The Tropical Tree of Life
This revolutionary nut… seed… fruit? Okay, hold it! Let’s stop there! What the heck is a coconut?
Technically, a coconut is a dry drupe which is a stone fruit in which the seed is housed in the centre of the fruit, surrounded by flesh and encased in a thin skin. In the case of the coconut, the outer layer is substantially thicker than a typical stone fruit, like a peach or a cherry, but the function is the same. The outer layer is a thick husk and the inner layer is a nutritious water that feeds the coconut as it matures. A young coconut has a jelly like substance that becomes thicker and more rubbery as it develops over about 10 months. This thick, meaty flesh is referred to as copra and is the source for most coconut products we use.
The coconut is a species of palm but not all palm trees bear coconuts. They are simply referred to as coconut palms. They love sandy beaches, full sun and consistent rain fall, therefor, they flourish in the tropics of the world. Due to there salt resistant nature and proximity to coast lines, the coconut fruit often travel the ocean tides to find land on distant shores. Along with their natural ocean migrations, the coconut has been critical to human travel across land and sea due to its water and fat content, its portability and its “shelf” life. A coconut that remains completely enclosed in its husk can last up to 5 months or more.
The coconut palm has played an essential role in human survival throughout the tropics for centuries. Besides the obvious food usage, the husks have been used for ropes, brushes, matts and brooms; the wood for timber and hut building; the leaves woven into thatches and baskets and the shells for bowls and musical instruments.
It is only, more recently, that this “superfood” has gained the attention of the health food industry and can be readily found in a variety of products on our grocery shelves.
Mother Nature’s Milk:
One of the most notable features of coconut is its high saturated fat content. There is still plenty of debate over the connection between saturated fats and heart health. But not all saturated fats are created equal. The saturated fat of coconut is composed mainly of medium chain triglycerides and is high in lauric acid (found in breast milk). The MCT’s remain mostly intact through digestion and are very quickly transported to the liver for energy that supports brain and organ function. Despite the controversy over how much coconut is too much, here are some possible benefits to including coconut in your diet.
- May regulate blood lipids, lower bad cholesterol and increase HDL’s
- May protect against neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and improve cognitive function
- Remains stable at room temperature and doesn’t oxidize like other plant oils
- Has a high smoke point, it handles high heat for cooking before breakdown
- Contains polyphenols and anti oxidants
- Contains minerals such as potassium, manganese, selenium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc
- Assists in the digestion of fat soluble vitamins and other minerals
- Coconut water contains electrolytes such as sodium and potassium
- Coconut sugar contains a soluble fiber called inulin which may regulate spikes in blood glucose levels
- High in fiber
- May help with weight regulation as fat content increases satiety
- Has anti-microbial and anti-viral properties
- Can be applied topically to moisturize skin and hair
- Commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine
- Indicated for use in Keto and Paleo diets
- Dairy substitution
- Oil is great for baking
What is what when it comes to the Coconut?
Here are all the ways you may find coconut in the grocery store, followed by a breakdown of each:
- Whole fruit
- Chips and flakes
- Shredded (desiccated)
- Virgin Oil
- MCT oil
- Coconut aminos
The whole fruit:
Often the exported coconut have their husks removed and are what we commonly see in our grocery stores. These, generally, have a shelf life of 2-3 weeks. If you have ever purchased a whole coconut just for fun, you already know you need to get creative to get it opened and crack out the inner flesh. Some stores will package chunks of fresh flesh, making it a little easier for the consumer!
Shredded (desiccated), Flakes and Chips:
More commonly found in regions where coconut isn’t fresh, shredded, chips and flakes are dehydrated and sometimes sweetened. This processing of dehydration extends the shelf life significantly. Ranging from finely shredded to large flakes, these are often used in desserts, granola, bars and trail mix. You can also make your own coconut milk from these dried products. See milk and Cream for more info.
I recommend unsweetened products here to avoid any unnecessary added sugar.
I love simply roasting up slivered almonds and coconut chips with a dash of salt, a pinch of coconut sugar, a sprinkle of dried chilli’s and a teaspoon of coconut oil and letting them cool before I throw them on my salad. here is another yummy shredded coconut recipe to sooth your sweet tooth… No Bake Chocolate and Coconut haystack Cookies
Or try these Coconut Lemon Energy Bites for a quick pick me up of balanced energy sources with no refined sugar and totally raw.
Coconut flour is simply the copra that has been dried and then finely ground and is often used as a grain flour replacement. It is gluten free, high in fiber and keto and paleo diet friendly. However, using coconut flour as a baking flour replacement requires some skill, it isn’t always the easiest to work with!
Want to give it a go? Try these Pumpkin Blondies with Coconut Flour for the win!
The inside of the coconut contains a carbohydrate and electrolyte rich juice like substance that the fruit uses as a source of nutrients as it develops. This water can be tapped and extracted. The best quality water is tapped from the younger, green coconuts. The water has become a popular after work out drink or used for restoring electrolytes after dehydration from illness. It is low in sugar and calories but high in sodium, potassium and manganese. It can also be fermented into a vinegar.
Note: Despite being a great way to rehydrate, too much coconut water can lead to stomach cramping and diarrhea due to the high potassium levels. Don’t over do it!
