Some years ago, you could find coconut cake on some restaurants’ menus, and you could find coconut-scented shampoo in the toiletries aisle at your local grocery store. You could even, if you were living in a big city with a thriving natural-food scene, find grated coconut in health-food stores. And, of course, if you were lucky enough to find yourself on a tropical island, you could find coconuts lying around all over the place.
But these days, coconut is appearing everywhere from water to jumbo-size jugs in warehouse stores, and not just because it’s tasty and reminds you of your last vacation.
The first thing you need to know about coconuts is that they’re not in fact nuts. The word “coconut” is typically used as an umbrella term to describe the entire coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), the seed and the fruit. But botanically, coconuts are classified as drupes, a type of fruit that contains three layers: an outside layer or skin (exocarp), a middle fleshy layer (mesocarp) and a hard inner layer (endocarp) that encloses the seed. The term “drupe” might be a new one, but if you’ve ever had peaches, cherries, almonds or olives, this isn’t your first rodeo.
Fresh coconut meat contains some protein, carbohydrates and fiber but is predominantly made up of fat, and it’s that fat that’s responsible for giving coconuts their bad reputation.
One of the major controversies that erupts when discussing the Paleolithic diet involves saturated fat. It usually goes something like this:
Me: “My diet is rich in meat and coconut because the types of fats they contain offer a lot of health benefits.”
Lipophobe: “Fat from meats and coconuts? Isn’t that saturated fat? You’re supposed to avoid saturated fat. Isn’t that what gives people heart attacks?”
At this point, I try to explain that it’s the type of saturated fat that dictates its health impact. This is not an easy sell; most people have heard over and over again that consuming saturated fat is directly linked to atherosclerosis, heart attack and other significant cardiovascular incidents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture still recommends keeping saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of total calories to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But what the USDA will not tell you is that a growing body of research suggests that it may not be saturated fat that’s detrimental. A more likely culprit is all the other junk that hitches a ride with saturated fat. For instance, we are highly unlikely to benefit from eating a diet high in saturated fat sourced from frozen pizza and Oreos, or to improve our health by consuming lots of saturated fat in addition to superfluous amounts of processed carbohydrates and sugars. A diet full of quality, grass-fed meats and coconut fats, on the other hand, can work wonders for your health.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that the fat in coconuts is saturated. In fact, pure, virgin coconut oil contains more than 90 percent saturated fat, the highest amount of any fat. But unlike the saturated fat found in, say, beef or dairy, coconut oil contains a mixture of short- and medium-chain fatty acids (also known as medium-chain triglycerides), namely lauric (about 50 percent of the total), myristic (about 18 percent) and capric (about 6 to 7 percent) acids. It’s this unique composition of fats that sets coconut oil apart from harmful sources of saturated fats, like those Oreos.
Interestingly, it’s the saturated fats in coconut that have been recognized for making it healthy. Studies suggest that coconut’s major medium-chain triglyceride, lauric acid (in the form of monolaurin), has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoal properties. (The only other notable natural source of lauric acid is breast milk. Perhaps this could explain why babies who are breast-fed longer are generally healthier?)
But medium-chain triglycerides also have performance benefits. Because they don’t get metabolized the same way as longer fatty acids, they’re a quick source of energy and a poor source of stored fat. According to studies, MCTs can increase energy expenditure, promote satiety and support healthy weight control, particularly when used in the place of sources of long-chain triglycerides. This doesn’t mean that you should start eating coconut oil straight from the jar every day, but it does mean that researchers have recognized its potential as a weight-loss tool compared with other forms of fat.
Similarly, MCTs do not have the same bile requirements as other fatty acids, so they may be a more innocuous fat source for people with gall-bladder issues. Or, if you’re someone who has low levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL), coconut oil might be something to consider. Although a high intake of coconut oil can increase total cholesterol, its potential to improve HDL might be a worthwhile trade-off.
