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 explosion – and popularity – 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, coconut has never been one of 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 coconut until I started studying nutrition in college, and 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, and now that more people are eating coconut products, I was prompted to take a closer look at the nutritional makeup of all things coconut.
Nutritional Value of Coconut and Coconut Products
Coconut – Water, Milk, Oil
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, but 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 – it’s been diluted somewhat with water and slightly thickened, and has about 150 calories per cup (240ml).
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 of which come from fat) and no protein.
Over the past few years – in the US, at least – 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, releasing the oil that floats to the surface where it can be skimmed off (compared with “refined” coconut oil which 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 – which 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 – which is fueling 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, while 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 upentirely 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. And, 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.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
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