The inclusion of coconut makes any dish taste exotic. From curries to pastries to fancy blended cocktails, coconut adds something out of the ordinary. Beyond flavor, it offers surprising nutritional punch: Coconut is one saturated fat that appears to be good for your heart. “Good, natural fats like coconut oil are not what make people fat; it’s the human-made ones the body can’t recognize like trans fats that are the problem,” says Derek Johnson, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist. “I have my clients add coconut oil to smoothies or use it to cook with, and they are amazed that it actually helps them lower cholesterol and shed pounds.” Coconut products also offer an alternative for those avoiding dairy as well as gluten.
To make the most of this tropical fruit’s flavor and nutrition, an array of coconut products are coming to market—and if they gain traction like coconut water, they will sell. Sales of bottled water dropped 6 percent, to $7.6 billion, in the 52 weeks ending July 12, 2009, according to Chicago-based market-researcher Information Resources. Meanwhile, sales of coconut water doubled, to about $20 million, says the New York-based research firm Beverage Marketing. From oils and butters to waters, creamers and frozen desserts, your store shelves can be brimming with an enticing selection of coconut treats. Here are the top reasons why coconut is growing in popularity.
A number of recent clinical studies in both rats and humans have demonstrated that medium-chain triglycerides, specifically coconut oil, can lower lipid levels, aid in fat loss, stabilize blood sugar and increase metabolism. “Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides, which are easily used as energy but are difficult for the body to store as fat,” says Neil Levin, nutrition education manager at Bloomingdale, Ill.-based NOW foods, makers of virgin coconut oils. “This is because they don’t require intestinal digestion with pancreatic enzymes and do not transport in the body bound to lipoproteins via the lymphatic system, meaning they can directly be used by gut and liver cells for energy.”
The health benefits of coconut don’t stop there. Virgin coconut oil provides oleic acid, a desirable omega-9 fatty acid that is also found in olive oil and that does not increase cardiovascular risks. Coconut oil also contains both caprylic and lauric acids, which work as natural antifungals, discouraging yeast overgrowth in the body, rebalancing gut organisms and promoting intestinal health. In fact, a study from the University College Hospital in Nigeria found that coconut oil fended off the Candida albicans yeast strain better than the prescription antifungal fluconazole.
In addition to the benefits listed above, many of the coconut milks, yogurts and frozen treats now on the market provide calcium, B vitamins and beneficial flora like their cow-milk counterparts, but are nondairy alternatives. Even coconut water has a lot to offer. “Coconut waters are a great source of potassium, magnesium and calcium, with little sodium and no cholesterol,” says Johnson. And with only about 15 grams of natural sugar per serving, they are a refreshing and healthy alternative to soft drinks, which have about the same amount of sugars, albeit usually in a processed form of high fructose corn syrup.
Sustainability, sourcing and certification
Although manufacturers have varying degrees of commitment, many coconut companies are devoted to producing sustainable products. Case in point: Turtle Mountain, producers of coconut milk, creamer, yogurt and frozen treats, has been helping its growers become fair-trade certified. “Some of the growers we source from farm on a hill and use gravity to transport the milk,” says Kevin Brouillette, vice president of sales for the Eugene, Ore.-based company. “They also use every bit of the coconut; even the husks are turned into charcoal and used for heat.”
Because most coconut is sourced outside of the U.S., in places like Sri Lanka and the Philippines, organic certification is particularly meaningful. U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic produce from abroad is held to the same standard as domestic organics, according to Cygnia Rapp, CEO of Hailey, Idaho-based Prosperity Organic Foods, producer of Melt Healthy Buttery Spread, which is made from coconut oil.
Linda Knittel is a nutritional anthropologist, freelance writer and coconut ice cream fan living in Portland, Ore.
Taste of the tropics
COCONUT OIL. With its subtle flavor and long shelf life, coconut oil is an excellent all-purpose cooking and baking oil. And considering its smoke point is higher than olive oil, it is an even better option for sautéing or roasting.
Product pick: NOW Virgin Coconut Oil.
COCONUT BUTTER. Creamy, a touch sweet and very spreadable, coconut butter is great on vegetables, toast or anywhere you would use its dairy equivalent.
Product pick: Melt Healthy Buttery Spread.
COCONUT FLOUR. Made from fresh, ground coconut meat, coconut flour is gluten free, high in fiber and low in carbohydrates, so it’s less likely than grain flours to disrupt blood sugar levels. With a bit of extra water or eggs, it can be used to make cookies, muffins, pancakes and more.
Product pick: Bob’s Red Mill Organic Coconut Flour.
COCONUT MILK. Not just for curries anymore, coconut milk is ideal on cereal, in smoothies or in baking. Now found in cans as well as in cartons in the dairy cooler.
Product pick: So Delicious Coconut Milk.
COCONUT WATER. Coconut water is the clear liquid taken straight from green coconuts. Unlike coconut milk, it has no calories, fat or added sugar, and is packed with potassium, making it an ideal post-workout drink or general pick-me-up.
Product picks: ZICO Mango Coconut Water and Vita Coco Coconut Water with Acai and Pomegranate.
COCONUT YOGURT. Check labels, but there are coconut yogurts out there full of calcium, B vitamins and good bacteria without a drop of dairy.
Product pick: So Delicious Coconut Milk Yogurt.
COCONUT FROZEN DESSERTS. Thanks to the richness found in coconut oil and coconut milk, you’ll hardly remember these ice creams and frozen treats are dairy free.
Product pick: Luna and Larry’s Organic Coconut Bliss in Naked Coconut.