Talk about food gentrification has been on the Internet lately surrounding Whole Foods' new campaign to elevate a staple in the traditional cuisine of the U.S. south–collard greens–to the rank of the trendy health food kale. Early on, quinua (translated in English as ‘quinoa’) was on the table for debate. The discussion focused on whether demand in the U.S. and Europe, and the consequential rising international prices, were harming local farmers and consumers in South American countries where quinua is native. Indeed, the local and global forces of culture, economics, and politics play a role in the not-so-new phenomenon of food gentrification. Here, I tell a story about coconut and food gentrification with a view from the Global South, that is, as a native Ecuadorian.
Esmeraldas (literally “emeralds”) is known locally as the “green province,” la provincia verde, 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) from major cities in the highlands like me, 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 bio-ecologic and cultural heritage, and of their collective history 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. “It all goes to the cities,” Esmeraldas’ residents recognize. 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. Coconut water is also being gentrified; however, the water comes from a different kind of watery young green coconut as opposed to the meaty ripe coconuts grown in Esmeraldas. Green coconuts come mostly from the neighboring province of Manabí, just south of Esmeraldas, and are widely commercialized by the tourist and restaurant industries in major cities. 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.
You may be thinking, “But didn’t you say coconuts grow in people’s backyards in Esmeraldas?” Could it be that Esmeraldans are purposefully not eating them? Well, yes. It turns out that health news and trends in the First World countries of “progress”, i.e. the U.S. and Europe, seem to be “trickling down" to developing countries like Ecuador with a delayed effect. It so happens that while coconut products and brands proliferate in Whole Foods and other major “health” stores in the U.S. and Europe (Amazon offers about 50 different brands of coconut oil), medical doctors in Ecuador and Esmeraldas are advising their patients against consuming coconuts invoking the long-ago discredited belief concerning the adverse effects of saturated fat on heart health.
With regards to dietary recommendations, Ecuadorian doctors get their updates from the American Heart Association. Doctors in Esmeraldas then use this not-so-modern science to make racialized interpretations of the high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension affecting the people of Esmeraldas, ultimately blaming them and their “culture of coconut” for their own health problems. In fact, one of the people that told me they limit their consumption of coconut to only once a year, proudly flaunting their willpower and health ethics to repress the desire to eat tempting traditional coconut dishes, was a medical doctor from Esmeraldas.
Now you coconut-oil pulling addicts, sporty coconut-water drinkers, and compulsive health-food consumers may just be thinking: should I just stop buying coconut oil, coconut milk, or coconut water then? I don’t want to contribute to making traditional food inaccessible for Esmeraldans!
Lets face it: there are things in this world that simply can’t be solved with our individual consumer actions or inactions. There is so little that lone consumer choices can do in this case to stop the forces of the gentrification of coconut health knowledge. Science claims about the dangers of saturated fats were born in the 1950’s United States. They traveled in the direction of imperialism, and incubated locally in the peripheral spaces of U.S. hegemony in the Global South. Decades later, that same science (although still relegated to the “alternative health” aisle) belies its old claims, and “discovers” older traditional health knowledges. If new health trends in the U.S., which have elevated coconut to "healthy" status, were now to find their way, as they already are, to the urban middle and upper class consumer cultures of Ecuadorians (assuming that they will trickle down eventually to the less educated, low-income segments of society) they would do so following the exact same North/South West/East colonial/imperial paths.
It’s about time to decolonize health and food knowledge and culture. As a starting point, let’s step outside our, almost always, unacknowledged consumer-citizen personas, and recognize the wider systems in which our individual actions may or may not make a difference. Instead of transferring the blame from those structures (i.e. policy, corporations) to individual people, let’s talk about which actions have a potential to make a change, starting within our own communities. Finally, let’s never stop recognizing the power and privilege that informs our efforts to “eat well.” We need to recognize that, from our unique social locations in the Global North, privilege allows more than just being able to choose what foods to eat, but also having the luxury to cherry-pick what ideas and claims about health and food to embrace.
Pilar Egüez Guevara, Anthropology Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow,
Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Research director and co-founder at Comidas que Curan
This research is part of the independent documentary project Comidas que Curan which works to document and educate about the traditional ways of eating and healing learned through the histories and memories of older men and women in Ecuador and Latin America. Learn how to get involved here.