Cocos nucifera is popping up all over the place. In the media. In blog posts like this one. In the store, packaged in various ways from whole to canned water or milk. Many claims go along with the products being sold. Like any new thing, there are tons of companies out there ready to make a mint off of the latest, greatest research and development. There are also people out there wanting to get the news out there about coconuts, whether talking about the palm tree, the seeds or the fruit.
So, lets take a good look at this brown, hairy, egg-shaped “smiling face” (the meaning of cocos). Like other nuts, the coconut is quite high in fat, but unlike other nuts, almost all it’s fat is saturated. Coconut oil has the highest saturated fat content of all oils, making it extremely stable for cooking. Its richness also makes it useful for beauty and skin care products, and detergents.
The coconut palm is one of the oldest food plants, originating somewhere in the Malayan archipelago but soon was dispersed throughout the tropics. It is known to have survived floatation across entire oceans. The Hindu Vedas say that coconut nourishes the body, increases strength, and promotes beautiful hair and skin–a claim that several avid coconut user friends of mine firmly believe. (When I first began learning about coconut oil, one friend of mine said that a teaspoon a day on toast or in food cleared up her acne quite quickly.) Ayurvedic medicine infuses coconut oil with herbs to treat a variety of skin diseases such as scabies and head lice.
The immune-boosting medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are also traditionally believed to promote all-around well-being, a practice adhered to in Thailand, where coconut appears in every dish of national cuisine, which is attributed to the lowest cancer rate of the fifty countries surveyed by the National Cancer Institute. In the Philippines, the coconut palm tree is called “the tree of life” and virtually every part of the plant is used medicinally. Some treatments include:
- The roots are used for dysentery and other intestinal complaints.
- A poultice from bark soothes tooth- and earaches.
- The fibers of the trunk are used as a diuretic, to treat tapeworm, and to soothe throat inflammation.
- The milky liquid of the coconut (coconut water, as it’s 95% water) is astringent and slightly acidic when fresh (but soon loses astringency), and holds a solution of proteins, sugars, and salts that treat intestinal worms and urinary disorders, amongst other things.
Coconuts are sources of manganese, molybdenum, and copper. They also contain selenium and zinc. Until recently, the nut was mistakenly accused of contributing to the development of cardiovascular disease. Implicated by health experts as a culprit in raising cholesterol levels along with saturated meat fats in a research test that fed rats fully hydrogenated coconut oil, it was later discovered that it was not the oil itself, but its hydrogenation and purposeful alteration, which made it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids, that was the cause of the rats’ elevated cholesterol factors. It continued to receive a bad rap despite other studies showing that fresh/raw coconut oil does not cause elevated cholesterol levels and actually increases high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol–your good cholesterol.
There are other benefits as well. Approximately 50% of the 12-carbon MCFAs are composed of lauric acid. The only other abundant source of this health-promoting fat is human breast milk. Lauric acid is converted into monolaurin, an antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride (single fat glycerin) that destroys a wide variety of disease-causing organisms by dissolving the lipid and fatty phospholipid envelope surrounding them, resulting in their disintegration. It eliminated lipid-coated viruses (such as the Herpes simplex 1, HIV, and measles), inactivated pathogenic bacteria (many from the Staphylococcus and streptococcus groups) and H. pylori, an organism that has become resistant to several antibiotics but appears to be unable to develop a resistance to coconut’s natural antimicrobials.
Lauric acid, and its derivative monolaurin, also kill or inactivate many fungal, yeast, and protozoan infections. Monolaurin has been shown to kill bacteria by by interfering with signal transfer, a disruption that prevents bacteria cells from interacting with potential host cells. Lauric acid has beens hown to interfere with virus assembly and maturation.
Another beneficial MCFA found in coconut is capric acid, which is converted into monocaprin, which shows antiviral effects against sexually transmitted diseases. There is also some research suggesting that coconuts antiviral properties are so potent, they are being investigated as a potential treatment for AIDS. Furthermore, coconut oil protects against heart disease, promotes weight loss, and its MCFAs are a preferred source of energy in the body and they may increase the body’s metabolic rate.
Not only is coconut good for you, it is delicious. Moreover, it is simple to add coconut into your diet. Sprinkle unsweetened, dried shredded coconut over sweet or spicy soups or salads, or garnish broiled fish for a tropical taste. Adding blocks of creamed coconut to heated sauces, curries, broths and soups, or desserts imparts a rich, velvety texture and taste. Try substituting coconut milk for cow’s milk. Add some coconut milk to a bowl of chicken soup with some freshly ground black pepper. Substitute nutritious coconut palm sugar for regular sugar, a one-to-one switch…or less! (A personal favorite of mine since I have a sweet tooth. Here’s another thought just for you.)
When looking for coconut in the store, avoid hydrogenated, adulterated products. Hydrogenation is shown to increase blood cholesterol levels, and therefore heart disease. Avoid shredded coconut that has been sweetened and/or preserved with propylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze.
The biggest concern, however, is nut allergy. Nuts are among the most common food allergies, and when people react to them, the reaction tends to be severe. Since allergic reactions tend to be “fixed” (people do not outgrow them), and one out of four people with a nut allergy tend to suffer severe reactions, know what to look for:
- Tingling in the lips or mouth
- Swelling in the throat, causing difficulty in swallowing or breathing
- Asthma symptoms
- Cramping abdominal pains
- Faintness and unconsciousness
- Death due to obstruction of breathing or, more rarely, extremely low blood pressure (anaphylactic shock)
Take some time to enjoy this yummy, sustainable nut, being aware that moderation in everything is key. I have had great success with organic virgin coconut oil in my own cooking. It adds great flavor and has never scorched. As more research comes out regarding the benefits of coconut, take the time to research the topic thoroughly. But, as Dr. Oz said in his post at the end, humans have been eating diets fairly high in fat for a very long time, and heart disease was very uncommon prior to the 1920s.
Do you like coconut? If so, how do you use it? Leave some comments and/or recipes! (Wanted you to have a video, but please don’t feel like I’m trying to sell you anything! I know Dr. Mercola has a website. I briefly looked at it. You can find good, organic coconut oil in the stores.)
Murray, Michael, N.D., Pizzorno, Joseph, N.D., and Pizzorno, Lara, M.A., L.M.T. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Atria Books, New York, 2005; pg. 406-407, 419-425.