This Tropical Treat is Versatile and Delicious ~ and Incredibly Healthy
The coconut has been sharing its gifts of fibre, wood, meat and life-giving water with us from a time as old as the islands themselves. As far back as 4,000 years ago, Ayurvedic medicine was using the oils from Cocos nucifera, the ‘tree of life’. Since then, Asian and Pacific peoples around the globe have used coconut as part of their culture, their diet, and their traditional healing arts.
Traditional folk medicine from tropical regions where the coconut palm grows uses coconut to treat a wide range of health conditions. These include abscesses, asthma, baldness, bronchitis, bruises, burns, colds, constipation, cough, dysentery, earache, fever, gingivitis, gonorrhea, irregular or painful menstruation, jaundice, kidney stones, lice, malnutrition, nausea, rash, scabies, skin infections, sore throat, toothache, tuberculosis, tumours, typhoid, ulcers, and wounds.
Now coconut oil is becoming an important ‘new’ health food in Western and European countries because modern science has confirmed that it possesses incredible healing properties not shown to be available in any other edible oil. In fact, despite its vilification in the middle of the 20th century, the coconut (and in particular, coconut oil) is beginning to be understood as an important ‘functional’ food because it offers humans several specific health benefits that go far beyond its nutritional constituents.
The edible parts of raw coconuts are water and meat. What follows is a list of the parts of the coconut we can use in cooking and the nutrients they contain, along with their known effects on our health.
Fresh or Bottled Coconut Water
Coconut water is the clear liquid or juice found in abundance in young green coconuts and in smaller amounts in brown mature coconuts. It is produced as a natural part of the growing coconut and is completely different from coconut milk or cream, which are made by pressing together shredded coconut meat and tap water. Coconut water has become popular because it lubricates and cushions joints and flushes toxins and waste while protecting sensitive tissues. It is a rich source of potassium and electrolytes, making it an ideal alternative to sugary sodas and sports drinks.
Fresh coconut meat is shredded, flaked, desiccated, chipped or chopped before drying, and consists of about one-quarter coconut oil. Use unsweetened fresh or dried coconut flesh or ground flour to enjoy the incredible health benefits of coconut. Its fibre helps to keep you regular and helps you to feel full. Check labels because some dried coconut products may contain sugar solutions or corn syrup to sweeten it and it may have chemical preservatives added.
Coconut Oil – Healthy Saturated Fat
Until recently, coconut oil was thought to be a poor dietary choice due to the fact that it is a saturated fat. In reality, its short- and medium-chain fatty acids make it easy to metabolize and burn as fuel, since it bypasses the normal digestive process required by long chain fatty acids in other oils. Just because it is white and solid at cool room temperature, do not confuse saturated coconut oil with saturated fats from hydrogenated oils or animal sources which can cause damage to the body over time.
Our bodies actually need high-quality polyunsaturated and saturated fats that are high in short or medium-chain fatty acids to keep our serum cholesterol low. And coconut oil is so high in lauric acid that it is very stable – meaning that it does not oxidize or break down during transportation, storage, or at high cooking temperatures as do the unsaturated fats. This is why I recommend coconut over other healthy oils for cooking.
Research by nutritionist and biochemist Mary G. Enig, PhD has led her to suggest that lauric acid and other complex ingredients in coconut oil actually reduce LDL and improve HDL cholesterol.
The bottom line for all of us is twofold:
1) When using unsaturated oils (ie. olive, hemp, flaxseed, pumpkin seed, etc) use only organic, raw, virgin oils, store them properly, and do not heat them.
2) Use coconut oil for cooking, including baking, frying, roasting, or any other medium-heat (350° F / 180° C) cooking method.
Here are some of the many benefits of coconut oil:
• Helps you lose weight: Its medium-chain fatty acids help regulate thyroid function, balance blood sugar levels, increase energy and stimulate metabolism, all of which encourage weight loss.
• Lowers cholesterol: Almost half (49%) of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid (converted to monolaurin in the body), which helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
• Reduces your risk of heart disease: Medium-chain fatty acids are rapidly absorbed almost directly into the liver and are converted into energy instead of being stored either in fat tissues or deposited in the arteries (as are the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fats).
