The brown, hairy, egg-shaped coconut sold in the grocery store is actually the seed of the fruit of the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera). The tree trunk is about 18 inches/45 centimeters in diameter, with numerous rings marking the places where former leaves have grown, and reaches a height of up to 100 feet/30 meters. At its summit, the tree is crowned with about twenty 10-to-15-foot/3—to-4 1/2-meter long blade—shaped leaves that droop downward.
Amid these leaves, the nuts grow in clusters of ten to twenty or more, each tree typically carrying ten to twelve clusters in varying stages of development. The oval-shaped coconuts, which have a pale green, thick, ﬁbrous outer husk and a dark brown, hard inner shell, grow to about 12 inches/30 centimeters in length when fully mature. Inside their hard outer shells, they are lined with a layer of rich white nutmeat that surrounds a hollow center ﬁlled with a thin, slightly sweet ﬂuid referred to as “coconut water” (rather than coconut milk which is made by squeezing grated coconut ﬂesh)
Like most other nuts, the coconut is quite high in fat, but unlike other nuts, virtually all its fat is saturated. In fact, coconut oil is the most highly saturated of all vegetable oils—a quality that makes this oil extremely stable, which is why it is so often used in sweets, baked goods, shortening, margarines, and deep-fat frying. The richness of coconut oil also makes it useful in soaps, lotions, shampoos, and detergents.
One of the oldest food plants, the coconut palm is thought to have originated somewhere in the Malayan archipelago but was soon dispersed throughout the tropics by man and nature, having been known to survive ﬂoating across entire oceans. Its name is recorded in Sanskrit in the Vedas, the oldest (circa 1500 B.C.E.) scriptures of Hinduism, in which the coconut is said to nourish the body, increase strength, and promote beautiful hair and skin.
In Ayurvedic medicine, coconut oil infused with herbs has been used medicinally for almost 4,000 years as an effective treatment for skin diseases caused by infestation with parasites, such as scabies and head lice. Today, about 20 billion coconuts are grown each year, and although the major producers are the Philippines, India, and Indonesia, virtually everywhere the coconut palm grows—in the tropical regions of Latin America and East Africa, as well as Asia, the Paciﬁc Islands, and the Philippines—coconut products serve as a dietary staple.
Coconut oil, which we now know contains immune-boosting medium-chain fatty acids, has long been thought to have a special healing power and is an important constituent not only of the cuisines of each of these countries, but also of their traditional medicines—a practice whose appropriateness is underscored by the fact that Thailand, where coconut appears in virtually every dish in the national cuisine, has the lowest cancer rate of the ﬁfty countries surveyed by the National Cancer Institute.
The importance of the coconut throughout the tropics is exempliﬁed by its many uses in the Philippines, where the coconut palm is called the “tree of life.” In these islands, virtually all parts of the tree are used medicinally, including its roots, bark, leaves, ﬂowers, and cabbage, as well as the husk, shell, water, endosperm, and oil provided by its fruit, the coconut. Medicinal uses are varied:
– The roots are used for dysentery and other intestinal complaints.
– A poultice made from the bark is used for toothaches and earaches, while ash of the bark is used as a dentifrice, as an antiseptic, and to treat scabies. –
– Nourishing and easily digested, the cabbage (actually the buds cut from the top of the tree), called ubod, is a cooling diuretic that is often served as a salad vegetable and is also used to make pickles (achara) and a native stew called gulay.
– The astringent ﬂowers are used in the treatment of dysentery, urinary infection, diabetes, and leprosy, while the unopened ﬂower stalks are distilled to produce a spirit called arrak. The ﬁbers of the trunk are used as a diuretic, in the treatment of tapeworm, and to soothe an inﬂamed throat. A native medicine made from burning the shell of the coconut in one receptacle while condensing the volatile products that separate out in another is used to treat a number of skin diseases and to relieve toothaches caused by dental caries.
– The milky liquid inside the coconut, called coconut water, is astringent and slightly acidic when fresh but soon loses its astringency. This ﬂuid, which is 95 percent water, holds in solution proteins, sugars, and salts and is used as a diuretic and a treatment for intestinal worms and urinary disorders.
