Is coconut good for you?

Is Coconut Good for You? Cracking Open the Popular Health Claims

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Over the past several years, coconut has achieved a sort of “miraculous food” type status, seeming able to benefit almost every health condition you can imagine, while softening your cuticles at the same time. Coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk… In short, there are coconut-based products wherever you look. It seems that coconut oil is the magic cure for all our ills (kind of like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). But how true are these health claims? Is coconut good for you, or is it merely really good marketing? Let’s check it out.

Is coconut good for you?
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Nutritional content

Coconut is a nut, a seed and a fruit, botanically speaking. Inside the coconut we find the meat, which here in Puerto Rico we call the “telita” (fabric), and the coconut water. Here, we love to kill the heat by drinking a nice, cold coconut from sellers on the side of the roads. There is nothing more refreshing in this tropical heat!

I find it interesting that all parts of the coconut are useful. There is a song in Moana that details this very well (sorry, I’ve seen it SO. MANY.TIMES …!). Coconut nutrients are found in both the water and the meat.

Coconut water nutrients

Coconut water is low in calories and sugar. In addition, it has trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. The amount of nutrients can vary according to the maturity of the coconut and, if it’s store bought, according to the brand of coconut water. Here are some select nutrients found in 1 cup (8 fluid oz) of unsweetened coconut water (straight from the coconut):

NutrientsAmounts% Daily Value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet
Calories 45.62%
Protein1.7 g3%
Total Fat0.5 g1%
Saturated Fat0.4 g2%
Polyunsaturated Fat0 g
Monounsaturated Fat0 g
Total Carbohydrates8.93%
Dietary Fiber2.6 g11%
Sugars6.3 g
Vitamin C5.8 mg10%
Thiamin0.1 mg5%
Riboflavin0.1 mg8%
Niacin0.2 mg1%
Vitamin B60.1 mg4%
Folate7.2 mcg2%
Calcium57.6 mg6%
Iron0.7 mg4%
Sodium252 mg11%
Potassium600 mg17%
Phosphorus48 mg5%
Magnesium60 mg15%
Zinc0.2 mg2%
Copper0.1 mg5%
Manganese0.3 mg17%
Selenium2.4 mcg3%

As you can see, coconut water has trace amounts of B vitamins and some minerals; a moderate amount of vitamin C and fiber; and a high amounts of potassium, magnesium, manganese and sodium.

Potassium works together with sodium to regulate fluid volume in the body. It’s also involved in muscle contractions and nerve signals. A diet rich in potassium is especially beneficial for blood pressure management and, along with a low sodium diet, can help promote cardiovascular health.

Magnesium is involved in more than 600 reactions in your body! It helps with converting energy from food, in DNA repair, in muscle movement and protein formation, and neurotransmitter regulation. In fact, it’s believes that low levels of magnesium in the body are associated with depression. This study found that “Serum magnesium may help identify the biological mechanism of depressive symptoms and identify patients likely to respond to magnesium supplementation”.

Manganese is involved in amino acid, cholesterol, glucose, and carbohydrate metabolism, as well as in reproduction and immune response. Manganese also plays a role in blood clotting and hemostasis together with vitamin K .

Coconut water is also high in sodium, therefore, if you have a high blood pressure and/or any other cardiovascular condition, it’s best to take it easy with coconut water. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 advise that daily sodium intake be limited to less than 2,300 milligrams per day.

Coconut meat nutrients

Coconut meat is high in fat (between 80-90% is saturated fat), high in calories and rich in fiber. It can be eaten raw, and is also used for coconut products such as milk, cream and oil. The meat is also dried and sold grated for culinary use.

