By Rev SEIK PITOI
IN PNG, most of us are familiar with the coconuts tree and its fruit (nuts). We are fortunate to have such a multi-purpose tree growing all over the land, except for some parts of the highlands.
Considered a ‘tree of life’ or ‘miracle tree’ by some, it has been one of the many trees that has sustained the lives of our people during difficult times. It was an important commodity for seafarers to take along because they supplied food and water during long sea voyages. It has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, as well as by Pacific Islanders and others. Today, the humble old coconut is becoming popular in western countries due to its many potential health benefits. Here are some facts about the coconut:
Wikipedia explains that “the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the palm tree family (Arecaceae) and the only living species of the genus Cocos. The term “coconut” (or the archaic “cocoanut”) can refer to the whole coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit, which botanically is a drupe, not a nut. The name comes from the old Portuguese word coco, meaning “head” or “skull”, after the three indentations on the coconut shell that resemble facial features. They are abundant in coastal tropical regions and are a cultural icon of the tropics”.
Dried coconut flesh is called copra, and the oil and milk taken from it are used in cooking and frying, as well as in soaps and cosmetics. The hard shells, fibrous husks and long pinnate leaves can be used as material to make a variety of products for furnishing and decoration. Sweet coconut sap can be made into drinks or fermented into palm wine or coconut vinegar. In some parts of PNG, alcoholic drink is made from the sap by young men who steal numerous young nuts and waste the flesh simply to get the juice for their illegal use.
Other uses of the coconut include the following:
Coconut shells – can be used for firewood, made into a cup, or fashioned as a spoon, ear rings, hair clips.
Husks (coir) – used as natural scrubbers to clean pots and pans or to wipe down walls and floors. Today, industries make rope, doormats, potting compost, mattress stuffing, mats, rugs, and sacks out of husks.
Leaves – used to thatch houses, make baskets, hats, balls and other craft items.
Sticks – brooms are made from the sticks\pins from coconut leaves.
Flower – the coconut flower is used medicinally in some countries.
Local uses of the coconut
As a child, I grew up in the village with coconuts all around. Every young boy learnt to climb trees and coconut trees were a big challenge because they have no branches! Of course we started off with the shorter trees, but the more experienced climbers would climb the tallest trees, some even without using bands around their feet! We grew up drinking the sweet juice of ‘kulau’ or young coconuts and eating its meaty flesh. Even the mature nut’s juice and meat can be enjoyed, however, the meat is usually scraped and squeezed to make milk which is used to cream our food when cooking. The milk is also used to make oil which has a variety of uses. Our local delicacy, ‘bariva’ (or pariwa), which is made of sago and ripe banana, is usually creamed with the coconut oil or ‘dia’. The oil is also used as cosmetics and is great for the hair and skin.
I remember years ago when I was a student at Ela Beach Primary. I had an Australian class mate, Stuart, who often brought mature coconut pieces in his lunch box for the 10am break. When I asked, he said he and his family liked eating coconut so his parents often cut pieces for him to bring to school. I found it quite unusual for a ‘white’ boy to eat coconut for lunch. Maybe his parents knew the benefits of coconut so they encouraged their son to like it too! Years later, I realise that while we Melanesians have this cheap and healthy food our grandparents lived on in abundance, we instead feed ‘junk food’ to our kids!
I was impressed recently when listening to a lecture by Dr Bruce Fife, also known as “The Coconut Doctor”. He is the President of the Coconut Research Centre in America and a prolific writer and nutritionist. After studying numerous well documented medical studies and research papers, Dr Fife is adamant that coconut oil can be used successfully in alleviating and often healing many conditions in the human body. While coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats, Dr Fife found that these fats have different effects in the body compared with most other dietary fats. The fatty acids in coconut oil can encourage your body to burn fat, and they provide quick energy to your body and brain. They also raise HDL (good) cholesterol in your blood, which may help reduce heart disease risk.
Fife also notes that most dietary fats are categorized as long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), while coconut oil contains some medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are shorter fatty acid chains.
“When you eat MCTs, they go straight to your liver. Your body uses them as a quick source of energy or turns them into ketones. Ketones can have powerful benefits for your brain, and researchers are studying ketones as a treatment for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions.”
Moreover, Kris Gunnars stated in a medically reviewed article in 2020 that in some parts of the world, coconut – which is loaded with coconut oil – is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for generations.
“A 1981 study noted that the population of Tokelau in the South Pacific obtained over 60 per cent of their calories from coconuts. Researchers reported not only good overall health but also very low rates of heart disease. Also, the Kitava Islanders in Papua New Guinea’s Trobriand Islands also eat a lot of coconut, alongside tubers, fruit, and fish, and have little stroke or heart disease.”
Gunnars also adds that “obesity is one of the biggest health conditions affecting the Western world today. The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the number of calories your body burns compared with longer-chain fatty acids.” In other words, using coconut oil over a period of time can bring improvement in health conditions, which may include shedding some unwanted pounds!
However, the good news is not just for coconut oil. The juice of the kulau is also a refreshing and healthy drink. It helps maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, strengthens immunity, is high in potassium, low in calories and regulates blood pressure, among other things. The meat too is packed with nutrients. It is extremely rich in copper, selenium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Even though smaller in proportion, the folate, vitamin C, and thiamine present in raw coconut can really add to your health over time when consumed regularly.
Dr Fife gave testimonies of certain people he met in his travels who used coconut oil to improve their health. For instance, Tony was a Philippino who was an AIDS survivor. While on his death bed, he was advised to try coconut oil. After some months of using coconut oil in his food every day, his secondary symptoms left.
Today, he is up and about, back in fairly good health. He now speaks at coconut seminars sharing his testimony. The other example Fife gave was of an Alzheimer’s patient whose restoration from being in a vegetative state to normal health is nothing short of incredible. His wife gave him 2. 5 spoons of coconut oil in his cereal every morning, and after a few months, he recorded great improvement. Continuing the dosage further eventually saw him healed with his full cognitive ability restored. These and many other testimonies of healing cancer (skin, breast, and other forms), thyroid conditions, heart disease and other conditions prove what extra virgin cold-pressed coconut oil can do. Obviously, I would strongly insist here that for anyone seeking to go on a similar regime for a medical reason, please consult your health professional first! Everyone is different and so what may work for one may not do so for another.
I began to use coconut oil after being introduced to it by naturopath, Dr John Malai. I was greatly helped by it when going through with a major health issue. Today, for convenience, I am a regular user of the PNG-made Niugini Organics virgin organic coconut oil. Obviously observing other health rules apply, but the improvement is nonetheless evident, who also make soap. I have just heard of another 2 local companies producing the oil which is great news. What about products made from other parts of the coconut tree? Would it be profitable to venture into producing such items, if not already? With its abundance in our land, it could be worth looking into.
So we have this pharmacy in our back (or front) yard. Our ancestors lived healthy lives on garden food, fish and coconut. From the coconut, they ate, drank, cooked with and healed themselves with its powerful oil. Unfortunately, most of us Melanesians have largely left our healthy ‘ples kaikai’ for rubbish that is processed, ‘poisoned’ with chemicals to make it sweet, and sold cheaply. They also told us coconut had saturated fats so was not healthy. Studies are showing us that is not quite correct. It’s our miracle food so let’s get back to what God gave us, and enjoy better health!
- Rev Seik Pitoi is a freelance writer.