Coo Coo for Coconuts!


Delicious in both savory and sweet dishes, this amazing seed/nut is versatile and serves as a key ingredient in dishes from the Philippines, India, and Indonesia.  In the United States, most of us are familiar with coconut from sweets and Thai curry.  Thai curry typically uses coconut milk as the base (rather than cow’s milk cream).

Coconut Basics

In “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee describes mature coconuts as large seeds with a woody shell, fruit (coconut meat), and liquid.  It takes about a year for coconuts to fully mature. 

Coconut meat refers to the fleshy fruit which at maturity, contains water (45%), fat (35%), carbohydrates (10%) and protein (5%).  Flaked coconut available in supermarkets is typically dried coconut meat that has been shaved, with sugar added to it.  You can also find unsweetened coconut from natural foods grocers.

Coconut milk, the incredibly delicious ingredient used in so many tropical cuisines, is made by adding coconut meat paste to liquid and then straining out the solids.  It can also be made by using dried shredded coconut – this is commonly available as canned coconut milk. 

Coconut oil can be made in various ways, some of which involve heat and solvent extraction (refined), and some which are considered healthier, such raw cold pressed oil (virgin). 

Coconut water comes from young coconuts (5-7 months old).  The liquid contains about 2% sugar – similar in sweetness to 1 teaspoon of sugar in 1 cup of water.   

Is Coconut Healthy?

Coconut fat contains a large percentage of fatty acids that are saturated.  This is in stark contrast to other non-tropical vegetable oils which are typically low in saturated fats and higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. 

Most health care providers have been trained to advise their patients to avoid tropical fats since the saturated fat content is so high.  Coconut fat is particularly high in lauric acid, which has been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels.  However, part of that increase is due to an increase of HDLs, the healthy type.  This results in lower total cholesterol:HDL ratio, which is itself a biomarker for lower risk for heart disease.  For more information on the effect of dietary fats and blood cholesterol levels, please see Mensink’s article published in 2003.    

Does this mean coconut oil is a super food and should be used daily in large quantities?  No.  Like all fats, respect for the high caloric content means limiting portion size. 

Does this mean you should use coconut oil for all your cooking and baking instead of other vegetable oils?  No.  Have a mix of oils in your pantry and still aim to watch your total fat intake (20%-35% total calories) and saturated fat intake (7%-10% total calories). 

Coconut Oil & Weight Loss?

I found this well-written post by Ken Woliner, MD that challenge’s Bruce Fife’s claims that coconut oil serves as a weight loss and thyroid aid.  

If your total caloric intake is less than your total caloric expenditure, you will lose weight no matter what you eat.  Weight control is a numbers game.  And I am generally suspicious of fads that claim you can easily lose weight by simply eating a particular food or drinking a particular juice.  Use common sense. 

Light Coconut Milk

I find that reduced fat coconut milk works well in place of regular coconut milk in both baked goods and curries.  The savings in calories and saturated fat grams is significant when you make the switch.

My Favorite Coconut Treats

Cooking Light’s Double Coconut Cake (also makes great cupcakes)

A Grande Finale’s Coconut Macaroon Cookie:  Forget commercially made macaroon cookies!  These are baked fresh and are moist and just slightly chewy.   My taste buds sing when I eat this macaroon.  It’s the coconut and hint of butter all rolled into one lovely mound of a cookie- neither too light nor too heavy. 

Concluding Remarks

I would love to see randomized controlled trials with humans, conducted by researchers that do not produce or sell coconut oil!  My guess is that virgin or cold pressed coconut oil is likely to be higher in healthful phytochemicals than the high heat/solvent extraction methods (refined oils).  It would also be nice if studies looking at the effect of coconut oil distinguished between intake of refined coconut oil and virgin coconut oil. 

Hope you enjoyed this post.  Please comment – I enjoy reading them!



Katherine Isacks, Registered Dietitian, LLC

1 Response

  1. The major fat in mother’s milk is the same lauric acid as in coconut oil. Baby foods all over the world do contain Lauric acid (that from coconut oil) as the prominent ingredient.