Here is a select nutritional profile of 1 cup of shredded, raw coconut meat:

NutrientsAmounts% Daily Value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet
Calories 28314%
Protein2.7 g5%
Total Fat26.8 g41%
Saturated Fat23.8 g119%
Polyunsaturated Fat0.3 g
Monounsaturated Fat1.1 g
Total Carbohydrates8.9
4%
Dietary Fiber7.2 g29%
Sugars5 g
Vitamin C2.6 mg4%
Thiamin0.1 mg4%
Riboflavin0.0 mg1%
Niacin0.4 mg2%
Vitamin B60.0 mg2%
Folate20.8 mcg5%
Calcium11.2 mg1%
Iron1.9 mg11%
Sodium16 mg1%
Potassium285 mg8%
Phosphorus90.4 mg9%
Magnesium25.6 mg6%
Zinc0.9 mg6%
Copper0.3 mg17%
Manganese1.2 mg60%
Selenium8.1 mcg12%

As we can see, coconut meat is extremely high in saturated fat, which (as we’ll see later on) is a reason to exercise caution with this fruit. But it is high in fiber, copper, manganese and selenium. It also has a fair amount of iron, as well as trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Copper is an essential nutrient that is involved in many bodily processes. Along with iron, it helps in blood cell formation. It’s also involved in bone health, blood vessel and immune functions, as well as gene expression and brain development. In addition, powerful antioxidants known as superoxide dismutases contain copper in their structure.

Selenium is mostly known for being an important component of antioxidant enzymes, such as “glutathione peroxidase (GPx), thioredoxin reductase (TrxR) and iodothyronine deiodinases (IDD)”. It’s also involved in thyroid function, DNA synthesis and reproduction.

Fact checking coconut health claims

Fresh coconut with straw on the beach
My favorite way to drink coconut water

The health benefits attributed to this fruit/seed/nut range from simply “hydrating better than water” to “promoting weight loss” and “preventing heart disease”. There are those who add coconut oil to coffee in order to “burn fat” or “clean their system.” Others add it to smoothies because it makes these “healthier.”

Over time, there have been more coconut products to hit stores and supermarkets. Not to mention all the varieties of coconut oil available. Here, I will discuss what are the most common health benefits attributed according to the most commonly used coconut products. Get comfortable and read on.

Coconut water health claims

There are many health claims regarding coconut water and health, but the vast majority of them have not been proven with solid evidence. For example, coconut water is no more hydrating than regular water, nor is it necessarily the best drink after exercising, as it’s commonly marketed.

Coconut water is a good source of potassium, as we saw above, which is important for blood pressure management. However, there is no evidence that coconut water by itself can prevent heart conditions. In addition, it is important to acquire potassium from a variety of sources such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and dairy products, to get the benefit of other nutrients that these foods provide. Plus, remember that coconut water has sodium, so it’s best to drink it in moderation.

Coconut water is a better option than fruit drinks, since it is naturally low in sugar. And it tastes delicious! But if it is packaged, first check the nutritional label to make sure it does not contain added sugars or other additives.

Coconut oil health claims

Uuff, where to start with this one? There is an Everest-sized mountain of health benefits attributed to coconut oil. Here, I will discuss the main ones, otherwise I’ll never finish! The two most published health claims are related to: prevention of heart conditions and weight reduction.

Well, for starters, we have to be clear that out of all oils, coconut oil is has the most saturated fat content. Between 80-90% to be more specific. Outside of that, it has no other nutrients, except in trace amounts.

Cardiovascular health and coconut oil

One study reviewed 21 research papers that evaluated the effects between coconut oil, coconut products and blood lipids. It was found that “coconut oil generally raises total cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol to a greater extent than unsaturated plant-based oils, but to a lesser extent than butter.” We also have very recent (as in this year 2020) evidence from a review of 16 clinical trials that found that “Coconut oil consumption results in significantly higher LDL-cholesterol {‘bad cholesterol’} than nontropical vegetable oils”.

As many of us know, both high consumption of saturated fats and high blood levels of “bad” cholesterol are risk factors for heart conditions. In fact, the American Heart Association published a statement in 2017, underlining the importance of limiting the consumption of saturated fats (including coconut oil), as a measure to prevent heart disease.

There are those who argue that populations with high coconut consumption, such as those in India, the Philippines and Polynesia, have a low incidence of heart conditions. But due to the way they consume coconut and their lifestyles (including high consumption of fruits, vegetables, fish and low consumption of processed foods), the comparison with the western world is not valid.

