I Heart Coconut – A Testimony, With Science!

July 14th, 2011 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health

Coconut diversity! From left to right: macaroons, young Thai coconut, fresh young coconut water, cultured coconut yogurt, blended coconut milk, dried shredded coconut “meat”, whole mature coconut.

Did you know that coconuts are freaking fantastic? It’s true! They’re one of my absolute favorite foods, for two main reasons. First, their nutritional profile is outstanding and quite unique. Secondly, their diversity is practically unparalleled. You can do so many different things with coconuts! And the great news is that their popularity is on the rise, which means they’re becoming available in more and more forms, at more and more locations.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s begin with a simple introduction:

Coconuts are not actually nuts; they’re the fruit of the coconut palm and they contain a single seed. This is confusing, since “nut” is in the name, and even more so because the United States FDA has categorized them as a nut for allergy purposes. Because of this, coconuts must be disclosed under the allergy warning on packaged goods. Interestingly, in areas of the world where coconuts are a prominent part of the diet, they compose a large percentage of food allergies (in the top 5). But in places like the US, the UK, and Australia, coconut allergies are virtually nonexistent. Aside from all that, the takeaway is that coconuts are mostly a fruit . . . with an edible seed . . . so sort of both, but not a nut . . . okay, they’re really in a class all their own. As you’ll see!

Coconuts play a major role in many equatorial cultures. In much of the world, they are eaten daily and provide a major source of calories and nutrients. In the Philippines, the coconut palm is referred to as “The Tree Of Life”. Undoubtedly, coconuts are a traditional food with a long history of human use.

The ancient food forms of coconut include:

Young Flesh, raw – soft and gelatinous, sparse
Mature Flesh, raw – harder and more abundant
Mature Flesh, dried – also called “copra”, used in cooking and used to make oil
The Water – actually liquid endosperm (the “meat”), contains protein, vitamins, and minerals, in isotonic electrolyte balance.
The Milk – produced by mixing hot water with grated flesh (fresh or copra) to draw out the oils and flavors. High fat content and will separate into cream if left in cool temperature.
The Oil – extracted from mature meat, can be cold-pressed (raw) or heat/solvent-extracted (not raw, more processed). Very heat stable, with a high smoke point, making it excellent for frying and other high-temperature cooking.
Palm Sugar/Jaggery – sap is collected from the palm flowers and heated until it reduces and dries out. Used as a sweetener, tastes like earthy brown sugar.
Hearts of Palm – the apical buds of adult plants. Did you know that harvesting them in the wild actually kills the plants?

So, why are coconuts so damn awesome? Well, let me tell you.

Raw cultured coconut yogurt parfait with chocolate rye gRAWnola and fresh strawberries. Recipes in Rawsomely Vegan.

Coconut is lower in sugar and higher in protein than other typical fruits. It’s also high in fiber and important phytochemicals, such as phenolic acids. Coconut contains significant vitamin E, and the minerals iron, phosphorous, and zinc. Coconut oil also has impressive antimicrobial properties (1), including as an effective treatment for Candida (2).

Coconut contains a very high percentage of fat. Of the fats found in coconut, about 90% are saturated. “Eeek!” you might be saying. “But isn’t saturated fat, like zee deveel?” Well, maybe not!

Lauric acid is the fatty acid that comprises 50% of the total fats found in coconut. Lauric acid, along with many of the other coconut fats, is a rare medium-chain fatty acid. It also happens to be one of the major components of human breast milk! And there is some evidence, which I’ll discuss below, that these plant-based medium-chain fatty acids do not carry the same risks associated with other saturated fats.

Just to be clear: many doctors, governmental agencies, and the World Health Organization, recommend against consuming a lot of coconut, and especially coconut oil. This is exclusively because of the high saturated fat content, and ignores the fact that there are different types of saturated fat. Early studies on coconut oil indicated a deleterious effect, but these studies were all conducted using partially-hydrogenated coconut oil. That’s trans fat! Obviously, an artificially processed oil “product” can not fairly be compared to minimally processed natural coconut foods.

As noted above, in many parts of the world coconuts are eaten daily and provide the vast majority of dietary fat. In these same regions the risk of chronic disease, including coronary heart disease, is exceptionally low (3) (4) (5). However, these data disintegrate as soon as the culture shifts from their traditional diet (high in plant foods and fiber) to a western diet (including processed foods, refined grain, dairy, and sugar). As always, the protective effect of foods work synergistically within the context of the entire diet, and a singe element cannot be isolated and extracted.