-The sap of the coconut palm, called tuba or toddy, stimulates peristalsis and acts as a mild laxative. Externally, coconut oil is used as a vehicle for liniments in skin medicines, for strengthening the hair, and to make a shampoo in combination with the bark of a native tree, Entada phaseoloides, commonly called gogo, which is high in saponin and produces a lather that cleanses the scalp very effectively. The coconut has spawned an export industry that is vitally important to the Philippines, bringing in $1.2 billion annually and providing a livelihood for almost one third of the population.
For the islanders, the coconut palm is a source of not merely income but timber; food; fermented and unfermented drink; alcohol; vinegar; thatching material; splints; strips and ﬁber for making baskets, mats, rope, hats, brushes, brooms, and other articles; fuel; caulking material; eating and cooking utensils; oil for food, cooking, illumination, soap, and ointments; feed for domestic animals; and fertilizer.
Coconut Nutritional Highlights
Like most nuts, coconuts contain signiﬁcant amounts of fat, but unlike other nuts, which contain mostly long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, coconuts provide fat that is almost all in the form of health-promoting medium-chain saturated fats. Fresh, mature coconut meat contains more than 50 percent water and approximately 35 percent coconut oil, 10 percent carbohydrates, and 3.5 percent protein. One cup of the nutmeat provides approximately 500 calories.
Fresh coconut milk provides about 600 calories per cup and is composed of 67 percent water, 25 percent coconut oil, 5 percent carbohydrates, and 3 percent protein. Dried or creamed coconut meat provides nearly 900 calories per cup and is composed of 65 percent fat, 23 percent carbohydrate, and 7 percent protein.
Coconuts are an excellent source of manganese, molybdenum, and copper. A 2-by-2- by—5-inch/5-by-5-by-10-centimeter piece provides 0.68 milligrams of manganese (38 percent of the recommended daily intake), 13.28 micro-grams of molybdenum (30 percent of the recommended daily intake), and 0.2 milligrams of copper (22 percent of the recommended daily intake).
Coconut is also a good source of selenium and zinc, with the same size piece of coconut meat containing 4.54 micro-grams of selenium (8 percent of the recommended daily intake) and 0.5 milligrams of zinc (6 percent of the recommended daily intake).
Coconut Health Benefits
Until the 1950’s, coconut oil was commonly used in the food industry in the United States and the U.K. until it was, as we now understand, mistakenly accused of contributing to the development of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil was implicated in raising cholesterol levels along with the saturated fats found in meats when a researcher in Minnesota fed rats fully hydrogenated coconut oil and saw a dramatic rise in the rats’ cholesterol levels.
Although Harvard scientists later reviewed this study and concluded that the cholesterol-raising factor was not coconut oil per se but the fact that it had been fully hydrogenated and purposely altered to make it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids, coconut oil was labeled as an artery-clogging fat.
In addition to the now well-recognized harmful cardiovascular effects of hydrogenated fats, current research has shown that any diet that causes an essential fatty acid deﬁciency will also cause a signiﬁcant increase in blood cholesterol levels when fed to animals.
Yet despite the fact that the initial study generated misinformation about coconut oil and other studies in which fresh/raw coconut oil was used showed that natural coconut oil not only does not cause an increase in cholesterol but also increases levels of beneﬁcial HDL cholesterol, coconut oil continues to have a bad and undeserved reputation as an unhealthy saturated fat.
Approximately 50 percent of the signiﬁcant amount of fatty acids provided by coconut is in the form of a medium-chain (12-carbon) saturated fat called lauric acid, a health-promoting fat whose only other abundant source in nature is human breast milk. In the body, lauric acid is converted into a highly beneﬁcial compound called monolaurin, an antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride that destroys a wide variety of disease-causing organisms.
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Studies have demonstrated that monolaurin eliminates lipid-coated viruses, such as Cytomegalo virus, herpes simplex 1, HIV, Hemophilus influenzae, measles, the Vesicular stomatitis virus, and the Visna virus. Pathogenic bacterh inactivated by monolaurin include Listeria monocytogenes; Staphylococcus aureus; Streptococcus agalactiae; Staphylococcus epidermidis; Groups A, F, and G streptococci; Group B gram-positive streptococcus; and Helicohacter pylori.