In a young coconut, the inside resembles a watery jelly. This jelly gets firmer as the coconut matures and becomes the flesh, or copra, that we use in most products. The jelly, however, is used for desserts, jello like dishes, smoothies, in fruit salads and can even be used for lactose intolerant babes. It has less concentration of saturated fat but an increase in levels of micro-nutrients.
Milk and Cream:
Coconut milk and cream are made from pressing grated fresh coconut with water to extract the oils, protein, nutrients and flavour. This process produces a sweet, creamy liquid that can be used in everything from desserts to curry’s and as a dairy substitution. The difference between milk and cream is the ratio of coconut to water.
Coconut cream contains anywhere from 20-50 percent fat while the milk contains 5-20 percent. Often when you open a can of full fat coconut milk there is a layer of cream that has separated from the milk. This is the cream of the crop for things like coconut ice cream, whipped cream and desserts calling for full fat coconut.
Replace dairy with a Coconut Whipped Cream to enjoy with this Vegan Lemon Cheesecake
Coconut beverages are often even further diluted coconut milk and can be found with other non-dairy milk in the grocery store but often contain emulsifiers and preservatives. Consider making your own coconut beverage by simply diluting canned coconut milk to your desired consistency and leave out the additives! You can also add 1 cup shredded coconut to 2 cups water and blend in a high speed blender for 45 – 60 seconds. Use as is or strain through a nut bag. Easy Peasy!
Virgin Oil, MCT Oil and Butter:
Coconut oil is produced by further condensing the fats that have been extracted in cream. But it doesn’t end there. Here is a little more clarity:
Unrefined or virgin coconut oil:
This is top choice as the oil is cold pressed and doesn’t undergo heat or extensive processing. This is going to be as close to the source as possible. It is rich and tastes of coconut. It is found solid at room temperature but will convert to liquid as it warms up, usually around 25C.
Note: If you decide to use coconut oil in DYI bath and beauty products, keep in a cool place through the summer so your body bar doesn’t turn into a puddle of goo on you!
Refined coconut oil:
This oil is cheaper to purchase but undergoes much more processing with both heat and chemicals. The molecular bonds may even be manipulated to create a trans-fat for the manufacture to increase the shelf life. May also be cut with other oils and not pure. It is also void of coconut flavour, which may be more desirable for some. Better to purchase unrefined or virgin for better quality and less processing.
MCT or Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil, is the sole extraction of medium chain fatty acids from the coconut oil, making it a 100% saturated fat. MCT oil can also be derived from palm oil so make sure you know what you are getting.
Remember, not all saturated fats are created equal! It is believed that adding these MCT’s into your diet can increase metabolism, assist in weight loss, improve cognitive function, assist fat soluble vitamin absorption and maintain energy levels as these MCT’s are easily converted by the liver to fuel and support brain and organ function. This is a popular oil in keto diets.
MCT oil has more recently gained popularity in the “Bullet Coffee” but can be used in dressings, sauces, smoothies or to help the digestion of turmeric such as in a golden milk. MCT does not have a high smoke point so it is better not to use for high heat cooking.
As MCT is found as a liquid, consider trying it out in a salad dressing like this Coconut Amino Dressing which contains both MCT and coconut Amino’s, discussed further on down the line!
Note: It is important to source out your MCT oil and be sure it is both properly processed, doesn’t contain other oils and is strictly made from coconut for best quality.
Coconut butter is simply coconut oil with the meat added back in. It isn’t great for cooking but makes a great spread and can be used like a nut butter. Eat it on apples, toast or add to smoothies.
Syrup and Sugar:
When the sap of the coconut flower is carefully extracted, it can be reduced to a syrup. This can then be further evaporated, dried and crystallized into sugar.
Coconut sugar is also one of those hot topics up for debate. It is lower on the glycemic index, has a soluble fiber that may slow down blood glucose release, is very minimally processed and contains trace minerals. However, at the end of the day, it is still a sugar that is made up of mostly sucrose. And a sugar is a sugar is a sugar. It is comparable to cane sugar in terms of calories and nutrients.
Personally, I like it for it’s mild flavour and that it isn’t too over the top sweet. I go between raw cane sugar, coconut sugar and maple syrup for my baking, depending on what flavour I am looking for.
Swoon! My new favourite staple in the kitchen! This savory, sweet, salty sauce gives an umami lift to almost any dish you can think of! It is made from the nectar (sap) of the coconut flower and left to ferment with a little salt. Simple as that! What results is a culinary must have! If you need more reasons to give it a try, here are a few:
- Low sodium
- No MSG
- Gluten free
- Soy free
- Low on the glycemic index
- Contains 17 amino acids
- Contains Vitamin c, B and potassium
- substitution for soy sauce
Coconut Lemon Energy BitesUse in stir fry sauce, dipping sauce, curry’s, salad dressings, marinades or anything you would use soy sauce for.
Not sure where to start? Give this Easy Curry Coconut Soup with Potatoes and Chickpeas a run. It includes coconut oil, full fat canned coconut milk and a splash of aminos to get the whole meal deal!
Are you nuts for coconut? Hope this article helps you decide what ways coconut is best for you!