Is Coconut a Miracle Food?

Somehow the inclusion of coconut makes any dish taste exotic. From curries to pastries to fancy blended cocktails, coconut adds something out of the ordinary. But that’s not the only reason to add coconut to your kitchen repertoire. It’s packed with nutrients and is one saturated fat that appears to be good for your heart. Plus, the array of coconut products on the market makes life a lot more interesting and delicious for those avoiding dairy products as well as gluten.

There is no denying that most of the coconut products out there taste rich and creamy—thanks to their saturated-fat content; the question is whether or not that fat is really a healthier alternative to other varieties. Coconut oil is an abundant source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are easily used as energy but are difficult for the body to store as fat. This is because they don’t require intestinal digestion with pancreatic enzymes and do not transport in the body bound to lipoproteins via the lymphatic system, meaning they can directly be used by gut and liver cells for energy.

Benefits in a Nutshell

A number of clinical studies in both rats and humans back up these claims. The trials have demonstrated that MCTs, and coconut oil specifically, can lower lipid levels, aid in fat loss, stabilize blood sugar and increase metabolism. Good natural fats like coconut oil are not what make people fat; it’s the human-made ones the body can’t recognize, like trans fats, that are the problem.

The health benefits of coconut don’t stop there. Virgin coconut oil provides about a gram of caprylic acid and 6.5 grams of lauric acid per teaspoon—two fatty acids that work as natural antifungals, discouraging yeast overgrowth in the body, rebalancing gut organisms and promoting intestinal health. It also provides about 800 mg of oleic acid, a desirable omega-9 fatty acid that is found in olive oil too, and which does not increase cardiovascular risks.

In addition to the benefits listed above, many of the coconut milks, yogurts and frozen treats now on the market provide calcium, B vitamins and beneficial flora like their cow-milk counterparts but are vegan, non-dairy alternatives. Even coconut water has a lot to offer. It is a great source of potassium, magnesium and calcium, with little sodium and no cholesterol; and with only about 15 grams of natural sugar per serving, it is a refreshing and healthy alternative to sports drinks or sodas.

Like any product category that is exploding onto the natural foods scene, there are ranges of ingredient quality, as well as commitment to sustainability and fair trade on the part of manufacturers—although most seem to be devoted to producing the greenest and healthiest products possible. For example, many use virgin coconut oil, which is cold pressed and unrefined, to preserve nutrients and prevent rancidity. Also, because coconut is sourced outside of the U.S., the organic certification is particularly meaningful, since it precludes the application of chemicals that are illegal in the U.S. for use underneath the coconut palm trees.

What Are All Those Coconut Products?

COCONUT OIL: With its subtle flavor and long shelf life, coconut oil is an excellent all-purpose cooking and baking oil. And considering its smoke point is higher than olive oil, it is an even better option for sautéing or roasting.

COCONUT BUTTER: Creamy, a touch sweet and very spreadable, coconut butter is great in smoothies, on toast or anywhere you would use its dairy equivalent.

COCONUT FLOUR: Made from fresh, ground coconut meat, coconut flour is high in fiber and low in carbohydrates; so it’s less likely to disrupt blood sugar levels than grain flours. With a bit of extra water or eggs, it can be used to make cookies, muffins, pancakes and more.

COCONUT MILK: Not just for curries anymore, coconut milk is ideal on cereal, in smoothies or in baking. Now found in cans as well as cartons in the dairy cooler.

COCONUT WATER: Coconut water is the clear liquid taken straight from green coconuts. Unlike coconut milk, it has no calories, fat or added sugar and is packed with potassium, making it an ideal post-workout drink or general pick-me-up.

COCONUT YOGURT: Check labels, but there are coconut yogurts out there full of calcium, B vitamins and good bacteria without a drop of dairy.

COCONUT FROZEN DESSERTS: Thanks to the richness found in coconut oil and coconut milk, you’ll hardly remember these ice creams and frozen treats are dairy-free.