Plenty of populations from all over the world have thrived by consuming coconuts. It’s the kind of magical serum that can be used in beauty regimes, as biodegradable fuel, as protection against losing your mind (Alzheimer’s) and, in the realm of the more obscure, it was an important component in gas mask production to make air breathable during World War I. But thanks to our continuous search for healthier food choices, coconut is firmly back on the menu.
Let’s just get the ‘fat’ thing out the way first. Some schools of thought argue that coconut, and the products derived from it, are unhealthy to use as substitutes for things like oil because of its high saturated fat content. But Registered Dietitian Kirby Hendricks from Alex Royal Dietetics says that 'coconut oil is primarily saturated fat (over 90%), with the bulk of it coming from lauric acid, which is a medium chain saturated fatty acid (MCFA)'. She says that some argue that MCFA’S such as lauric acid, palmitic and myristic acids have a positive effect on the HDL (good cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels. But generally coconut oil should be treated sparingly; it is a better replacement for lard or butter, but olive oil or canola oil is even better.
As we now know, coconut oil contains a lot of MTFAs, which are metabolised differently and can have therapeutic effects on several brain disorders. The MCFAs in coconuts get shipped to the liver and turned into ketone bodies, which can supply energy for the brain. Researchers have speculated that this ketone production can provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning cells and reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
As Hendricks explains, because coconut oil improves important risk factors like LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol) they can help reduce the risk of heart disease too. The lauric acid in the oil can also help ease inflammation. There is more! Irish research suggests that coconut oil can also fight bacteria responsible for tooth decay and could be a healthy, non-chemical additive in toothpaste and mouthwash.
Coconut water has created a lot of buzz for its purported health benefit as a natural sports drink. This is because it is a great hydrator for light workouts, as one cup serves up more than 10 percent of your daily dose of potassium – an electrolyte you lose through sweat. Coconut water is low in calories, carbohydrates, and sugars, and almost completely fat-free. In addition, it is high in ascorbic acid, vitamin Bs, magnesium and proteins. The water from coconut can also prevent the formation of kidney stones, can reduce blood pressure and support heart health and it may have benefits against diabetes.
Coconut milk should not be confused with coconut water, as they are two completely different things. For starters, coconut water is clear and coconut milk is white. They are also obtained in different ways, with the water drained straight from the core of the coconut while the milk is pressed from the meat. Hendricks says that coconut milk is lactose-free so it makes an excellent substitute for those who are lactose intolerant. Plus, she adds, it is a popular choice with vegans, making a great base for smoothies, breakfasts or as a dairy alternative in baking.
Coconut flour is known for many health benefits: it packs a whopping 5 grams of fibre per 2 tablespoons, with only 2 grams of total and saturated fat. Coconut flour has health benefits for people with diabetes, too. Adding coconut flour to baked goods lowers the glycemic index – a measure of the rate that a food increases blood sugar. Many people also prefer it because it does not contain any gluten or grains, making it ideal for those with digestive problems or gluten intolerance. Lastly, coconut flour is typically sweeter than other types of flour, so baked goods that use it require less sweetening.
Sure, not everyone is a fan of the flavour. If you are one of those people who cannot handle it there is an option for you. There are two types of coconut oil; refined coconut oil (expeller-pressed) which has no taste, and unrefined oil or virgin oil which has a strong coconut taste. Expeller-pressed coconut oils are deodorised and therefore have a very bland, mild scent and flavour, making it tasteless or almost tasteless. Hendricks explains that it is easy to hide the taste of coconut in smoothies, baking or cooking as coconut products don’t usually have an overwhelming or strong coconut flavour, especially when you add vanilla, cinnamon, herbs and spices to your foods.
For more delicious healthy recipes, read Your Plate.