisible to the naked eye. But there are tons of them. And what that means is tons of surface area that can capture stuff, like poisonous gases.
MCPHEE: Commercially what they make with that shell is called activated charcoal. That’s what’s in every water filter on the planet. Huge in the beauty industry now. Face mask, toothpaste, kitty litter, deodorant, all kinds of stuff like that.
GRABER: Water filters, kitty litter, gas masks—and even the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, which is a huge nuclear fusion research center which when completed is supposed to be hotter than the sun’s core. To stop ITER from exploding, engineers have to capture unwanted helium gas so the pumps can cool effectively, and in tests one of the best ways they’ve found to do it is using activated charcoal from coconuts grown on a particular plantation in Indonesia.
TWILLEY: Honestly, this might be coconut’s most impressive trick. Unless you count saving the planet by subbing in for peat moss in your average backyard. The fibrous kind of hairy husk on a mature coconut is called coir, and you can weave it into things like ropes and doormats but it’s also great as a kind of potting mix for gardening.
MCPHEE: It’s very similar to peat moss, but it’s far superior, has better moisture retention, has a better pH balance. And most importantly, it’s highly sustainable. Billions of coconuts falling on the ground every day. Peat moss is mined out of 40,000 year old bogs in Canada, highly unsustainable.
TWILLEY: Really, the takeaway is, there is nothing the coconut cannot do. It is the Swiss Army knife of nuts. Even though it’s not technically a nut.
GRABER: You can drink from it, you can eat from it, you can build a gas mask or a house from it—and you can even use it to save your life, if you’re a future president from my home state of Massachusetts.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: And so my fellow Americans. Ask not what your country can do for you…
TWILLEY: Ask, instead, what your coconuts can do for you.
GRABER: John F. Kennedy became well acquainted with the coconut when his patrol boat was torpedoed in the South Pacific in 1943, and he had to swim more than three miles to the nearest island, he even towed an injured crewmate with him. There were no people living on that small island.
TWILLEY: But fortunately it was home to some friendly coconuts. Which JFK and his crewmate drank and ate and then realized could be their ticket to safety.
NEWMAN: And he wrote on a coconut shell, the coordinates of where he could be located.
TWILLEY: He gave the shell to some South Pacific natives who happened to float by in their canoe, and they smuggled it to the Allies, and happy days, JFK and his crew were eventually rescued.
NEWMAN: That coconut shell was still on his desk in the, I guess, in the White House. I don’t know how long he kept it, but it’s in a museum now. And it basically saved his life
GRABER: Kennedy was kept alive by one single coconut. But he didn’t try to live on coconuts. Unlike one German guy named August Engelhardt, he lived in the early 1900s and he believed that man and woman could and should live on coconut alone.
NEWMAN: He started a religion where he thought you should only eat coconut and nothing else, but coconut. And his theory was, again, it looks like a human head, but it’s way at the top of a palm tree. And it’s closer to God than anything else. But he thought because of that, you should only eat coconut. He was a little bit of a strange dude.
TWILLEY: He started out as a radical vegetarian and a nudist and then he went full coconut. He published a pamphlet under the title “A Carefree Future: The New Gospel” laying out his coconut philosophy. And then, with 15 followers of his new coco-gospel, he moved to the South Pacific, to what’s now Papua New Guinea. And there they attempted to live on coconuts and only coconuts.
NEWMAN: He died in his forties [LAUGHS] and his followers kind of got real mad at him and left. And yeah, it wasn’t, it wasn’t pretty.
GRABER: Balanced diet, folks. Very important.
TWILLEY: In a way, though, poor August Engelhardt the coco-vore was just ahead of time. Because these days, coconuts are at the center of all the hottest fad diets trends.
GRABER: And the first trend was…coconut water.
RHIANNA: On stage I have to drink water to keep hydrated, but having VitaCoco on stage helps because it tastes good but it keeps you hydrated.
JANE LYNCH: Time was if you wanted to sip fresh coconut water, well, you had to become pretty handy with a machete.
VOICEOVER: Samba, sandals, and of course swimsuits. All made famous by Brazilians. But lately it’s a one ingredient wonder that’s dominating the export market. Coconut water.
TWILLEY: Back in 2005ish, I remember noticing this new drink. It was in a blue juice box, with a palm tree on it, and people were suddenly really into it. I drank it everyday for a whole summer.
GRABER: You Nicky were obviously not alone, coconut water started to take off in the US in 2004, and a decade later, hundreds of millions of dollars of the drink were flying off the shelves all around the country. Madonna invested in it, Rihanna advertised it.
TWILLEY: The brand was VitaCoco, and it was founded by two guys who got talking with two Brazilian women in a bar in New York City.
GRABER: One guy started dating one of the women and ended up in Brazil, the other guy came to visit him. They noticed coconut water in packages in stores there, and they thought, hey, there’s a potential export business opportunity here. Americans will love this. It tastes good, it’s also got all sorts of minerals, it could be sold like a sports drink, like Gatorade.
