The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
The Coconut Makes a Comeback

Article by: Natasha Were

For generations, coconuts were a staple of the Caymanian diet. Many islanders, however, have abandoned using coconut oil in recent years in favour of cheap, convenient store-bought alternatives such as corn, soy and canola oil. Now, two Cayman Islands residents, Tamer Soliman and Rob Tyler, are campaigning to bring coconuts back into the kitchen.

The duo, one a personal trainer and registered holistic nutritionist, the other a film-maker, teamed up to produce and direct a documentary, Bright Spot, which premiered at the Cayman Film Festival in June 2015. The film focuses on the history and health benefits of coconut oil and encourages people to switch from vegetable to coconut oil for cooking.

Although not native to the Caribbean – coconuts probably originated in the South Pacific – they now thrive in tropical regions around the world. For centuries they have been used as a source of food as well as a remedy for numerous ailments. In the Philippines, where the coconut palm is used for fuel, to build shelter and as a ready supply of nutrition, it is hailed as the “Tree of Life”.

Yet in the West, coconut is undeniably controversial. Having researched the history, Tamer believes that coconut products were victims of a smear campaign that began in the decades following World War II. “The large US agro-businesses had planted thousands of hectares of corn, soy and canola to produce oil for domestic consumption,” he says, “and they needed to protect their investment.” The easiest way to do so was to convince the general population that the alternative – coconut and palm oils – were unsafe.

The high saturated fat content of coconut oil was waved as the big red flag. Consuming saturated fat, the medical profession maintained, led to high cholesterol, weight gain, and consequently heart disease. In the past couple of decades, however, research has revealed a different story: the saturated fat in coconuts is of the medium-chain-triglyceride variety. “This type of saturated fat is processed by the body in a different way,” explains Tamer. “It is very easily digested and the body uses it in much the same way as carbohydrates, turning it into energy, rather than storing it.”

As opposed to leading to weight gain, proponents of coconut oil believe that this type of saturated fat actually lowers bad cholesterol and boosts metabolism, therefore aiding weight loss.

But that is only the beginning. Advocates of coconut oil and milk are hailing it as the next great superfood with the power to cure everything from cold sores to cancer to Alzheimer’s, while coconut water, the clear liquid that comes from young coconuts, is fast becoming the healthy alternative to sports drinks due to its low sugar and high electrolyte content.

Because the research that has found coconut products to be beneficial has tended to be conducted on small groups, over short periods of time, those in the anti-coconut camp consider the evidence to be inconclusive.

Anecdotal evidence, however, may be more convincing. Consider Tyler’s story: a filmmaker by profession, he had paid little attention to health and nutrition until he teamed up with Tamer to make the documentary. Once he learned about the benefits of coconut, he chose to start cooking with coconut oil, instead of vegetable oil. In just five months, and with no other significant lifestyle or dietary changes, Tyler lost 30lbs.
And this is the message the film seeks to spread. “We are not trying to get people to change their entire lifestyle,” Tamer and Tyler say. “We are suggesting they just make one small change – cooking with coconut oil. One simple change is easy to make…. and that one change may well lead to other subsequent changes.”

Sometimes, it makes sense to pay heed to common sense, not science alone. As Tamer points out, “Many of the interviewees in the film describe a time when they ate coconut oil and coconut milk in almost every dish, and there was little occurrence of preventable, chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and type II diabetes.” Today, the opposite is true.

The irony is that the coconuts have not disappeared. They are all around us, but more often than not, they are going to waste.

“About three months after arriving in Grand Cayman, I was running down Seven Mile Beach one day and I came across some maintenance guys pruning the palm trees,” Tamer recalls. “There were three truckloads of coconuts they had cut down. I asked them what they were going to do with the coconuts, and they told me they might take a couple for themselves, but the rest would go to the dump.”

This was the light bulb moment that inspired him to investigate coconuts in greater depth and ultimately to make a film about them. He discovered that coconuts were once an important export for the Cayman Islands – until disease wiped out many of the plantations on the island. The coconut palms that line our shores today are a different, disease-resistant variety that is thriving. The fact that few locals are producing their own artisanal coconut oil on-island suggests there is potential for local coconuts to again become an island industry.

This is the philosophy behind the film’s title: coconuts may be Cayman’s “bright spot” – they are natural, free and widely available locally, and could hold the key to improved health and vitality. All we have to do is embrace them.

Benefits of Coconut Oil
  • Helps to Burn Fat
  • Fight Infections
  • Reduces Hunger Pangs
  • Reduces Seizures
  • Reduces Cholesterol Levels
  • Helps Alzheimer's Patients
  • Protects Hair
  • Moisturises Skin
  • Functions as a Sun Cream

Where to Buy

Fresh locally produced coconut oil can be bought from the local farmers markets. Alternatively, large bottles of organic, cold pressed coconut oil can be bought at Cost-U-Less. Supermarkets also sell it in smaller bottles.

About the Film
"Bright Spot" is Tamer Soliman and Rob Tyler's first collaboration.
They intend to feature other 'Bright Spots' around the world in future projects.

Where to watch: