Everything Coconut

By: Rima Kandalaft, MS, RD, CSP, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

More and more novel coconut products are making their way to supermarket shelves. Products range from the increasingly popular coconut water, coconut oil, coconut cream, coconut flour, coconut milk and more. Below are a few facts on the different uses of this popular fruit and a quick snapshot on its nutrition contents.

Coconut palms are native to the tropics. They have often been called the ‘tree of life’ because of its versatility and the many uses of its different plant parts. Besides culinary uses, coconuts are used in many industrial, cosmetic and medicinal products. They are a source of lauric acid, an ingredient used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents. The shells are used to make carvings, utensils and even charcoal.

Coconut water—This is the clear liquid inside the cavity of green immature coconuts. It has long been a popular drink in the tropics. One cup of coconut water contains 46 calories, 9 gm of carbohydrates. It is very high in potassium -600 mg per cup- compared to 37 mg in popular manufactured sport drinks. As a reference, a small banana contains 360 mg of potassium (USDA’s nutrient data base). Indeed there are some reports of hyperkalemia (high levels of potassium in the blood) related to drinking coconut water.

So is it really all it’s cracked up to be? One study compared coconut water, a manufactured sport drink, and bottled water in regards to hydration measures and exercise performance following 60 minutes on the treadmill. All tested beverages were equally capable of promoting rehydration and exercise performance. Subjects even reported feeling bloated, and had stomach discomfort with coconut water.

Coconut milk —Not to be confused with coconut water, coconut milk refers to the liquid expressed from grated coconut meat with or without the addition of water. Fat content ranges from 17-24 percent depending on the quantity of added water. Known as “santan” in Malaysia and “gata” in the Philippines, coconut milk is a popular ingredient in many traditional recipes such as curries and sweets. It is high in calories – 552 calories in 1 cup – and high in fat, mostly saturated fat. When refrigerated and left to set, coconut cream will rise to the top and separate out from the milk. To avoid this, emulsifiers and stabilizers are added to commercially produced coconut milk.

Coconut oil—The oil is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts. Virgin coconut oil is made without high temperature or chemicals, whereas the refined type is chemically bleached and deodorized.  Partially hydrogenated coconut oil is often used in commercial baked items.

Like other tropical oils, coconut oil is high in saturated fat – 85 percent. Half of which is lauric acid, a 12 carbon saturated fat, which some studies suggest increases HDL “good” cholesterol. Earlier studies associating saturated fat to increased risk of heart disease used hydrogenated coconut oil.

So what is the bottom line?
• As with all food fads, they come and go. No single food can be a magic bullet.
• When using coconut oil, choose virgin- avoid hydrogenated oil.
• For the average exerciser, coconut water is not all it’s cracked up to be.
• Coconut milk may be delicious in curries, but it is high in calories so use it sparingly.

As for me, I am going to bake some coconut Christmas cookies, and dream of a tropical beach with coconut palms swaying. Happy Holidays everyone!

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