TWILLEY: And together, the two guys founded a company to import coconut water. But, and this is where it gets juicy, the very same year, a different guy who’d come across coconut water while he was in the Peace Corps also started a company importing it. Which was a little bit of a bummer for the brothers VitaCoco.
VITACOCO FOUNDER: I went to a GNC store and I was talking with the manager and I showed him what we were doing and he’s like, that is incredible. It looks amazing, but it’s so similar to this guy that was in here yesterday, who’s selling the same thing. It’s arriving next week.
TWILLEY: This is one of the VitaCoco guys talking to NPR’s Guy Raz about the horrifying moment he realized that someone else had had the same brilliant idea at the same time.
VITACOCO FOUNDER: And I said, what do you mean? Is it coconut water? He said, yeah, it’s called Zico, and he showed it to me. He had a sample there and he’s like, this is the—it’s almost the same thing. It’s also blue, you know, it’s the same packaging.
GUY RAZ: Wow.
VITACOCO FOUNDER: And I remember my heart sinking.
VITACOCO FOUNDER: And just being like, this is not happening.
GRABER: From there began a brutal water war between the founders of VitaCoco and Zico coconut water, lots of backstabbing and underhandedness. They threw each other’s signs in the garbage, they would toss all the stock of the other company’s coconut water off the shelves and leave it in the stockroom.
TWILLEY: They did all this while rollerblading around New York with coolers full of coconut water and blocking the entrance to every yoga studio to hand out free samples. Things got fierce. There were acquisitions, bankruptcies, lawsuits.
GRABER: The end result of that war is that coconut water caught the fitness water craze, you can now find it everywhere. And the company owners have since made up.
TWILLEY: I have to say, I haven’t drunk it myself since that first summer—packaged coconut water is fine, but as we always say on Gastropod, so is water. If you’re a sailor, coconut water is amazing, for most of the rest of us, the tap is our friend, no fancy packaging or electrolytes necessary.
GRABER: So that’s one coconut fad explained. But it’s not the last.
VOICEOVER: Let’s dive right into some of the best health benefits of coconut oil. Number one…
GRABER: Coconut oil is the latest hot trend to come out of the tropics. It’s supposed to speed up your metabolism, help prevent heart attacks, get rid of tooth decay, even improve your cognition and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. So of course we wondered, really?
JANE BLOCK: So I think that the marketing, the marketing of coconut oil, made people have this idea that coconut oil is good for your health. But the true about coconut oil is a little bit different.
TWILLEY: This is Jane Mara Block, she’s a professor of food science in Brazil and she specializes in studying fats and oils.
GRABER: Back in the 1950s, coconut oil was not the hottest thing to add to your meal—in fact, it was kind of seen as the devil. This was back when nutritionists first started to study saturated fats and they said basically that they were bad for you, and coconut oil was one of those bad saturated fats. Scientists still today recommend against eating too much saturated fat because evidence shows it raises cholesterol and blood pressure.
TWILLEY: But then along came the Paleo diet trend. Which, yes, is ridiculous, but was and is still kind of trendy. We’re not going into Paleo this episode. Or maybe ever.
GRABER: But the important thing for us is that for whatever reason, coconut oil is a staple of the Paleo diet. They love it, they cook with it, they make desserts with it, they claim it’s one of the ingredients that will solve all your problems. That helped it become super popular again, basically over the past decade or so.
TWILLEY: One of the things coconut oil fans say is that sure, yes, it’s a saturated fat, but there’s another way to classify fats—by whether they’re long chain or short chain or medium chain. This sounds like Goldilocks, but basically the acids that make up fat can have different structures—longer tails or shorter tails. Most fats—butter, olive oil—they contain fatty acids with a few different chain lengths.
GRABER: Coconut oil fans say that coconut oil is an MCT, which means it’s made of medium-chain fatty acids, or triglycerides. These medium chain triglycerides can apparently lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of cardiac disease. But can this be true?
TWILLEY: Well, one problem is that even the research on MCTs is kind of dicey, it’s not at all clear that MCTs are so great for your health. But there’s another even bigger problem. Coconut oil and MCTs are not actually the same thing.
BLOCK: When you talk about MCT, you are talking about some structure. When you talk about coconut oil, you are talking about another. When we use this in our organs, the metabolism is a little bit different.
TWILLEY: You can *make* MCT oil from coconut oil, but if you compare just plain coconut oil with MCT oil, they don’t contain the same fatty acids. The ones in coconut oil have a slightly longer chain than the ones in MCTs. What that means is you can’t just say that our bodies will process coconut oil the same way they process MCT oil. So *any* health claims for MCT oil just do not apply to coconut oil at all.
GRABER: Another health claim made for coconut oil is that half of the fatty acids are something called lauric acid, and this is also found in breast milk, and so that means it’s great for you.
BLOCK: When you talk about breast milk, you are not talking about coconut oil. The composition is totally different. The breast milk has the ideal composition for a baby. Who just was born. So it’s totally different. So you cannot do the direct relation because you need to put in a context.
TWILLEY: Context is key. So that’s another health claim that Jane Mara says is bogus.
GRABER: Here’s yet another one: coconut oil people will say, well, coconut oil has to be healthy because people who eat a lot of it in their traditional diets have healthy hearts.
