The coconut is known as the Swiss Army penknife of the plant kingdom because, in one tidy package, it provides food, water, fibre that can be spun, and a shell that can be burned to keep you warm. Oh, and it floats. Just what you need on a desert island, where, handily enough, you might expect to find one.
It’s a genuine multi-tasker in the vegan world, too. Thanks to its versatility, flavour and nutritional nous, coconut is one of the hottest ingredients of the past few years, with coconut products fighting for shelf space. Vegan cheese, vegan butter, vegan meat substitutes, non-dairy milk, ice cream, cream and more all use coconut as the go-to ingredient. And don’t get us started on coconut water.
It’s not just about edibility. Coconut is also a star ingredient in many shampoos and conditioners, shaving creams and lotions, make-up remover and countless other beauty and grooming products.
And if you’re not already wearing it, you will be soon. To spare sheep and trees, Aussie R&D company Nanollose recently created a wool-like material made from coconut waste, that requires very little water, land, and energy to produce. The fibre is spun into yarn and made into fabric, then manufactured into garments using existing industrial equipment.
Another coconut based alternative to wool, Woocoa, took home the PETA Prize for Animal-Free Wool at last year’s Biodesign Challenge. Made from a mixture of hemp and coconut fibre, it was created by a group of design students Bogotá in Colombia.
The coconut hails from two locations: the Pacific Basin (Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia) and the Indian Ocean (southern India. Sri Lanka, the Maldives). From there, this seasoned traveller infiltrated the world, with its ability to journey up to 4,800km by sea and arrive fresh enough to germinate.
It’s thought the coconut drifted to Australia from Melanesia quite some time ago; the oldest known fossil of the modern coconut – found in what we now call Queensland, – dates from two million BC, give or take a century. It wasn’t until the voyage of the Endeavour in 1770 however, that the first actual sighting of coconuts was reported by one Captain Cook. According to his diary they were gleefully gathered by his vitamin-deficient crew as a welcome supplement to an otherwise dull shipboard diet.
And as an added eco bonus, the coconut comes in its own packaging, and is one of the few things you can buy at the supermarket that doesn’t have some kind of plastic wrapper.
Buyer beware: One thing to be mindful of is the fact that coconuts sourced from South East Asia may have been harvested using primate labour (that’s monkeys who are trained to pick coconuts often in very un-vegan like ways).