The Copha trade mark was applied to a shortening made from coconut oil and was registered by Lever Brothers, the forerunner of Unilever. The oil was extracted from copra, imported from the Pacific islands. Sydney was an important hub for the copra trade, with much of the resulting oil used for soap manufacture. The brand is currently owned by Peerless Foods and is unique to Australia and New Zealand, where it is called Kremelta. Along with Kellogg’s Rice Bubbles, it is an essential ingredient of Chocolate Crackles, a popular treat for children’s parties.
Copha was developed as a result of the soap industry. In the 1870s, grocers William and James Lever bought a small soap-making works and invested in a new process that used using glycerin and vegetable oil instead of the traditional tallow. In 1885 they formed the Lever Brothers company and their product became known as Sunlight Soap.
Palm oil and eventually coconut oil were used as components in the soap and Lever Brothers had plantations in the Pacific islands. In 1897 they established a plant in Balmain, Sydney to process the copra and extract the valuable oil.
The coconut oil was, of course, edible. The production of Copha was made possible by the discovery of the hydrogenisation process, first patented in 1902 by a German scientist. The process adds hydrogen to liquid oils, making them semi-solid at room temperature.
Although the brand’s website states that the product was introduced in 1933, the trade mark was registered in 1913. A pastry recipe published in 1918 gives “copha fat” as an alternative to dripping or butter.
Copha was heavily promoted from the 1930s to the 1950s. As well as chocolate crackles it was used in cakes, with the ease of the “melt ‘n mix” method a key sales message. It is also a key ingredient in coconut ice and a slice known as White Christmas, which includes powdered milk and mixed dried fruit.