Coconuts grow on beautiful trees. They’ve had songs written
about them (“I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” anyone?), and we’ve been
consuming coconut products for a long time, from candy bars to creamy Thai
soups. But it’s only recently that they’ve taken the world by storm. From oil
to water to personal care products, the humble coconut has become somewhat of a
celebrity in the plant world and coconut health benefits are on the rise.
But it’s a controversial celebrity, with as many detractors
as cheerleaders. There’s a raging debate about the nutritional benefits and
harms of various coconut products, and there are reasons to be concerned about
the ethical and environmental impacts of the global coconut trade, too.
What are Coconuts, and Where Do They Come From?
A coconut is a fibrous, one-seed drupe (a strange word that
means a fruit with a hard kernel inside, like a plum or a peach), but can
considered a fruit, a nut, and a seed all at the same time.
There are two original
species of coconut: the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean species.
One species that grows in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands is actually a
genetic mixture of those two species. There are also tall and dwarf coconut
varieties from Polynesia, called niu kafa and niu vai fruit, respectively.
Dwarf coconuts are small, as their name indicates, and make up only
5% of the world’s coconuts.
Coconuts take a year to fully mature and ripen, but they can
be eaten anytime after about seven months. Young coconuts are green, and their
meat is soft and can be sweet. Most coconut water comes from young coconuts. As
they get older, coconuts begin to turn brown, and the meat inside thickens,
hardens, and develops its high-fat content. Most coconut milk, coconut oil, and
coconut cream products are made by grinding up the flesh of mature coconuts and
then processing it in a variety of ways. Many stores sell two kinds of coconut
milk: the canned variety, which is very thick and calorically dense, and a
heavily watered-down version that’s an alternative to cow’s milk. For the sake
of clarity, this article will refer to the thicker kind of coconut milk.
You can use every part of the coconut plant. The flesh can
be used for meat, milk, or oil; the water for hydration. And the husk, shell,
leaves, and trunk can be used for everything from mosquito coils to activated
carbon water filters, and from roofing material to ropes. It’s because of this
that the coconut is called the “Tree of Life” in the Philippines and the “tree
of a thousand uses” in the Malay language (in case you’re wondering what it
sounds like in Malay, it’s “pokok seribu guna”).
Coconut meat is a high-calorie and fat-rich food, with
nearly 300 calories and 30 grams of fat per
cup. You can press some of it to make coconut oil, coconut milk, and
coconut water. The fibers in coconut husk can be spun
into rope called sennit, and the shell can be turned into charcoal.
There are claims that coconut water was used in place of IV
fluid during shortages during World War II, but the evidence for this is not
well documented. There is one documented case where coconut water was used
successfully as IV fluid in a patient in a remote area of the
Solomon Islands. While coconut water is high in electrolytes like
potassium, most physicians would prefer to use it as an oral rehydration
therapy rather than intravenously.
Coconut milk and cream are often canned, while the cream is
sometimes found in the frozen food section. The milk is made by heating equal
parts shredded coconut meat with water, whereas the cream is much thicker and
made by heating four parts coconut meat to one part water.
cup of coconut milk contains 75 calories, 0.5 grams of protein, and
five grams of (mostly saturated) fat, and is high in calcium. A mere ¼ cup of
coconut cream contains 120 calories, one gram of protein, and 12 grams of fat,
eight of which are saturated. Both coconut milk and coconut cream often include
guar gum or other additives, which might not be
great for you, but these are generally unnecessary. And there are usually
additive-free options available.
Coconut oil is made by blending coconut meat, separating the
water from the cream, and processing the cream into oil. Coconut oil is 100%
fat — 80-90% of
which is saturated fat.
Is Coconut Healthy?
The health effects of coconut meat are the subject of
debate. On the one hand, it’s extremely dense in calories. This means it’s easy
to eat hundreds or even thousands of calories of coconut meat without feeling
full, which can lead to weight gain. And even more controversially, it’s
extremely high in saturated fat. Most medical, scientific, heart-health,
governmental, and professional authorities agree that saturated fat is a risk
factor for cardiovascular disease. This includes the World
Health Organization, the Academy of
Nutrition and Dietetics, the Association
of U.K. Dietitians, the American
Heart Association, and the European Food Safety
But hold on. There’s a plot twist. It turns out that coconut
contains a different mix of saturated fat
types than those found in animal products, with the potential for
different effects. In fact, some research suggests that coconut meat might even
have some benefits for heart health.
