Ever wondered what could be the potential benefits of eating coconut? We see them everywhere, and they grow everywhere. Well, let me tell you – they are packed with various nutrients which could help and benefit us all, especially once we’re done with our everyday workout.
Coconut and its products, like coconut water, milk, oil, and meat are packed with healthy nutrients that are beneficial to our bodies. It could help in hydration, promote brain and heart health, lower blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and may even serve as an antioxidant to our cells. Plus, not to mention that it can be used in a wide array of delicious dishes.
So, since it is seen and used everywhere, you might be wondering if it is a type of nut? Another question that might’ve crossed your mind is why is it called the ‘tree of life’? Is it really healthy? Let’s get cracking and I will tell you all about its facts, benefits, and some health controversies.
What is Coconut?
Coconut (Cocos nucifera) is a palm tree ubiquitous in many tropical countries all over the world. They likely originated from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia; whereas, in the Indian Ocean area, the likely center of cultivation was the southern periphery of India, which includes Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Laccadives. Nowadays, they are seen in many countries with warm climates, such as the Caribbean, Africa, and South America.
It is usually ovoid in shape and comes in different sizes and colors. Its other names include nariyal in Hindi, kokos in Sweden and Croatia, kokosnuss in Germany, and coco or koko in Spain and Portugal.
It has several distinguishable parts, namely: the exocarp, the thin outermost ‘skin’ of the drupe; the mesocarp (coir), the fibrous husk; the endocarp, the hard shell surrounding the coconut meat which measures up to 4 mm thick; the testa, which is a thin, brown layer of seed-coat immediately covering the meat, usually 0.2 mm thick; the meat (kernel), the soft, white, edible endosperm which can measure up to 11 mm thick, and the coconut water (coconut juice), the liquid endosperm, may be clear or slightly turbid liquid in the central cavity of the coconut.
A drupe is a fruit that usually contains a single seed enclosed by a hardened endocarp, which often adheres closely to the seed. Other drupes may include plums, peaches, almonds, and cherries. So, if we will compare a drupe and a true nut (e.g., walnuts and pecans): true nuts are indehiscent, meaning they don’t split open to release their seeds when ripe, while on the other hand, drupes dehisces, which means that the seed germinates and then sprouts from the end of the shell.
The coconut’s top five country exporters are Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. It has a life span of 60 to 80 years, often considered a ‘three-generation tree’ since it can support a farmer, his children, and his grandchildren.
What Are The Parts Of Coconut That Can Be Eaten?
Here is a simple guide for you that you can use if you want to eat coconut and its products, or if you want to add it to your yummy foods:
Coconut Meat (Kernel), Shreds, And Flakes
This part can be eaten raw, dried, or toasted. The meat is grated and squeezed to produce coconut milk. The meat can be used to make candies, chips, and flour. The flesh can also be used in producing coconut oil, butter, and margarine. They could also be shredded or flaked to become desiccated coconut. Once flaked, they can add natural sweetness and chewiness to your desserts and dishes.
The milk can be used in a wide variety of dishes and it also makes good cocktails, such as pineapple coconut mimosa, Brazilian coconut cocktail, and Bushwacker cocktail. It can also be used in cooking a whole gamut of dishes, such as appetizers and snacks (bread, puddings, bibingka, a Filipino coconut rice cake, and Vietnamese peanut sticky rice cake with coconut milk), main courses (like pasta and chicken curry), desserts and hot beverages (hot chocolate, pancakes and cakes, frosting, truffles, and ice creams), and as salad dressings.
The milk can also be chilled, and then its top layer is skimmed off to produce coconut cream. The cream can be used in making alcoholic beverages, such as margarita, piña colada, martini, mojito, and chi chi. They could also be used as a substitute in dairy-free dishes and as an alternative to heavy cream. Common dishes like ice creams, soups, cakes, pudding, and pasta are made by using these creams.
Coconut Water (Coconut Juice)
Coconut water also called coconut juice, or ‘buko juice’ in the Philippine English language, is the clear, sometimes turbid fluid obtained inside the cavity of the young, green coconuts, which are generally 5 to 7 months of age. Tagged as the ‘next big thing’ in beverages in the U.S. market by Boo Chanco, a Philippine star columnist, it is often used as a refresher to quench thirstiness, and the best way (and time, I think) to drink it is straight from the tree.
Coconut water is the liquid endosperm of the coconut and is a natural source of nutrition, wellness, beauty, and hydration. Being the only natural substance that can be safely injected into the human bloodstream as an emergency blood transfusion, it has saved many lives during periods of war and famine.
