When it comes to coconuts, these tropical fruits seem to have it all. From coconut oil to coconut water and coconut milk, coconuts offer something for everyone. Which is why we’re positively cuckoo for coconuts. So read on to discover why you should be too!
But First, the Bad News
While coconut oil enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as the healthy fat everyone should be eating, a report put out by the American Heart Association in 2017 declared those initial health claims to be bunk, and a professor at Harvard even called coconut oil “pure poison.”
So what happened?
Well, first it’s important to understand why coconut oil became so popular in the first place.
Although coconut oil is over 80% saturated fat—more than butter or lard—about half that fat is lauric acid. And lauric acid is credited with giving coconut oil the ability to raise levels of HDL cholesterol, the so-called good cholesterol. However, saturated fat, including that found in coconut oil, is known to raise levels of LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol.
In addition, many of the original health claims surrounding coconut oil appear to have been based on a study that focused on medium-chain fatty acids called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. These MCTs, which are made up of caprylic acid, lauric acid, and capric acid, are known to increase metabolism and promote weight loss.
However, the coconut oil used in this particular study was specially formulated to contain 100% MCTs—yet most forms of coconut oil contain only 13% to 14%. Moreover, multiple subsequent studies have shown that regular coconut oil, with its much lower percentage of MCTs, doesn’t have the same effect on weight and metabolism.
Which means you’d have to eat an enormous quantity of regular coconut oil to get the benefits of MCTs touted by some sources. And that means you’d also be eating a ton of saturated fat—and that’s just not good for heart health.
Still, there’s no need to avoid coconut oil altogether. After all, some dishes just wouldn’t be the same without it. But experts recommend that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil be used for everyday cooking needs.
And Now, the Good News
Although the promise of coconut oil as the next great superfood may be a pipe dream, there’s still evidence to indicate that it does offer some real health benefits.
But it depends on what type of coconut oil you’re using.
While proponents of coconut oil tout its many phytochemicals, which are known to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, you’re not going to find many of these in most of the oils on the market, as the majority have been chemically refined, deodorized, or hydrogenated.
Therefore, when buying coconut oil, always look for extra virgin coconut oil, which is unrefined and cold pressed—meaning no chemical agents are used.
In addition to phytonutrients and great taste, coconut oil has even more benefits to offer.
Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice that’s traditionally used to improve oral health. The technique is performed upon rising and involves swishing a tablespoon of organic coconut oil around the mouth, “pulling” it through the teeth for 15 to 20 minutes. Once the oil becomes thin and white, it’s time to spit it out—but not in the sink, as it can clog pipes!
Oil pulling may sound like an odd practice that can’t possibly have any basis in reality, but that’s actually not the case.
In fact, numerous studies have documented the antibacterial properties of coconut oil.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice found that oil pulling is as effective as chlorhexidine at reducing levels of Streptococcus mutans—a type of bacteria involved in tooth decay—without side effects.
And a review in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine found that oil pulling improves oral hygiene when practiced regularly.
Endocrine and Gut Health
Several studies have found that coconuts and coconut oil may have beneficial effects on both blood sugar and gut bacteria.
A study published in the journal PloS One found that obese pigs supplemented with coconut oil maintained blood sugar in the normal range. In addition, researchers found that the pigs involved in the study had a greater diversity of bacteria in their urogenital tracts.
A rodent study in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that, while coconut oil had no discernible effect on blood glucose, it did have a significant beneficial effect on probiotic bacteria. By contrast, a rodent study published in the journal Food & Function found that coconut water led to both reduced oxidative stress and decreased blood glucose levels.
Finally, a study in the Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine found that healthy adults who included fresh coconut in their daily diet for 3 months experienced a significant reduction in both fasting blood sugar and body weight.
A clinical trial published in the journal Nutrición Hospitalaria found that patients with Alzheimer’s disease who received 40 milliliters of coconut oil every day for 3 weeks experienced significant improvements in orientation, language, and construction.
And a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that patients with Alzheimer’s disease who were fed a Mediterranean diet enriched with coconut oil experienced improvements in temporal orientation as well as episodic and semantic memory.
Skin and Hair Health
While the saturated fat content of coconut oil may raise cholesterol levels and increase heart disease risk, the benefits of coconut oil for skin and hair have long been recognized.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science noted that, when used as a conditioner, coconut oil prevents damage to hair from combing. Moreover, researchers found that coconut oil reduces protein loss in both undamaged and damaged hair—a finding attributed to its ability to penetrate the hair shaft.
Finally, a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences noted that coconut oil is an effective moisturizer and results in improvement in both dry skin and dermatitis. What’s more, it promotes wound healing, reduces inflammation, protects the skin from UV radiation, and is effective against several types of bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli.
Ready to Add More Coconut to Your Diet?
We’ve covered coconut oil pretty extensively, but when you’re thinking about adding more coconut to your diet, you have to ask yourself: what about coconut water and coconut milk?
Unlike coconut oil, which is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts, coconut water is derived from the juice of young, green coconuts. This liquid, which helps to provide nourishment to the fruit as it grows and develops, becomes increasingly incorporated into the meat as the coconut matures.
Coconut water is comprised of over 90% water. It’s also a great source of many important vitamins and minerals. In fact, just 1 cup of coconut water contains:
|11% of the RDA of fiber||10% of the RDA of vitamin C|
|8% of the RDA of riboflavin||4% of the RDA of vitamin B6|
|6% of the RDA of calcium||4% of the RDA of iron|
|15% of the RDA of magnesium||5% of the RDA of phosphorus|
|17% of the RDA of potassium||11% of the RDA of sodium|
|5% of the RDA of copper||17% of the RDA of manganese|
Coconut water’s impressive array of electrolytes has even been found in several studies to be superior to water and as effective as sports drinks in restoring hydration and lost electrolytes after vigorous exercise.
And a rather surprising study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that coconut water even makes an effective short-term IV hydration fluid.
What’s more, coconut water contains more potassium than a banana, which means it may even help lower blood pressure.
Coconut milk is traditionally made by grating the flesh of mature coconuts and mixing it with hot water. As the fat rises to the top, it’s skimmed and strained. The coconut milk that results may be classified as either thick (coconut cream) or thin, based on fat content.
Thick coconut milk is generally preferred for desserts, curries, and sauces, while thin coconut milk is reserved for things like soups and smoothies.
But whether it’s coconut water for hydration and electrolytes, coconut oil for oil pulling and making savory and sweet recipes, or coconut milk for preparing Southeast Asian cuisine, we hope you agree that you just can’t go wrong with the wonderful world of coconut!