In addition, not only does monolaurin inactivate H. pylori, but the organism, which has become resistant to a number of antibiotic drugs, appears to be unable to develop resistance to coconut’s natural antimicrobials. Lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin also kill or inactivate a number of fungi, yeast, and protozoa, including several species of ringworm, Candida albicans, and Giardia lamblia.
Besides being 50 percent lauric acid, 6 to 7 percent of the fat in coconut is in the form of another beneﬁcial medium-chain fat called capric acid. Like lauric acid, capric acid is converted in the body to a highly beneﬁcial substance called monocaprin, which has been shown to have antiviral effects against sexually transmitted diseases, including Chlamydia trachomatis, herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2, Neisseria gonorhoeae, and HIV.
Many viruses, bacteria, and protozoa are enveloped by a protective membrane composed of lipids (fats). Current research indicates that the medium-chain fatty acids and the mono-glycerides produced from them in the body destroy these pathogens by dissolving the lipids and phospholipids in the fatty envelope surrounding them, causing them to disintegrate. Other recent studies suggest that monolaurin also kills bacteria by interfering with signal transduction, thus disrupting the bacteria’s ability to interact with the cells they are trying to infect. In addition, lauric acid has been shown to interfere with virus assembly and maturation.
The antiviral properties of the medium-chain fatty acids abundant in coconut have been found to be so potent that they are now being investigated as a treatment for AIDS patients. Studies recently conducted in the Philippines have demonstrated that coconut oil does indeed reduce viral load in AIDS patients.
In other studies demonstrating the antiviral potential of coconut against HIV, AIDS patients consumed 20 to 25 grams of lauric acid per day. Approximately 12 grams of lauric acid are provided in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, 3 tablespoons of creamed coconut, 1/1 cup of canned whole coconut milk, or 1/2 cup of dried coconut meat.
Coconut oil also protects against heart disease and promotes weight loss. In one study in which coconut oil was used as part of a high-fat diet, researchers found not only that coconut oil did not increase body fat, but that the coconut oil-enriched diet actually produced a decrease in white fat stores. In another study, when genetically obese mice were given a diet high in either safﬂower oil or coconut oil and their number of fat cells was measured, those given coconut oil were found to have produced far fewer fat cells than those given safﬂower oil.
In addition, because coconut’s medium-chain fats are easily absorbed and preferentially used as an energy source, their burning actually increases the body’s metabolic rate. The result- as long as calories in excess of the body’s needs are not consumed—is that more calories are burned, a situation that encourages the burning of the long-chain fatty acids found in other fats as well. In one study, the thermogenic (fat-burning) effect of a high-calorie diet containing 40 percent fat as medium-chain fatty acids was compared to one containing 40 percent fat as long-chain fatty acids.
The thermogenic effect of the medium-chain-fat diet was almost twice that of the long-chain-fat diet—12O calories versus 66 calories—leading the researchers to conclude that the excess energy provided by medium-chain fats was not stored as fat but burned. In a follow-up study, medium-chain fats given over a six-day period increased diet-induced thermogenesis by 50 percent.
How To Select And Store Coconut
Mature coconuts are available in most super-markets. Store them in a dry, cool area if you purchase them whole to crack open yourself. Once a coconut is opened, its meat should be refrigerated and used within seven to ten days.
A number of prepared coconut products are available in many natural and whole-food markets, including dried coconut meat, creamed coconut (very ﬁnely ground dried coconut blended with coconut milk), canned coconut milk (either the ﬂuid found inside the coconut or milk made from the expressed juice of grated coconut), and coconut oil.
Dried coconut meat is often shredded and may be sweetened, toasted, and/ or creamed. Since shredded coconut is often sweetened with sugar and preserved with propylene glycol (a chemical used in antifreeze), we recommend that you read labels carefully to avoid such products or buy whole coconuts and prepare your own shredded coconut with the aid of a food processor. Store shredded coconut in an airtight container in a cool, dry place or a refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for about a month.
Creamed coconut is found in some supermarkets, the refrigerated foods section of Asian and Indian markets and in some whole-food markets and health food shops. Store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for seven to ten days.
