Before there were Avon, Oil of Olay or L’oreal, Samoans for centuries have used coconut oil to maintain healthy, beautiful hair and skin.
For thousands of years, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders have used every part of the coconut tree and reaped the benefits from the nutritional and cosmetic benefits of coconut oil long before western science discovered its value and it became trendy.
It is why local businesses have quickly moved to rubbish claims made by a skin expert, Dr. Yannis Alexandrides, that the coconut oil might be bad for the skin by clogging up your pores.
From Women in Business Development Inc, Mailelani to Samoa’s Coconut Clusters, they have all fiercely defended the value of coconut oil.
For good reason. There is not a natural skin care product made in Samoa that does not contain locally made coconut oil, it is intrinsically tied to Samoa’s cultural identity and heritage.
Today, the demand for coconut oil has grown exponentially around the world as beauty and health companies want a piece of Polynesia’s miracle oil, which was once a misunderstood and vilified saturated fat until research studies revealed its naturally occurring health benefits.
Locally made organic cold pressed coconut oil produced by organic certified farmers is a highly sought after oil for beauty products locally and globally, especially with companies specialising in organic, ethical and natural skincare.
Women in Business Development Inc. (W.I.B.D.I.) has helped more than 350 farmers obtain organic production certification in Samoa and they have supplied the grade A cold pressed oil to local skin care collections such as Misiluki skincare and Janet’s Love Pacific oil.
They also supply to the global franchise, The Body Shop and just recently added natural skincare company Ethique in New Zealand to that list.
“Coconut oil or just the coconut industry is worth a lot to Samoa, it’s the livelihood of rural Samoans,” said W.I.B.D.I. Executive Director, Adi Tafuna’i.
“People living in the Pacific and Asia have relied on coconuts for generations and these countries were among the healthiest in the world until countries started exporting their processed food to us.
“Samoa is the sole supplier of virgin coconut oil to The Body Shop. To buy from us, they have to come to the other side of the world so that says something for our oil. We now supply Ethique, a Christchurch business.”
However success is a double edged sword and with the good comes the bad. As the demand for coconut products continues to soar, so too has the negative propaganda of coconut oil by mainstream nutrition and beauty “experts”.
In one of many examples seen on the World Wide Web, a recent article in the New Zealand Herald this month featured a Dr. Yannis Alexandrides who founded London-based company “111skin” that specializes in luxury skincare where for 600 pounds, one can buy a 50ml moisturiser containing black diamond particles.
The skin expert claimed that the coconut oil might actually be bad for your skin by clogging up your pores and buyers should be wary in particular of extra virgin coconut oil which traps moisture beneath the skin and causes inflammation. He instead recommends alternatives such as the grape seed and hazel nut oil that his skincare company uses in their products.
Sylvie Salanoa, of local coconut skincare company, Mailelani, has heard many variations of this claim before and thinks that such simplistic statements usually have scant details and come from experts who support their commercial interests.
“Quite simply, you recognise the tree by the fruit,” Sylvie said.
“We’ve been in this business now for a long time, 20 years. Rarely have we heard a complaint and we are still here today and we are growing. I’m not saying it’s us, at the end of the day the successful results from the coconut oil speaks for itself.”
Mailelani source their A- grade oil from a local organic certified coconut producer and according to Sylvie, the cold pressed oil they use in their skincare products is edible and therefore safe to use on your skin.
“Coconut is a very good moisturizer,” said Sylvie.
“The oil that is made in Samoa is quite special, its consistency is quite thin and it goes straight into your skin, to me I don’t see how it blocks the pores. You only need to use a little bit of it because it’s so moisturising and I always say if your skin is shiny then you have put too much on.”
The co-founder of Mailelani pointed out that they did their research into coconut oil for the purposes of their business but what they found supported the local knowledge that already existed. Coconut oil is not only moisturising but it has antibacterial and antifungal properties that also protect and heal your skin from infections.
“We’re not chemists or anything; we are just people who wanted to be a part of the development of Samoa who got into coconut oil. We have done a lot of research that supports the many benefits of the oil. It heals acne and boils and everything we say is through experience and through the feedback of our customers.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why bigger food and cosmetic companies spend time and effort on negative marketing campaigns against the humble coconut. Perhaps the recent data from the World Bank and World Atlas showing a 500 percent increase in the global demand for coconut products over the past decade may be a factor.
W.I.B.D.I’s Executive Director said to the Samoa Observer that it is worth noting that coconuts grow in mostly poorer developing countries and when giant commercial companies use negative marketing strategies to kill the coconut industries in those struggling economies such as Samoa, we need to be active in getting the real information out.
When W.I.B.D.I started the coconut oil project in 1997, they reached out to the late Dr. Mary Enig who was one of the world’s foremost authorities on fats and oils and also pioneered research on coconut oil during a time when it was misjudged and maligned oil. Thanks to Dr. Enig’s efforts and research, it is now widely known that coconut oil promotes optimum health and the world wants it.
“Working in the U.S, Dr. Enig was aware of how big players were pushing their businesses and they actually tried to conceal the information. She travelled extensively to coconut growing countries to encourage them to continue and get the information out, Tafuna’i said.
“We contacted her about speaking on a video we did based on her telling us to do all we can to promote the information about coconut oil.”
Managing Director of Samoa Coconut Clusters, Edwin Tamasese, agrees with this account and said to the Samoa Observer that he has seen many examples of negative marketing campaigns launched by competing commercial interests over the years.
“Our best defense is information,” he said. “The web has revolutionised this for us. There are now rather large commercial interests behind the coconut that are gathering and publishing more and more counter information using scientifically based research.”
“We have used coconut oil for centuries and are better for it. I feel like the world is waking up to the negative marketing campaigns by commercial interests hiding behind corrupt medical and scientific fronts. In my view it actually makes them look more the fools for persisting to use these tactics.”
Global market trends for any product are volatile where one day you’re in and the next day you’re out, which was the case for Samoa’s coconut exports declining during the 1980s to almost non-existent in early 2000s, which was at the height of the growing scientific bias against saturated fats by the medical establishment.
The complex debate rages on among experts beyond our shores about whether coconut oil is a beauty faux pas or the secret fountain of youth.
But while a few decades of research by western scientists is the foundation for their discussion, our people are armed with centuries old traditional knowledge of this life giving plant and like our ancestors we will continue to reap the health and beauty benefits of coconut oil for a thousand more years.