VOICEOVER: Take the people of Tokelau, who live on an island off the coast of New Zealand. An independent study determined that not only did the people get 60% of their calories from coconuts, but when studied, they were found to be in excellent health, with very low rates of heart disease. This is the same case for the people who live on Kitiva, an Island in Papua New Guinea.
GRABER: Once again though, not so fast. Yes, those populations have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but they’re not eating what we’re eating.
BLOCK: If you compare our diet with their diet, it’s totally different. They eat coconut, not like an oil. They eat the whole thing, like the meat of the coconut. And more than that, they have a lot of fiber and a lot less sugar in their diets. So the coconut oil is there in another context.
TWILLEY: So basically, where we’re at is that when it comes to coconut oil and heart health, we have precisely zero solid evidence that it’s good for you. We don’t even have enough evidence to say there’s beneficial effects from MCT oil, and like we say, that’s not even the same thing.
GRABER: Meanwhile, what we do know is that coconut oil is a saturated fat, and in fact, Jane Mara says according to her research, she thinks coconut oil might be worse for your heart than other kinds of saturated fats. It has more saturated fat in it as a percentage than, say, butter, and it contains particular fatty acids that seem to raise cholesterol levels even more than other fatty acids do.
BLOCK: So in another words, the kind of fatty acid that we have in coconut oil are more dangerous for our health than the kind that are in beef and butter.
TWILLEY: She’s not a fan of using coconut oil as your everyday oil, at all. That said, as we always say and as it’s really important to remember, this kind of science is really hard to do. It’s really difficult to single out one particular ingredient and be able to conclude that it’s bad, or it’s good, because it’s always part of an overall diet that is also part of an overall lifestyle.
GRABER: You’ll know this if you listen to Gastropod regularly: nutrition research on individual foods is very challenging, and so you’ll frequently hear about something that had been thought to be bad now looking good for you. For that reason, Nicky and I tend to be skeptical of a lot of it.
TWILLEY: But we’re not done debunking yet. Coconut oil stans also say it’s good for your brain, that it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Jane Mara told us this is another claim where there’s not enough research to say whether coconut oil has any cognitive benefits at all.
GRABER: Same is true for Gwyneth’s favorite, coconut oil mouthwash.
GWYNETH PALTROW: First thing I do when I wake up is oil pulling with coconut oil. So I have raw organic coconut oil. I put some—a spoonful in my mouth, while I’m opening curtains and everything, I’m sort of swishing it around. It’s an Ayurvedic way to remove bacteria from the mouth.
BLOCK: There are some studies indicating this kind of effect. But again, we need to study more and we need to know if the results are not random results.
TWILLEY: Basically, Jane Mara says, if coconut oil is a miracle, the kind of miracle it is, is a marketing miracle.
BLOCK: The whole thing, if you start putting in a context, it starts getting a little bit complicated and complex. And people don’t want that. People want very quick and fast. Like a miracle. People want a miracle.
TWILLEY: Sorry folks. Don’t believe the coconut hype.
GRABER: But Jane Mara is not saying coconut is all bad. This is not what people want to hear, but really, there is no silver bullet, everything in moderation. Including the very delicious coconut.
TWILLEY: Despite my feelings about the shredded stuff, I too am a coconut fan. Coconut milk is a staple in my house for soups and curries.
GRABER: I use coconut oil occasionally, too—it’s great for homemade granola and it creates a beautiful sear on tofu. Even Jane Mara enjoys coconut on occasion.
BLOCK: Actually my favorite desserts are made with coconut. We have a cake, very famous in Brazil, that is made with coconut and pineapple. We have another sweet stuff that is very, very famous in the whole of Brazil. And that is beijinho—like in English, little kiss, that you make with coconut, lots of coconut, and condensed milk.
BLOCK: So it’s like heaven. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Kai McPhee, Mary Newman, Jane Mara Block, and of course listener Denis Sellu. We have links to all the relevant books and articles and farms on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Including lots of pictures from our farm visit and a chance to gawk at a fabulous coconut shell goblet.
GRABER: Thanks to our amazing producer, Claudia Geib, for all her help with the Hawaii trip and of course for her help this episode. Now if you’ve made it this far, some of you might be wondering how in the world we could have ignored Monty Python.
TWILLEY: We always have to make choices about what we can fit in to every episode. But we also knew we couldn’t leave out this immortal coconut moment.
[GROWING LOUDER, “GALLOPING” OF COCONUTS KNOCKING TOGETHER]
ARTHUR: Whoa there! [“GALLOPING” SLOWS]
TWILLEY: It is Arthur son of Uther Pendragon or whatever, and the point is he has ridden for miles on a horse.
SOLDIER: What? Ridden on a horse?
SOLDIER: You’re using coconuts!
SOLDIER: You’ve got two empty halves of coconuts and you’re banging them together.
ARTHUR: So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land. Through the kingdom of Murcia, through—
SOLDIER: Where did you get the coconuts?
ARTHUR: … We found them.
SOLDIER: Found them? In Murcia? The coconut’s tropical!