Coconuts have a long history of medicinal and culinary use. Along with olives and avocados, coconuts are among the very few fruits that contain substantial amounts of fat. The coconut is unique in that it is composed of 92% saturated fat, while avocados and olives contain predominantly monounsaturated fats. In fact, the saturated fat content of coconuts has been a source of controversy for some time. After being shunned as unhealthy in the ’90s due to their high saturated fat content, coconut products are making resurgence in health-conscious communities.
Despite the bad rap given to saturated fats during the low-fat craze of yester-year, evidence is mounting that such fats may confer more benefit than harm. Lauric acid, the primary fatty acid in coconuts, has been shown to have anti-microbial properties, making it a kind of probiotic that can help to restore and maintain healthy bacteria in the gut. This boosts the digestive system and provides a healthy boost to the immune system as well. And, when consumed in moderation, the fat in coconut will not be metabolized and stored as excess weight in your body. Lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid that is readily absorbed across the gut, creating quick energy and making it less likely to be stored in fat cells.
While relatively low in protein, coconuts boast notable amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iodine and many trace minerals, a nutritional fact that most are unaware of!
Like olive and vegetable oils, coconut oil must be extracted from the meat of the fruit. Thus, it is important to read the label to ensure that you are getting a high-quality, minimally-processed product. Look for coconut oils that are “virgin” or “extra virgin,” and “cold pressed” or “expeller pressed.” If the label does not use these terms, there is a good chance that the oil has been treated with chemicals and deodorizers and may contain low-grade coconut products. Coconut oil is quite versatile, and can be used for cooking, as a condiment and even as a body product! The flash point is high, making it ideal for sautéing, and the melting temperature of coconut oil is 76 degrees Fahrenheit, much lower than butter, making it easier to use for baking and spreads. Recently it has become a favorite for use as a moisturizer for skin and hair. In fact, some massage therapists use it as a massage oil, as it melts on contact with skin.
Coconut milk is made by grating or blending the meat of the coconut, soaking in warm water, blending again, and then straining. The process is similar to that used for soy and almond milks. Thus, coconut milk contains both the oil and flesh from the fruit. Coconut milk is high in fat and rich in flavor, making it an excellent addition to dishes such as curries, stews, and desserts. When buying canned coconut milk, buy “whole” rather than “lite,” as the “lite” versions use additives to achieve the creamy texture of the natural form.
Coconut “butter” is sometimes used to refer to solidified coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature in Northern climates. However, food companies are beginning to market coconut butters that are essentially pureed coconut meat. The result is a rich and creamy spread with many uses. These butters offer raw and natural vegan alternatives to traditional butter.
Recently gaining great popularity in mainstream Western markets, coconut water seems to have been reinvented overnight — from a drink available mostly from street carts in tropical countries, to a tetra-packaged treat available even in the healthy-food-and-beverage wastelands of U.S. highway service plazas. Rihanna even has her own signature blend! Yes, coconut water is a powerful hydrator and rich in electrolytes, but before you go out and buy it in bulk from your local superstore, take a close look at labels. While manufacturers would like you to believe that it’s “like sticking a straw in a coconut,” the ingredient lists sometimes tell a different story. For instance, ZICO is made from concentrate and contains preservatives, thickening and flavoring agents, and Vita Coco adds sugar (in small amounts) to their non-flavored coconut water to standardize the sweetness level across the product line. There are other brands making a splash in the market, notably Harmless Harvest which is raw and unadulterated.
All of these coconut products offer flavorful and versatile ways to enjoy the healthful benefits of coconut. As with any processed food product, however, care should be taken to ensure that the product you’re choosing is unadulterated by harmful chemicals or additives.