So what about that saturated fat? Should it be a concern?

Well, it sort of depends on the rest of your diet. Coconut oil does in fact raise cholesterol. However, it raises the “good” cholesterol more than the “bad”, which actually results in a preferred lipid profile (6) (7). For some populations, like those eating a plant-strong diet, coconut may be especially beneficial when used as a tool to maintain optimal cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is essential for hormone regulation and other metabolic functions, and a cholesterol number than drops too low can actually become detrimental.

Raw cacao-dipped orange coconut macaroons. Recipes in Rawsomely Vegan.

So what’s the bottom line? I believe that in a plant-strong, whole foods diet – in my diet – coconut oil is an awesome, health-promoting food. I think that if somebody is eating a diet that’s rich in animal proteins, animal-sourced saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol, than coconut oil may not be the best choice . . . but really, then coconut oil is probably the least of their worries!

There are people who will tell you that coconut is some sort of magical superfood; that it can do everything from preventing seizures to killing the AIDS virus. (seriously) Um, I’m not one of those people! What I am telling you, is that using coconut foods to replace other products is a positive step towards optimal wellness. Coconuts are exceptionally healthful as compared to their alternatives. They allow for culinary creativity and a whole new realm of plant-based rich and creamy dishes, from wholesome entrées to decadent desserts.

Along with the traditional preparations, there are a number of modern coconut foods, including:

Flour – made from the dried flesh once the oil has been pressed out
Nectar – the sap from the flowers
Crystals – sap, dehydrated at low temperature
Palm Wine – fermented sap
Aminos – aged and salted sap
Vinegar – fermented coconut water
Butter – the meat pureed together with the oil

. . . but we’ll have to talk about those another time.

And what about you my dears? Do you use coconut foods? If so, how? If not, do you want to try them?

  • Gem Wilder

    Oh yum! I want it all! Another amazing fact about coconuts – I watched a documentary on the Solomon Islands once. Due to an embargo placed on one of the islands, the inhabitants had to come up with alternative options, and created a petrol substitute using coconuts, so they could continue to drive around the island. Amazement. Coconut Cars!

  • Ruby

    I use coconut sugar in the place of regular sugar in everything from coffee to baking – it’s fantastic!

  • http://twitter.com/erosan erosan

    Coconuts are definitely not nuts, but they are not really a class of its own (botanically speaking) either.

    They are considered drupes, along with dates, apricots, olives, coffe, cherries, pistachios and a load of other kick-ass fruits.


  • Cedar

    Gem Wilder-YES! I’ve seen it. It’s called the Coconut Revolution and it’s a wonderful documentary!

    I LOVE coconut! It’s one of my absolute favorite flavors and smells. I actually just had some coconut milk, rice pudding yesterday. Delicious! Sayward, this post was most excellent and congrats on your book! As a fellow Portlander, I am very proud of you!


  • Joselle

    Last year, while wedding planning and going back to school, I started breaking out like mad. Read that coconut oil was good for zits. Started using it on just zits and when they cleared, I stopped using all processed beauty products and now only use coconut oil on my face and hair. It’s amazing. My super curly hair does not frizz. My skin never breaks out. As a Puerto Rican, coconuts were always big in my family’s cooking. I love the stuff. But I admittedly put more on than in my body. I do worry about how its increased popularity in the US lately impacts on the tropical regions where it’s grown. I don’t know much about it, though.

  • http://bluknotsoriginals.blogspot.com @tishushu

    OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG…. I soooooooo love coconut EVERYTHING! My daughter, not so much… Luckily that means more coconut for me. I LOVE coconut water, and I use coconut oil for cooking, and for my morning Abhiyanga, which is Ayurvedic massage… (Here’s a how-to if you’re interested:http://www.chopra.com/abhy ) Coconut oil is very cooling, and is good for my Dosha, Pitta…

    Anyways, I try to incorporate lots of coconut into my life during the summer months because of its cooling effects… Rubbing my body down with coconut oil before my shower helps me stay cool all day!

    And Joselle, coconut oil is great for skin inflammations because of its cooling effects!
    Just sharing!

  • Melisa

    I do not use coconut at all but have been wanting to learn how to since you posted a photo of some coconut cream dessert you made for Waits. What’s the best coconut project for an absolute beginner?

