Coconuts are quite a diverse, versatile and truly fascinating product of mother nature. Possibly the best way to put it is it’s the Swiss Army knife of fruits. A very suitable explanation for a fruit that provides food in a variety of ways, provides hydration both internally and externally, contains fibers that can be used to make rope, and also has a shell that has been known to be turned into charcoal. Historically, it’s also been used as a floatation device.
There are actually 2 different species of coconuts, quite simply classified as Tall and Dwarf. The most common species is the tall kind, originated from India near the Indian ocean, they are mostly larger and somewhat triangle shaped. For the most part, these are the large green coconuts you most often see at all-inclusive resorts that people are drinking straight out of with a straw. The dwarf species, the spherical smaller shaped species we see more often in grocery stores in Canada, originated from areas around the Pacific Ocean, most likely around the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. The utilization of nearly all parts of the coconut has existed for generations. The coconut husk, the layer that encapsulates the brown shell of the dwarf coconut before it is removed, is often used to construct dense fiber boards, rope netting, and even often utilized for making door mats. The fiber in the husk is so strong, but it also consists of Lignin that can act as a natural glue when heated up. The shell, or endocarp, is the brown outside layer covering the meat. This part has no real nutritional value, however it has been known to be utilized to make activated carbon for household air filters. Then there’s the coconut meat, the actual edible part of the coconut, and is the most significantly utilized part as well. The coconut meat is also the most frequently debated, pertaining to how healthy its fat content can be. Coconut is made up almost entirely of fat, 89% of which is made up of saturated fats. In its most basic form, saturated fats are chains of carbon atoms with an equal amount of hydrogen atoms, making it saturated with hydrogen. This is also existent in butter, and as you can probably figure, makes certain cooking oils solid at room temperature. There are short chain, medium chain (MCTs) and large chain fatty acids. Put simply, the shorter the chain of molecules existing in a certain fat, the easier it is for the body to process the fats into energy. More on this later. The coconut meat can be enjoyed in its raw form, as dried shredded coconut, it is used in protein bars, it can be pressed into coconut milk, ground down into flour, processed into coconut manna (butter), and last but not least, coconut oil. Finally, there’s the coconut water inside the meat, a nutritious thirst quenching drink to supply the body with electrolytes. It’s also a wonderful alternative to, and much more nutritious than fruit juices, soda and sports drinks.
Raw coconut meat is probably the most nutritionally complete way to orally consume coconut. It has an abundance of fiber and is a great source of MCT oil (medium chain fatty acids or Medium Chain Triglycerides). Longer chain fatty acids have a tendency to cause platelets in our blood to become ‘sticky’, therefore contributing to blood clots and cardiovascular disease, especially if one already consumes a significant amount of meat and dairy on a daily basis, for these food types also contain large amounts of long chain FA’s. MCT oils are also present in coconut oil, however, benefits of using coconut oil is quite the debate among nutrition nerds. It has often been found in many studies over the years, a couple of which you can check out at the bottom of this blog, suggests that coconut oil doesn’t necessarily improve nor prevent cardiovascular disease. Another article at Aha Journals website, supports this conclusion, saying that generally it is proven that for some, replacing saturated fats such as coconut oil with unsaturated fats such as olive oil will actually decrease symptoms of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, there are articles of studies, much like the third link I’ve included below, that say there was no evidence in that study that supported saturated fats contributing to heart or cardiovascular disease.
If you ask me, results seem to vary from one person or group of people to another. I would say that coconut oil, coconut milk, or coconut butter is best consumed in smaller portions, either when cooking at higher temperatures, for baking, or even eating a tablespoon of raw coconut oil or butter. One tablespoon of coconut butter is a fantastic way to satiate the body, or consume when craving something sweet in the morning or middle of the day. Basically, we are past the honeymoon stage with coconut oil, but thats ok. As long as we understand the elements and nutrients that it provides, and know how it will affect our bodies, we should be fine. It’s like many other foods we consume on a daily basis. Almost all foods have an element in their nutrient supply that may be unhealthy to certain people, especially in excess. Who would think that grapes should be consumed in small amounts for some people because of their high GI level?! It’s all about being conscious of the food we eat. Given that, coconut’s saturated fat supply could affect our blood flow and our cardiovascular system, especially at higher amounts, but it is also known to help lower blood sugar levels, and can be a good source of fats for certain demographics such as athletes.
Now, fear not my friends! If you have that huge tub of extra virgin coconut oil you just purchased at Costco, and are weary of using it for cooking, there are other options! Externally, raw coconut oil is useful as a hand lotion, a soothing foot lotion, a skin moisturizer or a lip balm. It can be used in your hair to help prevent damage or protein loss in your hair follicles, and I have even read that it can be used to benefit your teeth by swishing a small amount in your mouth each day. However, it’s recommended to swish around in your mouth for 10 mins at a time, so it can be challenging I’m sure. Coconut oil has also been used as a stain remover when mixed with baking soda, it’s been used as a deodorant, it can give a nice shiny finish to wood furniture without damaging it, and even can be used as a dust repellant.
Even after all of that information, I would still consider coconuts quite a versatile food and item to use in everyday life. It may have more uses for us externally than internally, but I would still recommend consuming coconut in any of its forms in small portions, especially if you can get your hands on a nice tasting raw coconut at the store! Enjoy!