Modern science has also validated its effectiveness, especially as a natural sports drink. It can provide natural energy for optimal performance before and during workouts, and it could also replenish and rehydrate our bodies after an exercise. It is more beneficial than those colored sugar water drinks for physical fitness and is more nutritious than the favorite sugary drinks of little children during their snack period at school.
The coconut water has a unique and overwhelming mix of fresh flavors, such as slight sweetness and sourness, and it might also be a bit nutty. It also smells nice and may let you imagine yourself sitting under a beach umbrella with a backdrop sound from the ocean waves sipping that fresh juice (ahh, the best way to beat the heat during summer!).
This appealing drink is generally sweet, but its taste may differ in most cases since it may depend on where the tree was grown, the soil’s saline content, the climate, and proximity to the sea. Aside from sipping it directly from the coconut’s inner core, they can also be found in groceries and markets sold in tetra packs, bottles, or cans. They are enjoyed by all and are drank any time of the day.
Moreover, the water from the mature coconut may not have a pleasant taste, but it is used in making vinegar, alcoholic drinks (such as gin and tonics, lambanóg and tuba from the Philippines, piña colada, and margarita), nata de coco (coconut gel), and more.
They can also be used in adding a more deep, extra flavor to your rice dishes, along with the coconut milk, to produce a more delicious, slightly sweet, fragrant, fluffy rice. They could also be used as salad dressing, ice pops or ice creams, smoothies, and yogurt.
It has two types: virgin coconut oil (VCO) which is the ‘pure’ or ‘unrefined’ cold-pressed extracted liquid without using any solvents; and refined coconut oil which often includes more processing and additives and is more commonly found in the supermarkets.
The oil coming from the dried coconut meat is called copra, the chief commercial product of coconut. The oil is often utilized in baking and cooking, due to its aroma and savoriness, and may act as an emulsifier, as well. It is often used as a replacement for butter in vegan baking, primarily due to its solid consistency.
VCO is considered the newest, high-value coconut product, very much sought for its human, nutraceutical benefits are can be added and used as confectioneries and reduce calorie foods since it rapidly metabolizes and converts to energy. Plus, it does not deposit as fat in the body.
The unopened flower buds of coconuts are sources of coconut sap, which is used to make sugar, vinegar, and alcoholic drinks, like tuba (coconut wine or toddy) and lambanóg (Philippine vodka). A tonic made from its flowers is a well-known medicine massively produced in Ayurvedic shops.
The Heart of Palm
The palm heart is found inside the upper trunk of the tree and is used also in making dishes. This is the most prized part of the tree since you have to chop it down just to get the heart. One notable dish that uses the heart is the lumpiang ubod, a Philippine spring roll dish made of coconut’s heart of palm, served with minced fresh garlic and crushed roasted peanuts. It is commonly stir-fried and is served fresh; therefore it is a healthy nutritious treat that you can eat as snacks.
They could also be used used in salads such as heart-of-palm salad, or as an appetizer, served along with ham, chips, and hors d’oevres. They could also be used as an ingredient in hearty soups and fresh salads, which are good to know, especially for vegetarians.
Other Parts (The Husk, Skin, Leaves, Buds, and Roots)
The mesocarp (shell, husk, or coir) is the part inside the fibrous husk and holds the flesh and coconut water. It is inedible and is used in making charcoal, jewelry, and trinkets are often used in potting compost, making ropes, mats, and sacks.
The testa (skin) is a brown, thin layer beneath the flesh, about 0.2 mm thick. Though considered edible, the skin doesn’t taste good so it would be best to scrape it away. And though not edible, the leaves could serve as a food wrap in some glutinous rice delicacies such as suman sa ibos in the Philippines.
The edible apical buds of coconuts, also called ‘palm cabbage’ are used too in the culinary. They can be used in salads or as an appetizer. Their soft texture is somewhat similar to that of eggplant so they could also be grilled, roasted, or even stir-fried. The massive roots also are used to make beverages and medicines.
