Coconuts have been in the limelight for several years as the trends of including and using coconuts for everything from cooking to treating eczema continue to popularize both mainstream news and holistic medicine practices. Coconut water is intensely hydrating, and coconut milk is a solid milk replacement that’s even utilized by some major restaurant chains as a substitute for dairy and almond milk in lattes.
The great coconut is one fruit whose benefits seem limitless. At the same time, the enjoyability factor is sky high.
Interestingly, there is a lot of confusion around what the coconut actually is. Is it a fruit? Is it a nut? Is it a seed? According to the Library of Congress, it’s actually a little bit of all three, although having the word nut front and center in the word coconut is part of the confusion.
It’s technically called a one-seeded drupe. “A drupe is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed (like a peach or olive)…A coconut and all drupes have three layers: the exocarp (outer layer), the mesocarp (fleshy middle layer), and the endocarp (hard, woody layer that surrounds the seed).”
Well, there you have it!
Coconut Health Benefits
Coconuts are genuinely a well-rounded fruit (seed/nut). They’re great for your diet and your skin. They can enhance the flavor of a dessert and serve as a moisturizer, toner, or make-up remover! It can be a bit of crazy-making keeping track of all the ways that coconut can benefit you, so we’re hoping to break it down for you in a simple way.
There are many delivery methods of coconut available, including flours and butters, but for the purposes of this article we’re sticking to the big three: coconut oil, coconut water, and coconut milk.
It’s worth noting that coconut is most certainly edible all on its own and can be used in many recipes, making it one of the most accessible superfoods to incorporate into your diet.
Experts have found that coconut in all three forms (oil, water, milk) can serve to protect against heart disease through the increase of good cholesterol and the lowering of bad cholesterol.
Coconut in any form, be it raw, oil, water, or milk is extremely easy to digest, making coconut a beneficial dietary aid for treating malnutrition or severe dehydration. It also can help with the management of diabetes by slowing down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
Coconut has been shown to prevent brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Coconuts are also believed to prevent tooth decay because coconut oil combats the bacteria responsible for the decay. It’s an excellent non-chemical addition to toothpaste, or in a mouthwash.
Coconut also boosts metabolism and is linked to weight-loss success in several studies.
The most common commercially available versions of coconut oil are typically made from copra. Copra is the dried meat of the coconut that can be turned into coconut oil from sun drying, kiln drying, smoke drying, or some combination of the three.
Unrefined coconut oil extracted from a copra is considered unsanitary and can be dangerous if consumed. This is why modern manufacturing of coconut oil includes a purifying and refining process that introduces sodium hydroxide to remove toxic free fatty acids. Sodium hydroxide also prolongs the shelf life. The oil is then filtered through clays to remove impurities.
Coconut oil can be sold in a virgin version as well, although there is some discrepancy as to what this means. Generally speaking, it comes down to melting coconut oil from the fresh meat of the coconut, considered the non-copra. Virgin coconut oil produced through wet-milling extracts the oil from raw coconut meat without drying it first. Minimal heat is required in either of these methods, and chemicals are also not necessary to sanitize or to purify the resulting coconut oil, allowing this version to have a longer shelf life and arguably a more “pure” taste and consistency.
Fractionated coconut oil is a form of the oil that has had its long-chain fatty acids removed. Removing these fatty acids allows the oil to remain in a liquid form at room temperature, versus regular coconut oil or virgin coconut oil which solidifies at room temperature. This also extends the shelf life of the oil.
Fractionated coconut oil is more typically used as a carrier oil for skin care products or to mix with other essential oils such as cinnamon, because it is completely soluble with other liquids. Fractionated coconut oil absorbs quickly without clogging pores.
Benefits of Coconut Oil
There are over 1,500 studies on the many health benefits of coconut oil, and ultimately what researchers have found time and again is that the key ingredient that makes coconut oil such a highly regarded superfood is the presence of medium-chain fatty acids.
