Nothing says summer quite like the sweet taste of coconut. Just one whiff conjures up visions of white sands, clear turquoise water, and palm trees swaying in the breeze. Maybe it’s the inescapable association with suntan oil, its prominent place in piña coladas, or just its tropical origin. Either way, coconuts practically scream relaxation, happiness, and sweet indulgence!
But luckily for all the coconut-lovers out there, recent research suggests that this tropical treat may not be such an indulgence after all.
Coconut has been used in traditional cultures for thousands of years, both as an important source of nutrition and to treat a variety of diseases and health problems. Only recently has modern medicine begun to confirm coconut’s amazing health-promoting properties. Coconut oil and coconut water have been found to have some of the following benefits:
- Antibacterial and antimicrobial properties
- Anti-cancer properties
- Cardiovascular health benefits
- Helps treat and manage diabetes
- Improves digestion, nutrient absorption and intestinal health
- Helps ward off or manage varios neurological disorders
- Helps manage HIV/AIDS
- Improves kidney and liver health
- Benefits metabolism, energy and weight management
- Supports the immune system
- Improves athletic performance
If coconut has all these health benefits, why was it regarded as unhealthy for so many years? Two words: saturated fat. Well that, and a lot of misunderstanding about how the body digests and processes different types of fats. A quick primer:
Coconut contains a lot of fat, and nearly all of it is saturated. In fact, coconut oil is about 92 percent saturated fat! But the fatty acids in coconut oil are primarily medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are more easily metabolized by the body than the long-chain triglycerides found in most vegetable and seed oils. Preliminary research suggests that MCTs may help stoke your metabolism, thereby promoting weight loss, and even increasing HDL or “good” cholesterol levels in the body.
For more information about the health benefits of coconut, check out this extensive list of studies compiled by the Coconut Research Center, as well a handful of other studies described by prominent physician and author Dr. Joseph Mercola.
Not long ago, the only readily available coconut products were canned coconut milk and that sweetened, shredded stuff in the baking aisle. But it’s now easier than ever to incorporate more coconut in your diet! Here’s a quick overview of several of the products that have recently hit store shelves, as well as a couple that have been around, but remain useful:
- Coconut Water – Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside whole green coconuts. With its high potassium content and natural sugars, it is increasingly being promoted as a great sports drink alternative. For more information, read this article on why coconut water is better than sports drinks.
- Coconut Oil – Coconut oil is the edible oil extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts. A heat-stable fat, coconut oil works well for cooking, but it’s also great in raw desserts! Learn all about the everyday uses of coconut oil here.
- Coconut Milk (canned) – Coconut milk is the liquid extracted from grated coconut meat. It is often used in sauces, stir-fries, as well as desserts and baked goods, like this decadent DQ-Style Ice Cream Cake, a Gluten Free Coconut Lime Loaf or this Indian Carrot and Date Pudding.
- Coconut Milk (refrigerated) – A relative newcomer, coconut milk is now available in the dairy case as an alternative to cow’s milk, soy milk or other nut- and seed-based milks. Lower in fat and calories than the canned version, refrigerated coconut milk is amazing in smoothies, on cereal, or used in baking. Read our guide to coconut milk brands and try these delicious Raw Fruit Popsicles with Coconut Milk.
- Coconut Kefir – another relative newcomer, coconut kefir is an excellent alternative to dairy- or yogurt-based kefirs. Most commercially available versions are rich in probiotics and fortified with calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12. Kefir is delicious alone and adds a great flavor and creaminess to smoothies and this yummy Mango Lassi.
- Coconut Milk Ice Cream – There are now several commercially available brands (and many more flavors!) of coconut milk ice cream. With an excellent, creamy texture, and a rich flavor, this non-dairy ice cream is a nice alternative to milk, rice-, or soy-based desserts. Some great recipes include this simple Coconut Ice Cream, Lavender Coconut Ice Cream or this decadent Drunken Cherry Coconut Ice Cream.
- Whole Coconut – Whole coconuts are available in the produce section of most health food stores, and you may even find them in larger chain stores. A bit of work is required to split it open and extract the various components, but that fresh coconut juice and coconut meat just might be worth the effort!
- Shredded Coconut – Dried, shredded coconut is widely available and quite useful. It makes a great addition to bars, breads, cookies and puddings. Look for it in the bulk section of your health food store, or in the baking aisle of any major grocer. Shredded coconut works great in recipes like Lemon-Coconut Breakfast Bars, Raw Truffles with Chia, Carob and Coconut, Raw Kiwi Tart with Ginger, Mint and Coconut or even smoothies like Coconut Ginger and Cranberry Coconut.