• Is stable at room and moderate cooking temperature, won’t oxidize (as do unsaturated fats) and form dangerous free radicals.
• Helps those with diabetes: The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil do not raise blood sugar levels and they keep levels even by providing a steady source of energy without stimulating the release of insulin. Steady blood sugar levels help prevent hypoglycemia, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.
• Supports your liver: The liver is the clearinghouse for the body’s toxins, hormones, bile, and other functions. Coconut oil is transported directly to the liver from the intestines, where it is primarily burned for energy. As well, its antimicrobial fatty acids also cleanse the liver and help protect it from damage by free radicals.
• Boosts your daily energy: Taking two teaspoons of coconut oil daily is all that is needed to give you steady energy because the medium-chain fatty acids pass directly to the liver where they are burned for energy.
• Improves nutrient absorption: Studies have shown that coconut oil enhances the body’s ability to absorb vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients from food, especially fats and fat-soluble vitamins. These studies suggest that food cooked in coconut oil will help transport nutrients from the food through the stomach lining into the bloodstream. Eating coconut oil, on its own or in food, helps prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
• Improves digestion: Because medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are smaller than the long-chain fats found in other oils and animal fat, they require less energy and fewer enzymes to break down for digestion. This puts less strain on the digestive organs, especially the pancreas and gall bladder (see Caution, below).
• Decreases inflammation: A major factor contributing to the development of disease is inflammation. According to a study from the Institute of Human Nutrition at the University of Southampton, UK, coconut oil may be useful in the treatment of both acute and chronic inflammation and inflammatory diseases, including heart disease.
• Improves your immune system: Raw, virgin coconut oil is high in lauric, capric, and caprylic acids. These fatty acids are antimicrobial, antifungal and antiviral, meaning that they combat the minute organisms that cause disease.
• Protects against bacterial and viral infection: Coconut oil is loaded with anti-fungal and anti-microbial as well as anti-viral constituents. The lauric and capric acids help treat intestinal yeast infections such as candidiasis; lauric acid is converted in the body to monolaurin, which has been shown to inactivate or protect against viruses such as HIV, measles, herpes simplex virus, influenza, and rubella.
• Helps prevent breast, colon and other cancers: Coconut oil helps to keep the blood free from free radical damage that contributes to degenerative diseases including heart disease and cancer. Oxidation occurs when hydrogenated oils (shortening and margarine) or animal fats (long-chain fatty acids) are consumed, so eating coconut oil not only offers protection against free radicals, it can replace other unhealthy fats.
• Improves Crohn’s, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, gall bladder and pancreatic disorders, and other digestive disorders: The anti-viral, anti-microbial and anti-bacterial constituents in coconut oil play a role in neutralizing bacterial infection and the anti-inflammatory properties soothe inflammation in the digestive tract.
• Helps prevent osteoporosis and supports the development of strong bones and teeth: According to Dr. Bruce Fife*, “Regardless of your age, your bones can benefit from coconut oil.” (*The reason Dr. Fife makes this claim in his book, The Coconut Miracle (see Resources) is due to the antioxidants found in coconut oil that protect the bones from destruction by oxidizing free radicals.
• Moisturizes, heals and protects the skin: Tropical islanders and coastal people have been using coconut oil as a natural skin conditioner and sun and wind screen for eons. It absorbs quickly into the skin, does not feel greasy or sticky, and works to moisturize, prevent and diminish wrinkles, and alleviate minor burns, rashes and insect bites.
Caution: Because the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil require little or no enzymes to break them down in the intestines, they can cause mild forms of diarrhea in some people. It is always wise to start with small amounts when cooking with or taking coconut oil as a supplement for the first time.
• Fife, Bruce. The Coconut Oil Miracle. New York: Avery (Penguin Group); 1999
• Gursche, Siegfried. Coconut Oil. Summertown Tennessee: Books Alive; 2008
I’ve chosen a few recipes from my most recent book, Coconut 24/7 to get you started on your own personal odyssey to enjoy the incredible flavour and health benefits of coconut.