Coconut oil also might do wonders for your liver. One study evaluated the ability of coconut oil compared with silymarin (the active ingredient in milk thistle) to protect liver damage in rats. Researchers fed rats either silymarin or coconut oil for seven days and then dosed them with massive amounts of acetaminophen (Tylenol) to damage their livers. Both silymarin and high doses of coconut oil were reported to have liver-protective effects.
Given all these benefits, why does coconut have a bad rep? Two words: politics and economics. Without getting into too much detail, coconut oil was wrongly accused based on a perfect storm of misinformation. It began in the 1950s with the concept that hydrogenated vegetable oils cause heart disease and was propagated by the anti-saturated-fat and anti-tropical-oil campaigns that proliferated in subsequent years. The truth is, we didn’t grow coconuts in the United States, so we had no incentive to promote their use.
It’s also worth noting that some of the research that bashes coconut oil uses oil that has been hydrogenated. Hydrogenated coconut oil is a whole different animal compared with the virgin stuff, full of murderous trans fats, just like any other hydrogenated oil.
Coconut Many Ways
Coconut is not just a vehicle for saturated fat. In fact, some refer to it as the “tree of life” because it produces drink, fiber, food, fuel, utensils and musical instruments, among other things. Fortunately, the sheer variety of coconut products makes it easy to incorporate the healthy drupe into your everyday diet. Some examples of coconut products include the following:
This is the fruit of the coconut. When you crack open a coconut and are left with the white “flesh,” that’s the meat. Next time you’re at your local food store, pick up a coconut and a cleaver and get crackin’. Or if you’re lucky, you might be able to find coconut among other fresh fruits already cut up and in a ready-to-eat container.
Coconut Flakes/Coconut Chips/Shredded Coconut
This is dried, unsweetened coconut meat, and it’s a great addition to any trail mix. Bring some with you when you travel or use it in your next baking recipe. But make sure to buy the natural, unsweetened kind rather than the sweetened stuff that tends to sneak into the baking aisles of local grocery stores.
Among the most common coconut products, coconut milk is a hearty, satiating source of good fats. The canned stuff can be found in the ethnic section of most stores and makes a great addition to smoothies and sauces. If you’re looking for a healthy addition to your morning cup o’ Joe or you’re sick of drinking black coffee, try whipping some coconut milk and adding a dollop of this nondairy whipped-cream alternative.
Coconut Butter/Coconut Concentrate/Coconut Manna
Coconut butter is just ground-up coconut meat, and the stuff is delicious. Use it in place of nut butters or for baking.
This is 100 percent fat extracted from coconut meat. The high saturated fat content of coconut oil makes the substance solid at room temperature. But don’t be alarmed — saturated fats are stable fats. This means that, in the context of heat or cooking, coconut oil is a better choice compared to less stable unsaturated fats like olive oil. If you’re looking for a quick, delicious source of healthy medium-chain triglycerides, try blending coconut oil into your morning coffee.
Available almost everywhere, it has become nearly impossible to keep up with all the different brands and flavors of coconut water that have popped up in the last couple of years. Although coconut water is predominantly sugar and should be consumed moderately, it can be a great choice in the right context. Coconut water contains more potassium than a banana, so if you find yourself dehydrated, sick or in need of replenishing after a tough workout, it’s a good choice. According to the Library of Congress, doctors used coconut water in place of IV solutions during World War II and during the Vietnam War when availability of IV solution was limited.
After the oil is extracted, coconut meat can be ground up to make flour. Coconut flour is a gluten-free and relatively nutrient-dense alternative to flour. Coconut flour can be found in most stores and can be used in a variety of different foods. Next time you decide to make pancakes or muffins, grab yourself a bag of coconut flour instead of Bisquick.
This product comes from something referred to as coconut sap, which can be obtained from coconut tree blossoms before they mature into coconuts, and it is rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids — which makes sense, given its purpose is to feed the growing coconut. After the sap is aged, the result is coconut aminos, a great soy-free alternative to soy sauce. However, collecting the sap kills the flower, which means coconut production is sacrificed. Guess we can’t have our (coconut) cake and eat it, too.