The health benefits of coconuts

graphic by Anna Petersen

If you asked the average person on Loras’ campus to classify a coconut into some food group, they probably wouldn’t know what category it falls under. Is it a nut? A fruit? A produce product that kills 150 people annually as it falls from the top of its tree? (Disclaimer: This is only the rumored statistic—no one really knows the true answer. The only verifiable fact is that more people die each year from falling coconuts than shark attacks.) Despite all these good guesses, a coconut is actually a “one-seeded drupe,” a very specific classification of a fruit with an outer skin, a pulpy middle layer, and a hard pit or seed in the center. Recently, there has been a lot of hype regarding coconuts and their supposed health benefits. This had led to a trend of replacing cow’s milk with coconut milk in Starbucks lattes, and using coconut oil in place of butter or olive oil when cooking. The New York Times posted a pretty nasty article discounting coconut milk in Starbucks lattes, since it has more calories and fat content than cow’s milk. They pointed to the fact that coconut is calorie-dense, and isn’t really a nutritious replacement for other milk products. I’ve done the research, and I don’t think coconut is the nutritional villain that the NYT makes it out to be.

As with all produce grown from the earth, coconut is highly nutritious. It contains fiber, iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6. Additionally, coconut contains a pretty significant amount of fat. The interesting thing about coconut fat, though, is that it has a different chemical structure than many of the fats we are accustomed to eating. Coconut fat is composed of medium chain saturated fatty acids (abbreviated as MCFAs). MCFAs are special fats that are metabolized in the liver to be used as energy, and unlike other unsaturated fats, they are utilized by the body quickly and are less likely to be stored as fat … if consumed in moderation. This moderation is key: coconut still contains high amounts of fat, meaning you will be nutritionally and calorically satisfied after small amounts of it. However, it’s still a much healthier fat to consume than butter or saturated vegetable oils.

At the end of the day, coconut is a great replacement in many recipes. The only place you wouldn’t want to use coconut oil is in stir frying, as its low boiling point makes it dangerous to use in the frying pan. However, it’s a great mix-in for coffee. If you’ve never added coconut oil to your black coffee in the morning with a little bit of cocoa powder and sweetener, your life will be changed. That’s only if you’re a fan of coffee, though. Otherwise, coconut flakes and coconut milk are just as nutritious in other food items and recipes as well, such as granola bars, smoothies, soups or other baked goods.

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