  • http://purplelionsblueviolets.blogspot.com/ Sierra Dawn

    Oh, I just LOVE coconut! I use the oil instead of margarine on toast and pancakes, put it in oatmeal, use it on my skin and hair, and even wear the essential oil. I work for a doctor that told me that my cholesterol levels were probably through the roof and that I was at risk of dropping dead from a heart attack from consuming “that horrible oil”, ha! Just to prove him wrong, and out of curiosity, I had my cholesterol checked and, surprise, it came back better than perfect! (note: I’ve also been veggie for 32 years, vegan for about 13) In your face, Dr! It’s a shame that so many professionals are giving it such a bad rap all because of a study based on bad science:( Well, I love the stuff, and so do my kiddos. I’ve recently purchased coconut flour after seeing a kick ass recipe posted, but haven’t had the chance to play with it yet.

  • http://twitter.com/erosan erosan

    @Melisa: here is a super easy recipe for a quick dessert… 1 cup of rice 2 of water and a cinnamon stick and prepare as usual… then add some coconut milk and a little of your fav sweetener. Serve topped with some fried bananas and you’ll have a super easy dessert that is super tasty too. (and if you have a rice cooker, it’s almost a one button dessert) :3

  • Sonja

    I live in Cambodia at the moment and coconuts are literally everywhere! I drink coconut water on a daily basis here and eat the meat as well. At home back in Germany I use coconut oil, coconut milk and dried coconut flakes for cooking and drink coconut water sometimes. Sayward, you linked to your book and I wonder, if it contains lots of recipes which can be prepared without a dehydrator because I don’t have one but our books looks so interesting. Please let me know. Thanks :)

  • Melisa

    Thanx, erosan!! What sweetener do you use?

  • http://www.zerowastelifestyle.blogspot.com/ zerowastelifestyle

    Mmmm coconut is heavenly. Try this for a body scrub:
    1 cup organic demerara sugar
    1-2 tsp organic unrefined coconut oil
    2 tsp organic shredded coconut

    Mix shredded coconut and sugar in a small bowl, stir until blended. Heat coconut oil in a small pot just until melted. Pour coconut oil over sugar and shredded coconut, stir oil into the sugar mixture. It will start to spread. Continue until the sugar is all one consistency. Apply a small amount to areas you want to exfoliate and moisturize and massage with small, circular movements.
    Recipe from:

    My best memory of coconut is drinking cool coconut milk from a coconut which came straight from the tree in the middle of a spice plantation on Zanzibar island just off the coast of Tanzania. Nature’s best. Just don’t let one fall on your head from way up high…..

  • http://twitter.com/erosan erosan

    @Melisa: I’m an omni, so I don’t have issues with using regular sugar, or brown sugar even ^_^ At least for this recipe.

    But on my everyday life? I use sugar, honey, maple, agave… anything that is not artificial sugar e.g. splenda…

  • http://www.zerowastelifestyle.blogspot.com/ zerowastelifestyle

    Never seen vegan sugar where I live-do you get vegan sugar stateside? Read someplace that you vegan sugar is available in the USA…..

  • http://natsmithillustration.etsy.com Nat

    Sayward, Thank you SOOOOOOO much for doing all the research and sharing it with us. I was always under the impression that coconut oil was bad for you..i was misinformed (which I am happy about, cause I love coconut)

    Thank you!!!!!

  • http://vegetalion.blogspot.com Sarah P

    @zerowastelifestyle, I think sugar is vegan in most of the countries in the world outside the US. Last I knew, we Anericans were the one country who put animal bones into our sugar (and even then, not all American sugar processors do that). So check into where your sugar comes from to be sure, but if you’re outside the US, your sugar is probably already vegan.

  • Amanda

    Definitely going on the hunt for coconut products tomorrow! YUMM!! I have used coconut oil for a while – it is fantastic! I can’t wait to try out other recipes!! <3 <3 Thanks, Sayward! :]

  • http://vegetalion.blogspot.com Sarah P

    I love coconut everything! The only thing I haven’t tried is the young coconut meat, and I want to because it sounds so cool and gelatinous and intriguing.

  • Viki

    Thanks for the coconut info!

    On an unrelated note, any idea when your Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide is going to hit the shelves? This summer would be perfect timing for me :)

  • Liz

    What about the environmental impact of eating coconuts? Are they hard to grow in large quantities? By increasing demand for them in the U.S. are we raising the prices and availability of coconuts for people who need them as staples in their diets in local communities? What about the environmental impact of shipping here? Thought we should remember to ponder these things.