Nutritional Value of Coconut
Like any palm tree, the coconut is abundant with macro-and micronutrients that are beneficial to the human body. Check out the following summarized table below, extracted from the United States Department of Agriculture Food Data Central, for a cup (about 240 grams) serving of coconut water and raw, unsweetened coconut milk, 1 cup (about 224 grams) of coconut oil, and 1 cup (shredded, 80 grams) of raw coconut meat:
|Per 1 cup||Coconut Water||Coconut Milk (Raw, Unsweetened)||Coconut Oil||Coconut Meat (Raw, Shredded)|
|Water||228 g||162 g||0.067 g||37.6 g|
|Energy||190 kJ||2310 kJ||1870 kcal||1180 kJ|
|Calorie||44 cal||552 cal||40 cal||283 cal|
|Protein||1.73 g||5.5 g||0 g||2.66 g|
|Total lipid (fat)||0.48 g||57.1 g||222 g||26.8 g|
|Carbohydrate||8.9 g||13.3 g||1.88 g||12.2 g|
|Fiber (total dietary)||2.64 g||5.28 g||0 g||7.2 g|
|Sugars||6.26 g||8.02 g||0 g||4.98 g|
|Calcium||57.6 mg||38.4 mg||2.24 mg||11.2 mg|
|Iron||0.696 mg||3.94 mg||0.112 mg||1.94 mg|
|Magnesium||60 mg||88.8 mg||0 mg||25.6 mg|
|Phosphorus||48 mg||240 mg||0 mg||90.4 mg|
|Potassium||600 mg||631 mg||0 mg||285 mg|
|Zinc||0.24 mg||1.61 mg||0.045 mg||0.88 mg|
|Ascorbic acid (total)||5.76 mg||6.72 mg||0 mg||2.64 mg|
The coconut water, milk, and meat also contain a considerable amount of other nutrients such as manganese, copper, and selenium, and several B vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, folate, and folic acid, in contrast with the coconut oil, which do not have (mostly) the nutrients that the water, milk, and meat offer.
Additionally, coconuts contain medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). Nutrition-wise, coconut oil is nearly 100% fat, of which 82% to 92% of it are saturated fat. In fact, one tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat, and 0 grams of trans fat, proteins, fiber, and some minerals. It also has lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, plant sterols, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
Some studies have shown that it can benefit people by helping them lose weight, while some didn’t show any weight loss effect, due to its high saturated fat content. Its contradicting benefits are further discussed in the following section.
What Are The Benefits Of Eating Coconut?
Historically, people have used coconuts as part of their traditional medicine. Older studies suggested that it can counteract some poisons, protect against disease, ease inflammation, and kill bacteria. With the advent of extensive research particularly in the 20th century, various studies have been made to further validate its potential benefits, and here are them:
Electrolytes And Transfusion
Coconut water contains natural electrolytes and can be used to replenish the ions and electrolytes lost during a workout. Along with coconut milk, these two liquids have a very high potassium content, which can help in normal kidney function and muscle contractions. Coconut water may also be used as a natural alternative to sports drinks (e.g., Gatorade and Powerade).
We also need to keep in mind that coconut water and milk have fewer amounts of carbs than any other sports drink so they might not provide enough energy boost after a strenuous exercise, but they can help with rehydration afterward.
Low-calorie Hydration and Endurance
One cup of coconut water contains about 45 calories. It is considered a great substitute for sodas and juices, which are generally high in calories, sugars, and carbohydrates, as emphasized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Coconut meat is rich in MCFA, a type of saturated fat, which has been demonstrated in one study that it could boost the endurance of trained athletes.
Rich In Nutrients
If we will talk about potassium, a medium-sized banana contains 420 mg while 1 cup of coconut water contains about 600 mg. So if you’re looking for something that can increase your potassium intake, coconut water may be a good choice for you.
Potassium keeps the fluid and electrolyte fluid balanced, especially when you’re exercising. And because there is more potassium than sodium in coconut water, the potassium may help in balancing the sodium’s effects on blood pressure, making it favorable, especially to those with high blood pressure.
Calcium is used in making bones and teeth strong and helps in muscle contraction. One cup of coconut water has around 58 mg of calcium, while coconut milk has 38 mg. In addition, consuming coconut oil is useful in middle-aged women who are at risk for osteoporosis.
Phosphorus also helps in building strong bones and teeth along with calcium, reduces muscle pain after a workout, and filters out waste from the kidney. For a cup of coconut water, phosphorus content is 48 mg while coconut milk has a whopping amount of 240 mg.
Magnesium helps in moving calcium and potassium into the muscles and helps in energy production and organ function. One cup of coconut water has 60 mg while coconut milk has roughly 89 mg of magnesium content.
High Source Of Antioxidants
Antioxidants in coconut water can help reduce oxidative stress and free radicals. Very few studies are conducted using humans. However, one similar study that used rats as test subjects cited that coconut water’s high potency antioxidants can help lower the cholesterol marker. Eventually, eliminating these free radicals that can cause cellular damage may help in reducing the risk of metabolic and aging-related diseases.
