In an era of trendy diets and “superfoods” from around the world, it is hard to believe that those foods could be inaccessible or even rejected by the people who live near or grow them. Here is a summary of the complex story of why people in the tropical regions of Ecuador, where coconut is an ancestral food, have a prejudice against coconut, why they are having less access to it, and what you can do to help make a change.
Esmeraldas (literally “emeralds”) is known in Ecuador, a country in South America, as the “green province,” alluding to the lush vegetation of its humid tropical forests. Located on the northern Pacific Coast of Ecuador and bordering with Colombia, Esmeraldas is a region populated mostly by people of African descent. For working class mestizos (mixed race people) from major cities in the highlands, Esmeraldas has always been the number one vacation destination. Esmeraldas’ beaches are a mere 6-7 hours drive from the capital city of Ecuador, Quito. The coastal area highlights the regional cuisine of Esmeraldas, particularly seafood, a major attraction for visiting tourists.
Ecuador has a rich and varied cuisine due to its diverse ecological geography. While a high altitude tuber like the potato makes the food of the highlands distinctive, coconut is the essential ingredient in Esmeraldan cuisine. “Encocado” (literally “coconuted”), the iconic Esmeraldan seafood or meat stew cooked in coconut sauce, sparks the imagination and ignites the taste buds of Ecuadorians. But for black Esmeraldans, encocado is a potent symbol of their identity. It is an essential part of their cultural heritage as an ethnic and regionally distinctive people.
In the old days, Esmeraldans made everything encocado. Older men and women testify to eating coconut in almost every single meal of their day. A typical day could include hot chocolate made with freshly pressed coconut milk and local cocoa bean paste for breakfast, guanta or fish encocado for lunch, and vegetable soup in coconut milk for dinner. Coconut meat pieces with grated panela (evaporated cane juice) made a snack, and masato—ripe sweet plantain, coconut milk and cinnamon smoothie—was a refreshing, energizing drink at any time of day. Grated coconut and panela are the only two ingredients in a still popular traditional desert: “cocadas.” Boiling hand grated and pressed coconut milk with panela and spices made manjar de coco, a thick, sweet coconut treat. Homemade coconut oil was commonly used as a skin and hair conditioner, and medicinally as a laxative. Coconut palms grew on rural farms and in the backyards of anybody’s house. Indeed, coconut was ubiquitous in Esmeraldans’ everyday life 50 years ago, but no longer.
Habits have changed and new industrialized foods have been introduced in the diet of Ecuadorians, particularly since the 1970’s. However, the dramatic shift away from coconut in Esmeraldans’ diet is likely due to its sharp rise in prices. While in the early 2000’s, one coconut cost as little as 10 to 25 cents, today they are sold for as much as USD $1.50 to $2.50 in times of scarcity. How were coconuts made scarce in the local markets of one of the major coconut producing lands of Ecuador?
Over the past few decades, plagues decimated coconut palms, although that’s not the whole reason for the price hike. Ecuador’s major cities, Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, have become huge markets for coconuts from Esmeraldas for use in a growing food industry, particularly as an ingredient in pastry products and granola. More recently, government programs included granola (with grated coconut from Esmeraldas) as part of school breakfasts in public schools throughout the country. It should be noted that Ecuador did not engage in international trade of coconut before the 1990’s. Demand for coconuts in Ecuador’s urban-centered food industry increased to the point of sustained importation of coconut to Ecuador, especially from Peru, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. At the same time, Ecuador also started exporting coconut in the early 1990’s, sending most of its produce to Spain, the United States, Colombia, and Argentina.
This high coconut traffic across local borders explains how coconuts from Esmeraldas arrive on the plates of school children in Ecuador’s dry, cold highland towns and cities; or to the passersby in cool-weather Quito who buy coconut juice from the street carts of Esmeraldan vendors; or even to health-conscious, middle class, mestizo and white urbanite consumers of granola and yogurt for breakfast. Internationally, Ecuador’s coconut trade provides additives widely utilized in cosmetics and a grand assortment of health food supplements in the United States and Europe.
This boost in Ecuador’s coconut trade, and its correspondent toll on economic accessibility in Esmeraldas, also explains why Esmeraldans today may substitute the milk from expensive fresh grated coconuts with pasteurized commercial milk to make their encocados (a 1-liter bag is a dollar). And, this is also why the traditional manjar de coco or pan de coco (coconut bread) is now made with plain cow’s milk instead of coconut. Increased trade also helps explain why entrepreneurs of artisanal coconut oil, like Don Julio, were forced out of business after the rise in coconut prices and the introduction of commercial brands of fake, coconut-scented mineral oil. Finally, the boom in local and global coconut demand accounts for why Esmeraldans of today eat coconut foods only a few times a week, and in some extreme cases, only once a year.
However, coconuts also grow in people’s backyards in Esmeraldas, and they are freely available to those who own and work in coconut palm plantations throughout the region. Could it be that Esmeraldans are purposefully not eating them? It turns out medical doctors in Esmeraldas and Ecuador are advising their patients against consuming coconuts invoking the long-ago discredited belief about the supposed adverse effects of saturated fat on heart health. With regards to dietary recommendations, Ecuadorian doctors get their updates from the American Heart Association, often pointing to saturated fat to explain rising rates of obesity and hypertension affecting people in Ecuador.
Sadly, a public health food labeling campaign based on the anti-saturated fat dogma is currently underway in Ecuador. The new “stop-light” food labels required on all packaged products are intended to warn consumers against eating foods high in fat, salt and sugar. Medical authorities particularly target traditional fats like butter, lard and coconut, and vilify Ecuadorian traditional dishes that contain these fats. As a result, there is a culture of guilt for eating traditional foods in Ecuador. In Esmeraldas, it is common to hear doctors blame health problems on people’s preferences for traditional coconut dishes. It is hard to find logic in their reasoning, as coconut consumption is at an all-time low in Esmeraldas due in large part to the increase in prices and the medical campaigns launched against it.
People in Esmeraldas, more than anywhere else in Ecuador, have the right to know the truth about coconut. With access to knowledge, they can reclaim what is in their heritage and reap the health benefits from it. Me and my colleagues at La Poderosa Media Project are determined to make this possible by making a film about coconut and health in Spanish. Having access to current scientific findings and revisiting the history of their local foods through this film will empower Esmeraldans to re-discover and embrace their culinary traditions with the added benefits to their health and well-being.
You can help make it happen! With support is essential to make this urgent film to inform the owners of coconut traditions in Ecuador about its powerful health benefits. Watch a trailer/promo-video of the film and support our campaign by donating any amount and sharing this post!
Pilar Egüez Guevara, Anthropology Ph.D., Research director and co-founder at Comidas que Curan.
This research is part of the collaborative education project Comidas que Curan, blending film and ethnography to document and teach about food traditions and transformations in Ecuador and Latin America.