Coconut farm

The coconut is a fruit rich in history. Called the “tree of life” by many cultures, it has provided nutrition, hydration, and shelter for thousands of years. The origin of the coconut continues to be debated, but the fruit was likely first grown in India and Southeast Asia, and was introduced via sea trade to Europe in the early 16th century.

Coconut Curry Teff and Lentil Vegetable Stew
Coconut Curry Teff and Lentil Vegetable Stew (recipe below)

It’s easy to go crazy for the subtle sweetness and rich texture that coconuts bring to recipes. However, coconuts’ superfood status is a subject of lively debate in the nutrition community. A 2016 survey from the New York Times found that while 72 percent of Americans see coconut oil as a healthy food, only 37 percent of nutritionists do. Why the disconnect?

One the one hand, coconuts’ credentials appear quite impressive, high in minerals such as iron, phosphorus, and zinc, high in fiber content, and boasting medium-chain fatty acids, a type of fat that is absorbed more swiftly in the body. However, a closer look at the science raises some questions. The fruit is higher in saturated fat (at approximately 82%) than butter or lard and increases LDL (bad cholesterol) in our bodies. As for those medium-chain fatty acids, only 14% of the fats in coconut are from medium chain fatty acids. Plus, most of the benefits of medium chain fatty acids have been studied using MCT oil (which is purely medium chain fatty acids), rather than coconut.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 7% daily intake in saturated fat, or about 15 grams for a person who eats 2,000 calories a day. In a Presidential Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, Dr. Frank Sacks and his co-authors concluded that, “because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of [heart disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.” That said, using coconut moderately in cooking likely won’t have any negative health impacts. Coconut is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking, especially in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and India.

Coconut Fish Curry with Mango and Sugar Snap Peas
Coconut Fish Curry (recipe below)

Coconut milk, which is frequently used in traditional dishes throughout Southeast Asia, is made by processing grated coconut with hot water to extract the oil. The full flavor and high fat content (it is approximately 17% fat) provides a good taste and texture for the base of curries and stews, such as our Coconut Fish Curry with Mango and Sugar Snap Peas (which uses light coconut milk). Light coconut milk simply has more of the fat filtered out (meaning it has less fat and fewer calories) is also a flavorful option, and one of our favorite ways to enjoy coconuts’ culinary benefits without overloading as much on saturated fat.

Full-fat coconut milk contains about 12 times the amount of fat in 2% milk and 12 times more saturated fat. Coconut oil is similarly high in saturated fat. Although likely fine to use in moderation, if your recipe is flexible, it might be worth swapping in a more heart-healthy oil, such as olive oil, in place of the coconut oil.

Coconut water is the liquid found inside the shell and is naturally high in electrolytes and low in calories.  In contrast to other coconut products, coconut water is fat free. Just be sure to check the label to be sure your coconut water of choice has no added sugars. While regular old tap water is the only beverage we really need, coconut water can be a fun and flavorful way to hydrate.

One of the best ways to experience the flavor of coconuts is in the context of traditional recipes, which also feature nutritious ingredients like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you have coconut milk in your pantry, these recipes are a great place to start:

Kayla Monks and Claire Viglione, dietetic interns

Top photo credit: Challiyan at Malayalam Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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