Reduce Infections, Boost Immunity, And Aid In Digestion
According to a 2018 study, coconut water may help decrease infections due to the powerful antioxidants found in its fatty acids. This, in turn, could help in boosting the immune system and reduce systemic inflammations in the body.
Coconut oil was reported to help improve stomach- and digestion-related problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Its saturated fats could help in dealing with different microbes that can cause indigestion. Also, it helps in the absorption of other nutrients.
Better Oral Health
The coconut meat’s MCFA could be useful in preventing infections that are related to root canals and other teeth issues. It could also kill some of the unwanted bacteria in your mouth and protect your gums and teeth from infection of cavities.
As discussed earlier, drinking fresh, unsweetened coconut water instead of sugary beverages tend to be healthier than the latter, which could be advantageous to people with high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). However, as given emphasis by Medical News Today, unsweetened coconut water contains natural sugars, so a person may need to limit its intake.
It could also help prevent type 2 diabetes mellitus in humans, while in a rat model of diabetes study, researchers found that coconut water led to blood sugar control improvement and reduction in blood sugar levels.
Drinking coconut water may help in promoting healthy kidneys. In one study involving participants without kidney stones, they reported that coconut water helped them to lose more citrate, potassium, and chloride while urinating, which might help dissolve the stones or prevent them from developing. It might also help prevent kidney damage as a complication of diabetes.
A preliminary study showed that coconut oil, MCFA, and their derivatives may influence the risk factors that are related to Alzheimer’s disease. But, further studies still need to be done to further support this discovery.
When applied to the skin or when drank, the coconut water may act as a moisturizer which could benefit those people with eczema and atopic dermatitis. It may also have an antimicrobial effect, which could help in preventing acne.
Also, consuming coconut water helped in preventing damage against harmful free radicals in rats, therefore scientists hypothesize that it might reduce signs of aging and help prevent degenerative diseases, however, these findings warrant more investigation.
Some researches on coconut oil also suggest that it could strengthen and improve the skin barrier function. It may also help prevent and treat rashes and promote wound healing.
As mentioned above, one cup of coconut water has 45 calories, making it a healthy substitute for more sugary drinks, so swapping them for this healthier coconut water may help in maintaining a moderate weight. One study also supported these findings, where incorporating coconut water in the diet could boost hydration and could help in losing weight.
Similarly, one study suggested that the MCFA in the coconut and coconut oil included as part of a low-carb diet may enhance the burning of fat, increase energy expenditure, and repress the appetite.
However, the research on coconut aiding in weight loss is unclear. Some studies have reported that coconut oil has no solid evidence of weight loss. There are three types of fats: short-, medium-, and long-chain fatty acids.
Coconuts, especially the coconut oil extracted have been of interest in the medical field since it contains both the medium- and long-chain fatty acids. The MCFA are readily absorbed into the bloodstream, unlike the long-chain fatty acid.
The coconut’s primary component, the lauric acid, lands somewhere in the middle, behaving like a medium-chain or a long-chain fatty acid. Since their potential benefits are controversial up until today, it is important to not conclude their weight loss benefits. More long-term research is still needed to further validate its weight loss effects.
Potassium in coconut water may have a blood pressure-lowering effect. It may also lower the risk of developing heart disease according to a study conducted by Priya and Ramaswamy in 2014. Of important note is that coconut water is not a direct remedy for heart maladies; a person should still follow the dietary recommendation of their physician.
Albeit its positive effect on blood pressure, other research findings have shown that coconut oil could raise the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also called the ‘bad’ cholesterol, which could ultimately clog up the big arteries and lead to cardiovascular diseases.
Some show that coconut oil may increase the high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the ‘good’ cholesterol. Along with the debatable benefits of eating coconut on weight loss, it also appears that its effects on heart health are also disputed.
Drinking It While Pregnant
Since the coconut water is bursting with several electrolytes, it could aid in replenishing the lost electrolytes of pregnant mothers, especially if they are experiencing morning sickness. Additionally, the nutrients may be useful in the growing fetus inside their wombs.
Final Thoughts About Coconut
My takeaway is that coconut is a natural source of various nutrients and electrolytes, and it can be a healthy, more flavorful, and nutty way to stay hydrated. It has shown promising beneficial effects in terms of hydration, immunity, brain, skin health, and many more. And though it has contradicting benefits on weight loss and the heart, it would still be best to follow your doctor’s recommendations. Truly, the benefits of eating coconut are extraordinary.
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