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Coconut is a versatile perennial crop. Its usage in our daily food is remarkable. As Sri Lankans, we used to talk about the usefulness of coconut from our childhood, and every one of us has written several essays on the usefulness of coconut, during our school days.

Coconut plantation in Sri Lanka goes back to the era of King Agbo II. As per the historic evidence, the first coconut plantation in Sri Lanka was established by King Agbo II in Anuradhapura. At the time, the king might not have imagined the multitude of uses that this crop would provide. He might not have imagined that people in a later era would not do without coconut. Coconut is so familiar to us today that we use it for food and its parts; husk fibre, timbre, shell, ekel, leaves and so on in our daily life.

Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is the newest product of coconut among many familiar traditional products like copra, white coconut oil, and desiccated coconut which are having very high economic value. In 2002, Coconut Research Institute pioneered in making VCO by the dry process. Since then, we have guided and provided technical advice to almost 40 small-scale entrepreneurs of VCO.

What is VCO?
Virgin coconut oil is a product obtained from fresh coconut kernel without allowing the kernel to undergo chemical or microbiological changes. Virgin coconut oil is produced from mature coconut kernels under hygienic conditions. Dehydration of the kernels and expelling of oil from the dehydrated kernels are carried out at low temperatures, ensuring that no chemical changes take place. The difference between virgin coconut oil and the traditional white coconut oil is the higher quality of virgin coconut oil due to its improved processing. Virgin coconut oil retains almost all important biologically-active components present naturally in the coconut kernel due to its mild and controlled production conditions.

Virgin coconut oil is produced by processing fully-mature coconut in natural and controlled conditions without the use of any chemical for washing and controlling the temperature during dehydration and at expelling. Consequently, some components which are present in the coconut kernel and are unstable at high temperatures will remain intact in virgin oil. The characteristic pleasant odour of virgin coconut oil is due to these chemical components. This is also visible from the by-product obtained from virgin coconut oil production.

Although the by-product obtained from traditional coconut oil production is brown in colour, the by-product of virgin coconut oil production is white. Traditional coconut oil; the white coconut oil is produced using copra which is dehydrated using sunlight or direct or indirect heating methods. Normally, this process is lacking in the control of temperature or hygienic conditions. During this process colour change of copra, poonac and oil is taken place. As a result the oil becomes yellow to brown in colour. However, such undesirable reactions do not take place under low temperature and thus all the natural properties of coconut are retained in the virgin oil resulting in a water clear appearance.
The presence of biologically active components in VCO is the main difference between traditional white coconut oil and virgin coconut oil. The natural substances which are present in minute quantities provide health benefits, especially preventing or minimizing chronic diseases.

Characteristics
Coconut oil is a vegetable or plant-based oil which contains short and medium chain fatty acids and it is the only edible oil containing a high amount of short and medium chain fatty acids. Although palm kernel contains a comparable content of fatty acids, it is not widely used for edible purposes.

Coconut oil is very important, as it is the cheapest and the most abundant vegetable oil in Sri Lanka. Vegetable oils facilitate the absorption of oil soluble vitamins A, D and E in human diet and among the majority of Sri Lankans coconut oil performs this function. Oil and fats provide energy. In addition, it acts as a functional food. Coconut oil increases good cholesterol in our blood serum. It possesses the ability to reduce body weight and enhance the immunity of people to prevent from many bacterial and virus infections. There is a strong belief about the power of coconut oil to cure the Alzheimer’s Disease due the presence of lauric acid in coconut oil. Coconut oil is used in traditional ayurvedic medicine and also widely used as a medicine for skin diseases and hair fall control.

Virgin coconut oil is more suitable than traditional coconut oil for use as medicine. This is because of the retaining of its good qualities due to mild production conditions. Virgin coconut oil is more effective for food preparation than traditional coconut oil because it contains very low amounts of moisture and acids (less than 0.02 %). It is also useful to retain palatable flavour and taste in food processing. Coconut oil is applied in baked products to give glossy and fresh appearance. Keeping quality of the baked product will be increased, if virgin coconut oil is used for this purpose. Deep frying is a very popular cooking method in Sri Lanka. If traditional coconut oil is used, an increase in colour, acidity and moisture content is observed and the oil becomes unsuitable for use after a limited duration. But if virgin coconut oil is used, the change is very slow and therefore, it can be re-used several times.

Another importance of virgin oil production is the quality of the by-product. The by-product obtained from virgin coconut oil production is a rich source of dietary fibre. Dietary fibre is a very important component in our diet. The by-product obtained from virgin coconut oil production is ground to obtain coconut flour. The coconut flour and other similar flour are used for making bread, buns, biscuits and cakes in many countries. Such food products are very popular in European countries, the UK and Australia. Coconut flour can be substituted in the preparation of Roti, Pittu, Thosi, pizza and hoppers, too. It prevents health related problems which occur due to high starch content in wheat flour. High fibre diets are recommended for obesity, diabetics and cholesterol and therefore it is time to formulate our own recipes to produce our traditional food products with coconut flour for a healthy nation. Coconut Research Institute has developed this technology along with the introduction of virgin coconut oil industry.

At present there is a high demand for virgin coconut oil. There are about 50 small and medium-entrepreneurs to make virgin coconut oil in Sri Lanka. This new product has been able to increase the economic value of the coconut by many folds.

(The writers Dr. Chandi Yalegama and KAS Chandrasiri are from the Coconut Processing Research Division and Crop Protection Division of the Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka.)