Canned coconut milk, a good substitute for creamed coconut, can be found in supermarkets. Be sure to buy whole, not low-fat, coconut milk (from which much of the beneﬁcial medium-chain fat has been removed), and choose a brand that contains no additives. Once opened, canned coconut milk should be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for seven to ten days.
Coconut oil of high quality is odorless and tasteless, a white semisolid in cool weather and a creamy—colored oil in hot weather. Choose only food-grade oil and avoid any product that has been hydrogenated. Although coconut oil is quite stable and need not be refrigerated, it is best used within one month after opening.
Tips For Preparing Coconut
Whole green coconuts, called buko in the Philippines, are harvested when the meat is soft and rubbery. Should you be able to buy these at your market, after removing the husk, poke two holes in the “eyes,” the soft spots at the bottom end of the coconut. Place eye side down in a small bowl, allow the liquid to drain out, and save for later use. Then crack open the shell and simply scoop the meat out with a spoon. Enjoy buko on its own or add it along with the coconut liquid to smoothies, soups, curries, or baked goods for ﬂavor.
Mature coconuts are harvested after the shell is quite hard and the meat is ﬁrm. To prepare mature coconuts, drain them as described above for buko. Their liquid, called coconut water, can be used by itself as a beverage or ﬂavoring agent, or combined with mature coconut meat to produce coconut milk. To remove mature coconut meat, break open the drained coconut by striking it with a hammer or put it in a 350 degree F./180 degrees C./ gas 4 oven until the shell cracks open, then use a sharp knife to separate the meat from the shell.
Remove the dark outer layer and cut the white coconut meat into small, 1/4-inch/1/2 centimeter chunks. The meat is now ready to be eaten on its own, diced and used in fruit salads or baked goods, ground in a food processor for use in making coconut milk, or shredded and dried to produce homemade dried coconut.
To make coconut milk, place 1 cup of ‘/4- inch/1/2 centimeter chunks of coconut meat in a blender or food processor and process until thoroughly broken up. Add 1 cup warm water and process again until ﬂuffy. Line a sieve with cheesecloth, put the processed meat into the sieve, and place it over a glass container. Drain the coconut milk, pressing out all the liquid with the ﬂat back of a large wooden spoon, or with your hands. Freshly made coconut milk should be used immediately or refrigerated and used within two days.
Quick Serving Ideas for Coconut
• Sprinkle unsweetened, dried shredded coconut over sweet or spicy soups, fruit salads, or tossed greens. Use as a topping for desserts. Add to granola and other cereals, biscuits, cakes, and mufﬁns. For a beautiful presentation and tropical taste, garnish any grilled ﬁsh with slices of lime and shredded coconut. Add blocks of creamed coconut to heated sauces, curries, stocks, soups, and desserts to impart the velvety texture and rich creamy taste of coconut. Use coconut milk instead of cow’s milk in virtually any recipe. Try coconut milk in smoothies and blender drinks. Substitute coconut milk for cow’s milk in your next batch of mufﬁns, pancakes, or chocolate pudding.
• For Haitian ﬂair, add coconut milk and jerk spices to black bean soup. Warm up a truly healing bowl of chicken soup by adding coconut milk and freshly ground black pepper.
• The ﬂavor of any creamed soup recipe will be dramatically enhanced by the addition of coconut milk. Try it in tomato soup, clam chowder, or vichyssoise.
• For a tropical variation on bouillabaisse, add coconut milk, lemongrass, and ginger along with canned tomatoes, basil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper to your next ﬁsh stew.
• Mix coconut milk with red or green curry for a cooking liquid that will add a Thai accent to your next stir-fry. Before your next sports competition, try this energizing pasta: Toss cooked and drained pasta with a sauce made from coconut milk combined with 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter, such as peanut or almond, a little curry spice, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce.
Products containing hydrogenated coconut oil should be avoided since consumption of hydrogenated coconut oil has been shown to cause a signiﬁcant increase in blood cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
When purchasing shredded coconut, read labels carefully and avoid products sweetened with sugar and/ or preserved with propylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze.
Coconut contains small amounts of oxalate.
Individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid over consuming this food.