Are you loco for coco-nut? This large oval seed of a tropical palm, with edible white flesh (and clear liquid) within has been in the media spotlight for sometime now being touted as yet another food panacea. While people swear by it—whether oil, milk (including “milk” based products) or water—others demonize it. Don’t mean to burst any bubbles here, but coconut is not a miracle food (nor will it make you drop dead)! It is a food with valuable health properties (like most every whole food out there) and if consumed in MODERATION it is healthy – just make sure it is not laden with tons of sugar and artificial ingredients. Research on coconut and its inherent health benefits is still in its infancy so let me do what I can to help you get your “nut” around the coco…
Part of the demonization of coconut comes from its saturated fat content. Yup, that’s the same kind of fat in animal foods and the fat that “clogs your arteries”. But, not all saturated fats are created equal!
While much of the saturated fat that we eat is part of long chain triglycerides (LCT), the saturated fat in coconut is part of medium chain triglycerides (MCT). MCT s are absorbed and metabolized differently than LCTs. Instead of circulating through our lymphatic system, MCTs head straight to the liver where they are processed and quickly metabolized into energy. Why is this good? Well, MCTs are much less likely to be deposited in your fat stores since they do a lot less circulating and while they can raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol, they most notably raise your “good” HDL cholesterol. This in turn causes your total cholesterol to HDL ratio, a risk for heart disease, to go unchanged or improve. But again, science on this topic is at best young!
These miraculous MCT’s have also been cited as having antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties that, in theory, have the potential to combat conditions from acne to HIV (quite a spectrum!). However, hard scientific evidence is lacking (something I am a bit of a stickler for).
The oil is safe as a moisturizer (in fact superb according to moi!) and one study from the National Institute of Health showed it to be as effective as mineral oil in wound healing (but that’s just one study and it is necessary to have more solid evidence to confirm this). And, as far as weight loss (because it has also been promoted as a skinny supplement), there is no real science to prove its use as a weight loss supplement. So don’t buy into any shed the pounds with coconut oil programs!
The Many Uses of the Coconut
Coconut comes in many forms nowadays. So, do you like it straight up or in oil form for cooking purposes? How about out of a can as thick creamy milk (but the one WITHOUT the additives) or as the “new and improved” sports drink? You can find it in bars, sold as “mainstream” milk, creamer, yogurt and even ice cream!
That being said, here are some pointers when picking products with coconut:
- Coconut oil comes as “virgin” (meaning minimally processed) and refined, the first being flavorful and the second fairly flavorless; both remain stable at high heat thus it is a good choice for pan-frying or sautéing. It is also great as a butter alternative for pie crusts and other baked goods.
- I most often use it as a daily moisturizer and I don’t buy into all those fancy coconut oil “creams” on the market. I go straight for the cooking grade oil—it’s a lot cheaper!
- The thick creamy milk is superb as a base for smoothies. Even as an ingredient in a delish dish like:
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into small chunks
- 1 cup "lite" coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
- 6 whole cloves
- 4 cardamom pods
- 1/4 piece dried red chili , crumbled
- In sauté pan, heat oil on medium and add all spices. Cook for about 2 minutes, until you smell the aroma of the spices.
- Cut cauliflower and add to pan. Add coconut milk, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes.
All recipes © 2012 Stefanie Sacks
- On the sports drink front, simply put, if you are not someone who sweats a lot, coconut watercan help rehydrate. Perspiration causes your body to lose a lot of sodium and little potassium (both electrolytes). Although coconut water is high in potassium, it is low in sodium making it unsuitable as an electrolyte replenishing sports drink (unless additional electrolytes are added to the mix). That being said, it is a low-sugar and low-calorie alternative to what’s on the market today. So weigh your options and perhaps replenish with some salted nuts and a cold bottle of coconut! Harmless Harvest happens to be my number one choice due to taste and freshness.
- On the bars, most that contain coconut also contain tons of sugar. So pick and choose wisely. My favorite is Oskribrand bars—they are the most whole and most pure.
- As far as the “mainstream” milks, creamers, yogurts and ice cream, don’t think that just because it’s coconut-based it is super charged for health support. Many of these products come chock full of sugar and fillers. They are all great alternatives if you need/want to be dairy-free, but like I say with everything, rotate your foods and choose among the many dairy-free alternatives out there including almond, rice, soy (always non-GMO), hemp and more.
Loco for Coco?
So, enjoy coconut and its many food products as a part of a healthy balanced diet, but know that it is not a miracle food. In fact, there is no such thing! If you put a food on a pedestal you not only lose sight of its benefits, but also your overconsumption can inevitably be more harmful than helpful!
Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!