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16 June 2015

An Introduction to Coconut

Coconut is from the Arecaceae family, also known as the palm family. Where the plant originates is somewhat debatable, with theories stretching from the Americas, Indo-Pacific region, and Australia. The coconut tree grows up to 20 metres tall with large sweeping leaves about 6 metres long, producing the first fruit at about 6-10 years, but not producing its peak crop until 15-20 years old.

The fruit of the coconut yields milk, oil, water, flour and solids, making it an extremely versatile fruit for cooking and baking.  Coconut is gluten-free, high in iron, potassium and vitamin C, and has no cholesterol. Research into the health benefits of coconut is extensive, suggesting that it helps to balance the immune system, and has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.

Varieties of Coconut

There are two main varieties of coconut tree, the tall and the dwarf varieties. Tall coconut trees grow 15-20 metres high, whereas dwarf trees grow to 5-7 metres. The dwarf trees tend to produce fruit earlier than tall varieties, although the fruits are smaller. Tall varieties can cross-pollinate, producing hybrid plants, whereas dwarf trees tend to only self-pollinate.

Nutritional information

Each of the different food products extracted from the coconut fruit provide different nutritional goodness. The flesh of the fruit is a good source of the B-vitamins and potassium, while coconut oil is one of the healthiest oils available. It has been seen as a superfood in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines, but it is only recently becoming more popular in the UK. It is high in lauric acid, a type of fat which promotes good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol.

Coconut water is the substance you hear inside a coconut when you pick up a whole coconut and shake it. The water is very refreshing, and healthy too, containing more potassium than four bananas, is low in calories, and cholesterol-free.

100g serving of coconut flesh:
354 kcal, 3.4g protein, 33.4g  fat, 15.2g carbohydrate, 9g fibre

100g serving of coconut oil:
862kcal, 0g protein, 100g fat, 0g carbohydrate, 0g fibre

100g serving of coconut water:
19 kcal, 1g protein, 0g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 1g fibre

Health benefits

The list of health benefits attributed to coconut is extensive. Most people notice that the amount of fat in coconut is very high, but it is important to identify the difference between fats.

The fat in coconut is a healthy type of saturated fat, which the body immediately burns rather than storing. This means that coconut is a good source of energy.

What makes the saturated fat of coconuts different from other saturated fats? Studies have found that fatty acids undergo different metabolic fates depending on their chain length and degree of saturation. The saturated fats found in coconuts are known as medium-chain fatty acids. These have a completely different makeup to long-chain fatty acids, found in animal foods such as meat, cheese and whole milk and therefore metabolise differently. The body doesn’t use them like fats, but rather like carbohydrates, so instead of being stored away, they body sends them straight to the liver from the digestive tract, where they are turned immediately into a quick source of energy.

There’s even more ‘good fat’ news about coconuts! More than 50% of the saturated fat in coconut is said to be lauric acid. Even though lauric acid raises ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, it boosts ‘good’ HDL cholesterol more, which helps to improve heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. And… it is also believed that the other 50% of saturated fat in coconut have little or no effect on cholesterol level.

In fact, coconuts are becoming more and more popular as an important part of weight-loss programmes. They reduce appetite, making those on a diet less likely to be tempted by sneaky snacks. Not only this, but it helps to reduce sugar cravings by slowing down fluctuations in blood sugar levels, and improves insulin secretion.

Coconuts are found to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. These actions are largely attributed to a component called lauric acid, which is found mostly in coconut oil.

Coconut water is an excellent source of hydration, as it is very high in electrolytes. Not only this, but it is sterile, and during WWII it was even used in emergency blood plasma transfusions, when accessibility to plasma was scarce.

Coconut recipes

Coconut Truffles with Bambu®
Vegan Squash and Coconut Curry
Healthy Banana Brownies with Bambu®
Vegetarian Thai Green Curry
Raspberry and Blueberry Smoothie with Coconut Milk

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