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The benefits of coconut oil and its controversial history in the Cayman Islands

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Tuesday, 16 February 2016 01:21 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I’m an eternal optimist, and if I have one message to share, it is to tune out the chaos of conflicting nutritional information and simply embrace the ‘bright spots’ around us. This is what will ultimately lead to the improved health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and our environment,” explained Tamer Soliman, co-producer of a new documentary examining the benefits of coconut oil and its controversial history in the Cayman Islands. In an interview, Soliman discussed the origins of the effort, challenges to creating the film, interesting insights he learned along the way and much more.

Film Synopsis: The bright spot of the Cayman Islands is coconut oil, a food that modern research claims is one of the healthiest on the planet. Through interviews with nutritional experts, local farmers and historical and political consultants, discover why coconut oil has lost its place in many island homes, and how a modern population can be inspired to overcome the hurdles of the past and return this healthy, traditional oil to its kitchens.

Tell me a little bit about the story behind the film. What was the moment or experience for you that gave rise to this effort?

About three months after arriving to Grand Cayman from Toronto, where coconuts were trending as the new ‘super food’, I went for a run along the world-renowned Seven Mile Beach. I came across maintenance workers pruning the coconut palm trees outside some of the hotels and other properties. There were about three truckloads full of coconuts that they had cut down, so I asked them what they were going to do with all of them, and they told me they might take a couple for themselves but that the rest would go to the dump. This was quite a shock to me: to send a food that was not only delicious, but also nutritious and grown locally, to the garbage.

This was the light bulb moment that inspired me to investigate coconuts in greater depth, and ultimately seek out a brilliant filmmaker named Rob Tyler to document the story of the coconut here in Cayman.

What were some of the challenges to making this documentary? 

The project was a ten-month journey, which ended up being much longer than we had anticipated.  The central story of the film evolved over the course of those ten months as we learned more about the history, uses and politics of the coconut through interviews, museums, and local historical magazines. Even casual conversations would take us in new directions, which we did not plan for, but couldn’t deny exploring these leads as it gave the film a voice and trajectory of its own. The final cut of the film, both the story and the beautiful imagery, is something that we are certainly proud of, and hope that our audiences, both local and international, feel inspired by.

Along the way, were you surprised by what you learned about this industry? 

In our opinion, the media is over-saturated with health documentaries that are quite extreme and fear-based. As a result, they confuse the public and promote a sense of hopelessness around healthy eating. We believe that by producing a documentary that focuses on the positive aspects of the coconut—something that is not only nutritious, but accessible and sustainable as well—we can empower people to make better choices for their health. We are now on a path to discover other ‘Bright Spot’ stories to share, in hopes that these stories can be the gateway to better health for a variety of populations and a more sustainable way of living. 

What would you like viewers to walk away from the film knowing, and what would you like them to do?

I would like viewers to know that the consumption of vegetable oils has health and environmental consequences that we should not ignore.  For instance, these oils are grown from genetically modified seeds, are heavily processed with pesticides in the fields and contain additional chemicals that are designed to lengthen the shelf life in the supermarkets.

What's even more unfortunate is that since the late 1970s, enormous amounts of pesticide residues have been found in US groundwater, most frequently in regions that grow corn, soybeans and cotton, which are common crops for vegetable oil production.  This is also a problem on an international scale, as Dr. Vandana Shiva, the activist on India’s food preservations, explained: Today we are living in food imperialism. We have become a sick nation due to the rapid spread of industrially processed food and junk food, which are destroying our healthy food traditions.

The movement our documentary suggests is to get back to our roots and trust the foods of our ancestors, the foods that are whole, nutritious and sustainably produced. If you change your oil, you can change your health andthe health of the planet. Ultimately, what I would like people to do is simple, yet significant: get an oil change.

Tamer Soliman is a registered holistic nutritionist from Toronto, Canada who lives in the Cayman Islands. He, alongside Rob Tyler, co-produced and directed the documentary "Bright Spot". It can be rented on their Vimeo channel.