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Tempted to add coconut oil, coconut water and coconut milk to your diet? Here’s what you need to know about coconut nutrition.
It’s been interesting to see the popular explosion of coconut products in the grocery stores over the past few years. Coconut oil, coconut water and coconut milk—all of which were considered pretty exotic in the States a decade or so ago—have entered the mainstream.
To be honest, coconuts have never been among my favorite foods. Growing up in the USA, fresh coconut was something I ate, at most, a handful of times. The coconut I knew was dried, sweetened and shredded, and most often encased in chocolate or showered over a birthday cake. Coconut wasn’t something I learned to enjoy on its own, which is probably one reason I never really developed much of a taste for it.
I didn’t give much thought to coconuts until I started studying nutrition in college, and I learned about the effects of different dietary fats on the body. In particular, the fact that high intakes of saturated fats are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Coconut oil was singled out as the most saturated fat in the plant world—more saturated, in fact, than butter.
That information has always stuck with me. Now that more people are eating coconut products, I was prompted to take a closer look at the nutritional makeup of all things coconut.
The coconut, as it comes off the tree, is a many-layered fruit. Underneath the outer husk and shell lies the “meat” of the coconut, the nutty-flavored white flesh that you probably know as “coconut.” The meat can be eaten as is, and it’s also the source of coconut milk and coconut oil. In the hollow center of the coconut is the coconut water—a clear liquid that’s become so popular as a refreshing drink.
If you were to tap a hole into a whole coconut, you’d find a watery, faintly sweet liquid inside—the coconut water. Coconuts lose moisture as they age, so younger coconuts tend to yield more coconut water than older ones. Its popularity as a beverage is owed to the fact that it is naturally fat-free, has significantly fewer calories than fruit juices, and is rich in potassium. An 8-ounce glass (240ml) of coconut water has only about 50 calories and 600 mg of potassium—nearly twice the amount of potassium you’d find in a small banana.
True, creamy coconut milk is a common ingredient in many tropical cuisines, and an essential ingredient in Indonesian and Thai curries. Coconut milk is made from the white meat of the coconut. Traditionally, this is done by simply grating the coconut meat and then squeezing it through a cloth mesh to extract the fatty ‘milk.’ You’re more likely to find coconut milk in canned form, and you’ll want to use it sparingly. 8 ounces (240ml) has a whopping 475 calories (75% of the calories come from fat). You might also find canned ‘light’ coconut milk, which at about 150 calories per cup (240ml) has been somewhat diluted with water and slightly thickened.
You might also see something called coconut milk beverage at your grocery store, which is not pure coconut milk or even light coconut milk. Coconut beverages are made from coconut milk, but they’re highly diluted with water to reduce the calorie content and often have sweeteners and thickeners added. They’re sold as an alternative to regular dairy milk. A cup of coconut milk beverage has about 70 calories (40 come from fat) and no protein.
Over the past few years in the US the popularity of unprocessed “virgin” coconut oil has skyrocketed. Those who favor minimally processed foods seem to be drawn to this natural, unrefined fat. Virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconut flesh, which is pureed and gently heated to release the oil that floats to the surface where it can be skimmed off. “Refined” coconut oil is chemically extracted from bleached, dried coconut.
What distinguishes coconut oil from other fats is that more than 90% of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are saturated. This makes coconut oil far and away the richest dietary source of saturated fat. In comparison, only about half the fatty acids in beef are saturated, and butter is about two-thirds saturated.
But the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil aren’t exactly the same as the ones found in beef or butter. This fuels debate as to whether coconut oil may not be quite as unhealthy as other saturated fats.
The fats in the foods that you eat are made up of fatty acids, which are basically chains of carbon atoms strung together. If there are 12 or more carbons in the chain, the fat is termed a “long chain” fat. A chain made up of 6-12 carbons is termed “medium chain.” Most of the fats and oils we eat are the long chain type—soybean oil, in fact is made up entirely of long chain fats. What makes coconut oil unusual is that 60% of its fats are the medium-chain type.
The reason this matters is that your body metabolizes medium-chain and long-chain fats differently, which has led some people to believe that these medium-chain fats might be less damaging to the body than other saturated fats. The problem is, there just aren’t enough clinical studies at this point to say for sure whether the saturated fats in coconut oil are better for you.
Since saturated fats in general tend to raise levels of the so-called “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream, both the American Heart Association and the US Dietary Guidelines advise limiting intake of saturated fats to no more than 10% of total calories—no matter what the source.
When you limit your saturated fat intake to 10% or less of total calories, it’s such a tiny amount of fat that it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether you’re getting it from meat or butter or coconut oil. So, if you’re tempted to try some coconut oil, just use it sparingly.
Limiting your overall intake of fat is generally wise, since the calories add up quickly. Like all pure fats, coconut oil is a concentrated source of calories, with about 120 calories in a tablespoon. When you do eat them, it’s wise to choose the healthiest fats as often as possible—like olive oil, canola oil and the healthy fats found in tree nuts, avocado and fish.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.