- New data from SPINS shows culinary coconut oil sales fell 25.9% in 2017 in the conventional channel — a stark contrast to the category’s 38.8% growth in 2015, Food Navigator reports.
- The picture is similar across all retail sectors. In the natural channel, sales have fallen for the last two years, and by 16.1% last year, after 5.4% growth in 2015. Some suppliers, like Hain Celestial and Carrington Farms, have seen their coconut oil sales slide, although fellow supplier Nutiva says sales of its coconut oil products continue to grow.
- SPINS suggests the declining market could be due to consumers looking to other natural fats for cooking, like lard and duck fat, or simply because their choices have expanded in the culinary oils category.
Much of coconut oil’s popularity has been driven by direct-to-consumer sales. Manufactured products that contain the oil include potato chips fried in coconut oil, a whipped topping for coffee, and General Mills’ Nature Valley Biscuits in coconut butter. Even if consumers are not buying so much coconut oil for cooking, manufacturers do not necessarily have to stop using it. Just as the naturalness and flavor of butter can be used as a selling point for many products, the same may be true for those that contain coconut oil.
Whenever there is skyrocketing popularity for a superfood, there is speculation about its decline, and coconut oil is no exception. A superfood trend usually lasts about five to seven years, and can be influenced by supply and demand issues, as well as research around its health effects – good and bad.
When it comes to coconut’s health credentials, the oil was dealt a blow last June when the American Heart Association advised against using it because of its high saturated fat content and tendency to raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. It contains more saturated fat — 82% — than butter, palm oil or lard.
Although coconut oil fans disputed the AHA’s report at the time, the ingredient’s recent decline may be a matter of public opinion catching up with scientific opinion. Its health halo stems from two studies linking medium-chain fatty acids with fat burning, but coconut oil contains just 14% medium-chain fatty acids, and the professor behind the studies has condemned the coconut industry’s liberal interpretation of her research.
A couple of years ago, there was also a huge amount of publicity around the idea that saturated fat had been unfairly demonized for its role in cardiovascular disease. Since then, however, researchers have suggested that the issue may be more nuanced. For coconut oil specifically, a recent review found that replacing it with unsaturated fats would likely be better for heart health. As scientists work out the question of saturated vs. unsaturated fats among themselves, it is possible that the general public has lost interest in the argument — and if those consumers are convinced of saturated fats’ benefits, perhaps they are more likely to revert to using traditional fats like butter in their cooking, rather than more exotic oils like coconut.
More generally, Americans have a much broader range of fats and oils to choose from these days, and have become more adventurous in their choices. Olive oil, for example, is now ubiquitous in home kitchens, but that wasn’t always the case; U.S. olive oil sales have grown 250% since 1990. Meanwhile, health-conscious consumers are seeking out specialty fats and oils — especially those with additional flavor or health benefits — from sources like avocado, sesame, flax, nuts, hemp and grapeseed.