Coconut oil study tainted by potentially biased research

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Dive Brief:

  • A July study that said coconut cultivation threatens 18.6 species per million tons of oil produced, or nearly five times the number of species that palm oil does, has drawn criticism because it was led by Erik Meijaard, a researcher with links to the palm oil industry, according to Reuters.
  • Meijaard heads the oil palm task force of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN.) He has previously worked for an Indonesian palm company, as well as the global palm oil sustainability body. Meijaard said the palm oil industry did not fund this research.
  • Palm oil remains a large crop in terms of cultivated area and dollar sales. Reuters reported data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that estimated palm oil production at nearly 75 million tonnes (83 million tons) across 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres), while coconut production is much smaller with 2.91 million tonnes (3.2 million tons) produced across 12.01 million hectacres (29.7 million acres).

Dive Insight:

Since it was published in Current Biology, the study has rekindled controversy around the sustainability of these vegetable oils. Not only have there been questions about potential conflicts of interest from the study’s lead author, but the findings contradict a large body of research that shows palm oil, which is produced at a far larger scale than coconut oil, is more strenuous on the environment. Reuters estimated global sales for palm oil were $43 billion last year compared to coconut oil at $2.72 billion. 

Science Mag said the Palm Oil Task Force of the International Union for Conservation of Nature found palm oil threatens five times more species than coconut oil. The industry publication cited several researchers refuting the claims made in this study pointing to the landmass taken up by palm oil production as a primary reason why its effects are so widespread. The United Nations has found palm oil plantations are a major source of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss in Southeast Asia.

Palm oil production is not always managed well so companies have opted to stymie the proliferation of poor land management practices by pledging to invest in sustainable sources for the vegetable oil. Nestlé first pledged in 2010 to source all of its palm oil by 2013 from places that were never natural forests. But by 2017, the company still had not met this goal. Hershey made a similar pledge to remove problematic palm oil from its supply chain in 2014. The company deferred its traceability campaign to this year.

This new study has the potential to upend some of these commitments from large companies. Palm oil is a popular choice in manufactured goods since it is cheaper than other oils. It also has a long shelf life and processing benefits such as stability at high temperatures and solidity at room temperature. At the same time, unlike coconut oil, it doesn’t have nutritionists and health organizations questioning its health profile.

According to the American Heart Association, coconut oil contains more saturated fat — 82% — than butter, palm oil or lard. As a result of its nutritional makeup, the group has advised consumers against using it. While coconut oil remains popular, its sales have been slipping during the last few years amid warnings about the overuse of coconut oil in diets. 

Even with questions about conflicts of interest, Meijaard’s study may deal a blow to the already second-tier status of coconut oil. If other studies support Meijaard’s findings, companies may find themselves rethinking their commitments to removing palm oil from recipes.

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