Therefore, experts do not classify coconut oil as a “healthy” oil, and recommend a lot of moderation when using it. The current recommendations on saturated fat intake limits them to represent no more than 10% of your daily calories. This can be translated to no more than 22 grams per day based on a 2000 calorie diet. Each tablespoon of coconut oil has about 12 g of saturated fat, accounting for almost half of the daily limit. It is also better to use unsaturated plant oils, such as olive and canola, instead of saturated fats for better heart protection.

Coconut oil can have its place in the kitchen, since it is more stable under heat when stir frying (although it is not recommended for frying per se). It also gives a special flavor to some dishes, especially those of Asian origin. But, again, exercising plenty of moderation when cooking with it.

Weight loss and coconut oil

In terms of weight reduction, the association arises mainly because coconut oil is high in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These fatty acids oxidize rapidly in the liver and do not tend to accumulate as body fat. More calories are burned by metabolizing MCTs than long chain fatty acids. Also, replacing long chain fatty acids with MCTs tends to result in a greater feeling of fullness and less calorie intake.

However, the type of MCTs that coconut mainly has is different from the MCTs used in research papers that link them to weight loss. It has not been proven that the type of MCTs found in coconut have the same effect as those that have been investigated further. So far, there is no solid evidence to prove that using coconut oil as a weight control method is effective. Since it is so high in fat, using large amounts of coconut or coconut products can result in a higher calorie intake, which causes weight gain.

Is coconut milk better than cow’s milk?

Coconut milk inside an open coconut
Coconut milk is a common ingredient in many delicious dishes

Coconut milk is mostly used in cooking. It is produced from grated coconut pulp mixed with water. This milk is much higher in calories and saturated fat than cow’s milk and other substitute milks. One cup of canned coconut milk has 48 g of fat and 445 calories!

Unlike other types of milk, coconut milk has fiber and iron. Nutrient content may vary by brand. If you buy it, make sure that in addition to coconut and water, it does not contain sugar or other additives.

It’s also important to remember that coconut beverages are not the same as coconut milk. These are commonly used as a substitute for cow’s milk. They tend to be low in calories, high in saturated fat, and low in protein and other significant nutrients. These types of beverages can also have added sugars in them. If you decide to substitute cow’s milk for coconut beverages, make sure they are fortified with calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and that they are low in added sugars.

So far, there is no nutritional benefit to using coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. Coconut beverages can be an alternative for people who are lactose intolerant or who decide not to consume dairy for other reasons. But, as I mentioned earlier, make sure they are properly fortified.

Is coconut sugar better alternative than cane sugar?

Coconut sugar is produced from the sap of the coconut palm. Like other unrefined sugars, coconut sugar contains vitamins, minerals and some antioxidants, but in negligible amounts. It has the same amount of calories as white sugar and is high in carbohydrates. Although its glycemic index is slightly lower than that of table sugar, the effect on blood glucose levels is almost the same. In addition, its chemical structure is very similar to that of refined sugar.

Many people think that coconut sugar is healthier and therefore they tend to use it liberally. They also associate it with weight control. As we just saw, this is not the case, and you have to take the same precautions as with refined sugars. Diabetic people, specifically, should be clear that it is not a substitute for white sugar: it raises blood glucose anyway.

So, is coconut good for you? The final verdict

Coconut oil on wooden spoon
As a moisturizer for hair, skin and nails, coconut oil is an excellent choice

Although coconut has a very delicious flavor and does contain some nutrients, such as magnesium, manganese, copper and fiber, we have to be aware that it is, for the most part, a saturated fat. And the current scientific consensus is that we try to replace saturated fats in our diet with unsaturated fats to protect our heart health. Although there is a lot of marketing and miraculous health attributes circulating around coconut, the reality is that there is no significant evidence to support them.

Therefore, although the use of coconut (and its products) in moderation may be acceptable, using it in a supplementary manner or as a main source of fat can bring about more problems than it intends to solve. But, I will say that for softening hair, skin and cuticles, you can go to town with that tub of coconut oil in the supermarket shelf!

And now on to you: what do you think of this elevated status that coconut has gained? Do you think that there are some benefits that I have not considered? Have you had to watch Moana a thousand times like me? Let us commiserate below in the comments section!

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