Medium-chain fatty acids are made up of caprylic acid, lauric acid, and capric acid. Of the oils in coconut oil, these three fatty acids comprise about 62% of the total value. Coconut oil is also extraordinarily rich in healthy saturated fats, making up about 91% of the total composition of the oil.
While digestion of fats can typically be a laborious process, MCFAs found in coconut oil are easily digested. It takes a little over eight times longer to digest almost any other fat than it does to digest coconut oil.
Coconut oil has specifically been linked to the following health benefits:
- Improves memory and brain function and can treat and prevent effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
- As a practical treatment for UTIs.
- Reduction of inflammation resulting in osteoarthritis.
- Prevents and can treat certain cancers.
- Boosts the immune system.
- Improves digestion and can enhance ulcerative colitis and stomach ulcers.
- As a treatment for skin: eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, dandruff, and as a burn treatment.
- Prevent osteoporosis.
- Improves diabetes.
- Reduces body fat and contributes to overall weight loss.
- As an anti-fungal to treat yeast infections or other fungi born infections.
Coconut Oil Nutrition
Coconut oil is mostly made of fats, but here are some additional facts according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One tablespoon (or 15 ml) of coconut contains:
- 120 calories
- 0 g of protein
- 14 g of fat
- 12 g is saturated
- 1 g is monounsaturated
- 0.5 g is polyunsaturated
- 0 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol
It provides no fiber and very little to no minerals or vitamins.
Not to be confused with coconut milk (which we’ll talk about in a moment) coconut water is made of the juice found in the middle of a young, green coconut. The liquid helps to provide nourishment to the fruit as it grows and develops. As the young coconut matures, some of the juice remains in a liquid form, while the rest turns into the solid flesh of the coconut meat.
Coconuts contain 94% water and very little fat. Not surprisingly, the benefits of coconut water are the same nutritional benefits of coconut oil and coconut meat, including fighting diabetes, promoting a healthy heart, reducing blood pressure, and serving as a potent antioxidant to build up the immune system.
However, coconut water excels in one area that the oil, milk, and fleshy meat cannot: hydration! Coconut water is an excellent post-workout drink, and in this study proved to be better than water and equivalent to high-electrolyte sports drinks.
Very surprisingly, coconut water is believed to be a possible substitute in a short-term situation for human blood plasma in extreme dehydration scenarios. There’s even documented evidence of coconut water treating severe dehydration through IV administration in the Solomon Islands.
Coconut Water Nutrition
Compared to coconut oil, coconut water is low in fat. One tablespoon contains 16 milligrams of sodium and 38 milligrams of potassium. That’s four times as much potassium as in bananas. Coconut water is also very low carb, with 1 tablespoon offering up just 0.6 grams of carbohydrates. Coconut water is a superbly hydrating alternative to water or electrolyte drinks.
Coconut milk is made from the liquid of grated coconut meat. It’s then strained and processed for any impurities. There are two versions of coconut milk, thick and thin. Thick coconut milk is produced by directly squeezing the meat of the coconut through a cheesecloth or other fine strainer.
Thin milk consists of soaking the grated coconut, and then compressing the shredded coconut within the soaked water. The solids are then strained. Thick coconut milk is about 20-22% fat, while the thinner milk is only 5-7% fat.
Thick coconut milk is considered best for desserts or rich curries and other sauces. Thin milk is better for generalized cooking.
Coconut milk also contains many of the same health benefits as coconut oil and coconut water.
A Word of Warning
While the useful saturated fat content can raise beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, it can also raise harmful LDL levels. This can increase the risk of heart disease. If you’re watching your cholesterol, please consult with a physician before including coconut in any form into your diet, but especially coconut oil as it is a more concentrated version of the saturated fat.
Whatever your delivery method, coconut can be a one-stop shop for many of your nutritional needs. Coconut in all its forms has been linked to so many dietary and preventative benefits that including it as part of your regular dietary routine can be an effective way to prevent and improve your overall health.