I’ve got a lovely brunch of coconut oil
Foreigners learning Indonesian get cautioned against muddling kelapa with kepala – and for good reason.
One is the fruit of cocos nucifera, the other the head of homo sapiens, and the chances of confusion and embarrassment are great.
So no wonder Zainal Gani shied at the label ‘Doctor Coconut’. However being a jovial fellow he happily suggested ‘Doctor Santan’ after the juice from the white endosperm lining the inside of the shell, and usually, though incorrectly, called coconut meat.
For the former Malang hospital doctor is convinced that a diet rich in coconut products, particularly santan and virgin coconut oil [VCO], is the answer to many ills.
Despite being slim and fit Dr Zainal, 69, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes more than 30 years ago, a condition probably inherited.
The metabolic disorder that creates high blood sugar can be controlled through exercise and a strict diet. For Dr Zainal this meant abandoning coffee, sugar, rice and fizzy drinks – and ensuring his daily menu included a cup of santan and a spoonful of VCO.
This is the liquid pressed out of the santan, and if the process doesn’t involve fermentation or the use of enzymes and preservatives then it should be odorless, clear and have a two-year shelf life.
“I did a lot of research, including books from overseas, and concluded that coconuts have many health qualities,” he said. “The food is nutritious, vitamin rich and high in fiber. It can help reduce weight and blood sugar.
“I know there’s been some criticism of coconut diets in the West [see breakout] but I’m not concerned.
“When I was practising as a doctor maybe 20 per cent of my patients, apart from those who’d had an accident, could find their problems reduced if not resolved with a change of diet rather than a chemical pill
“Hippocrates [the ancient Greek physician] said: ‘Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food’. That’s my philosophy.”
When he retired Dr Zainal and his wife Arliek Rio Julia, who is also a doctor, decided to back their beliefs and produce their own products under the label Vico Bagoes. Some bottles found their way to Denpasar in Bali where they were picked up by visiting Japanese searching for VCO.
The businesspeople bought samples from different manufacturers and subjected them to a sniff and taste test. Dr Zainal’s product passed. More analysis, this time in laboratories. After a year of negotiations his company is now shipping 2,000 liters a month.
The Japanese want double that quantity, but Dr Zainal’s daughter Arni Rahmawati, who looks after product development, said the policy was to advance slowly.
“We believe we’re the only Indonesian company using centrifugal processing and exporting VCO to Japan,” she said. “Till now the Philippines has been the main supplier. The Japanese don’t want fermented VCO, though this produces a greater yield than our mechanical system.”
Every seven-hour day 30 workers handle 1,800 coconuts. The nuts are imported from Bali, because these have a higher oil content. The ‘meat’ is scooped out of the shell by hand and shredded by machine.
This mash is then forced through a screw press (right) that squeezes out the juice – a process that’s conducted nine times. The resulting VCO is then put through a centrifuge to spin out any surviving contaminants.
VCO is as clear as water and retailed locally for Rp 25,000 [US$2] for a 130 millilitre bottle, though some outlets charge double.
The Indonesian market was going well till 2008 when foul smelling VCO [not from Dr Zainal’s company] got a bad press.
“Getting into the export market, particularly Japan which is serious about standards is a major advance,” Arni (below, lefy) said. “We can do this only because we maintain high levels of hygiene. That means having our staff understand the importance of quality control. We have regular meetings to explain what’s happening.
“We want to develop a use for by-products. The husks go to make charcoal and other waste becomes rabbit food, but we must be more efficient.”
The so-called milk, spilled when the coconut is split, goes down the drain. It could be trapped and sold, but preservation is a problem as it rapidly goes rancid.
Dr Zainal said his family has so much faith in the future that they are building a new warehouse and buying equipment. “I don’t know how much we’ve spent,” he said. “Whatever we earn goes back into the business.
“Trying to understand the best processing system has been a trial and error affair and taken a long time. I just wish the government would support research and development to help people get into exporting.”
Indonesia and the Philippines jostle for top spot in the ranks of coconut producers, but Indonesian exports are usually the whole fruit, with processing and value-adding done overseas
Science fact – or diet fad?
The coconut craze is one of the latest diets to be promoted in the West, with one book claiming the tropical fruits have a ‘secret ingredient’ that helps slimmers lose weight while indulging on other foods.
On line retailer Amazon has 16 titles, mainly published in the US, featuring coconut diets to help shed kilos effortlessly.
However not all health authorities are convinced the big nut is superfood, the answer to obesity and heart disease.
The Dieticians Association of Australia website claims ‘foods rich in saturated fat [such as coconut oil] are linked with a higher risk of heart disease, and eating high fat foods, which are therefore higher in energy, makes weight control more difficult’.
Last year the New Zealand Heart Foundation issued a ‘position statement’ which said: ‘The wide range of research often quoted to support use of coconut oil is largely based on animal studies.’
The ‘facts’ flung by both sides in the debate include references to trans fats, lauric acid, enzymes and other substances only the scientifically well educated can understand.
Confused? Best seek the advice of a health professional you trust.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 April 2015)