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Coconut oil: on a slippery slope?

Summary: A favoured superfood in recent years, it is now losing its crown to butter, ghee and other trendy fats

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Sales of the oil plummeted last year in the US, according to new data from market research firm Spins, which tracks the health and wellness sector. Coconut oil initially attracted adherents with promises that it boosts immunity and aids in weight loss. But its popularity waned as questions emerged about those claims and the product's effect on blood cholesterol.

Trend-watchers say this is hardly the first time they've watched a much-hyped health food crash and burn: Culinary history is littered with so-called "superfoods" that never quite caught on long-term. But coconut oil, which enjoyed a burst of popularity recently, may prove a singular lesson to consumers and food companies vying for sales in the multibillion-dollar health food industry.

"The staying power of a superfood depends not only on current buzz, but on long-term, macro changes in eating patterns, [and] the number of competing products on the market." Share on facebook Tweet this

"You see these things go in and out of favour so quickly," said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insights at market-research firm Mintel. There is no one definition for a superfood, Dornblaser and other analysts point out: Marketers have slapped the term on a fantastic range of presumptively healthy foods, from agave nectar and goji berries to kale and quinoa.

Take coconut oil. Until recently, it existed on the fringes of the American diet, utilised largely by vegan bakers as a butter substitute following the mid-90s revolt against saturated fat. But the oil became more popular as researchers began second-guessing those blanket prohibitions -- and as a generation of dieters uncovered earlier, promising studies on the health benefits of medium-chain fatty acids.

Between January 2011 and January 2013, US searches for coconut oil more than doubled, Google trend data shows.

In 2015, the apparent peak of coconut oil mania, Americans bought $229 million (Dh841 million) of the stuff. But that peak was short-lived.

By the time the American Heart Association officially denounced coconut oil in June 2017 -- the product has too much saturated fat, AHA said -- sales were already beginning to fall. Over the course of 2017, coconut oil retail sales dropped $52 million, or 24.3 per cent.

Forecasting which health foods will make it has become a big business, particularly as more consumers prioritise nutrition.

Among the foods that have made the jump from fad to staple: kale, blueberries, dark chocolate, avocados, green tea and ancient grains.

Among the ones that have not: wheat germ, acai, pomegranate and goji berries.

According to Banks, the staying power of a superfood depends not only on current buzz, but on long-term, macro changes in eating patterns, the number of competing products on the market -- and, most importantly, the quality of the science used to support the superfood's purported benefits.

"Products like coconut oil, which [US] consumers don't quite understand or trust when it comes to health credentials, are inevitably going to suffer in a 'facts-first' world," he added, "at least until their health benefits are unequivocally proven."

Some analysts aren't ruling out the possibility that coconut oil will experience just such a turnaround.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Mar 24, 2018
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