  • http://www.bigmamamorgan.blogspot.com Jessica

    We use coconut over here for all sorts of things! In my pantry (and fridge) right now I have coconut aminos (replaces soy sauce), coconut butter (tasty snack!), coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut flakes (my 2yo DD loves them), and coconut flour. We LOVE coconut. And I loved reading all about it here!

  • http://exoticdonkeymeat.com Kate

    Do not subtly post your book announcement via captions!!!!!!!! CONGRATS SAYWARD! Look at that cover! And the title! And the cover art! And your NAME! Nom nom nom nom nom I can’t wait.

  • http://www.growingraw.com GrowingRaw

    For all of you who are still enjoying Summer (I’m in Winter down here), the flesh of young coconuts is fabulous blended with ice and tropical fruits. Mangoes are the best. My problem is they’re always so damn hard to open to get the water and flesh out! It takes me at least ten minutes digging around the top with a hardy knife.

    p.s. Once you have the lids off them and have left them out for the chooks to clean out, they make really groovy little planters.

  • http://www.creativeanomalie.com sarah

    I LOVE COCONUT. I use it for everything. Literally, everything. Raw cooking yes, but it’s more often in every body care product I make, and I haven’t used any facial/body moisturizers other than coconut oil in years. I couldn’t live without the stuff. FYI it’s also a sunscreen – double whammy as a moisturizer on tattoos ;)

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com Sayward

    Yay, glad to see all the coconut enthusiasm! It really is such an amazing food, and I’m so happy to hear that so many of you already eat and use it.

    @ Gem Wilder and Cedar – Ooh! I’ll definitely have to check out that doc, thanks for the heads up!

    @ erosan – True! Botanically speaking they are fruits, *but* unlike other drupes, we eat the *inside* of the seed. So we’re sort of eating the seed “meat”, but we treat it like a fruit when we prepare it. It’s just rather confusing – definitely unique!

    @ Melisa – How about a homemade curry? Canned coconut milk is widely available. Some veggies, some Thai curry paste, and a can of coconut milk = heaven! Or, just pick up some virgin coconut oil and start using it in place of other oils for cooking/baking. It does have its own flavor though, so be aware of that!

    @ Sonja – Oh man, soooo jealous!

    @ zerowastelifestyle – I think Sarah P is correct, but I’m not super familiar with sugar outside the US. What aspect are you concerned with not being vegan? Is it the bone char?

    @ Viki – It should be available for pre-order any day now, coming out within the next 6-8 weeks. And I guess, congrats!! ;-D

    @ Liz – All great questions. These are the sorts of issues I’m really looking forward to exploring and learning about in next month’s book club!

    @ Kate – Aww, you are so sweet, THANK YOU! I’m soooo excited to see it there, it’s surreal!

    @ GrowingRaw – Planters! Genius!

    @ sarah – Coco oil is seriously the *only* body care item you need. ;-D

  • http://www.zerowastelifestyle.blogspot.com/ zerowastelifestyle

    Well, I only recently found out that whitened sugar is sometimes made with bone char as part of the process-and my first thought to be honest was yuck-could there be any potential for BSE contamination….will have to read up more about it.

  • http://plants-vs-vegans.blogspot.com/ Eva

    Oh, coconuts are great, definitely. But don’t become a cocoivorist! ;-)

  • http://lifeontheclothesline.wordpress.com/ clothespin

    Sayward and Erosan – coconuts are drupes and we do eat the insides – but as a drupe that is not a unique thing. Almonds and walnuts are a prime examples.

    I was in Peace Corps and lived in the Carribean (really, not as wonderful as it sounds – no AC for example) and we had coconut trees all over the place. The BEST way to eat them is green… Drink the water, but leave a few tablespoons in the bottom. Add a couple of spoonfuls of turbinado sugar (or regular sugar there), swirl with a spoon to mix, and eat the slimy coconut meat (immature) with it. Heaven.

    Haven’t had a fresh green coconut since I left – I desperately crave them!!!

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  • joan

    feel proud that you mentioned Philippines here. Im actually from philippines..I use virgin coconut oil as moisturizer. After a bath ( while i still damp) I apply it from head to toe. No more dry skin and hair!

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