In some parts of the world, coconut has traditionally
provided the main source of dietary fat, while rates of adverse health
conditions like coronary artery disease were low. One example is the
Marshallese people on the Marshall Islands. They traditionally ate a diet
that derived most
of its total calories from coconut and coconut products. As recently as 70 years ago,
there was no diabetes and very little other chronic diseases among them. Since
World War II, the Marshallese began to adopt a more Western diet, eating fewer
coconuts, fruits, and fish, and eating more white flour, sugar, and dairy
products. Tragically, their rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses
What we still don’t know is whether the coconuts were
healthy in their own right, or simply far healthier than what the Marshallese
are eating today. Comparing the health effects of a dietary pattern to the
modern Western diet is a bit like comparing the gas mileage of a car to that of
a gas-guzzling semi-truck that’s stuck in first gear. Almost anything natural
will be healthier than a diet based on soda and cheez whiz.
Health Benefits of Coconut
So what does more modern research tell us?
In a 2013 study published
in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 60 healthy participants
ages 18-57 received oatmeal made with coconut milk five days per week for eight
weeks. After a two-week break, they then had oatmeal made with soy milk for the
same period. The researchers measured cholesterol levels after each
intervention, finding that coconut milk raised HDL “good” cholesterol and
lowered LDL “bad” cholesterol in statistically significant amounts, compared to
This is particularly striking because the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration began allowing soy products to carry claims about heart benefits
starting in 1999, primarily due to soy’s ability to improve cholesterol levels.
Coconut meat may also contain compounds that help regulate
blood sugar. A cruel sounding 2011 animal study published
in the journal Chemico-biological Interactions found that diabetes-induced rats
fed coconut kernel protein experienced an improvement in diabetes-related
pancreatic damage, compared to the control group. The researchers concluded
that this was likely a result of the ability of the amino acid arginine in
coconut to promote regeneration of pancreatic beta cells, which produce
And let’s not forget about coconut water, which in addition
to being delicious, is also very high in potassium. Having the right potassium
to sodium balance is important for
hydration and for optimal health. Most people in the modern world are vastly out
of balance — getting far more sodium than potassium in their diets. How lovely,
then, that a cup of coconut water provides 600 mg of potassium (and almost no
In addition, there is documentation of coconut water
being effective in
the rehydration of people with severe gastroenteritis, or the inflammation of
their digestive lining, which can make it difficult to eat or drink.
There may also be anti-inflammatory compounds found
specifically in coconut water. In one ethically dubious 2016 animal study,
rats with paw swelling were either given oral distilled water, coconut water
from young coconuts, coconut water from mature coconuts, or an injected
ibuprofen mixture. The researchers found that young coconut water had the
strongest anti-inflammatory effect, while mature coconut water had a milder,
but still impactful anti-inflammatory effect. Remarkably, the study found that
young coconut water has stronger anti-inflammatory power than ibuprofen, a drug
that is frequently prescribed specifically for its anti-inflammatory effect.
Is Coconut Oil Good For You?
Coconut oil is especially popular right now and has been
hailed as somewhat of a “miracle cure” for a variety of conditions. Some of
these include Alzheimer’s
and other dementias, cancer, diabetes, digestive
blood pressure, AIDS, herpes, kidney disease, Parkinson’s
disease, and pretty much any other serious illness you may be facing. If
you Google “coconut oil,” much of the internet’s conversation around the topic
has to do with whether it’s healthy and therapeutic. In fact, the first two
questions posed in Google’s “People also asked” feature were, when I searched,
“What is coconut oil good for?” and “Why is coconut oil bad for you?” Talk
about mixed messages! While stories and testimonials abound, what’s largely
missing is scientifically rigorous evidence.
Coconut oil is 100% fat, the majority of which, as we’ve
seen, is saturated. But while the scientific consensus developed over the past
70 years has been that saturated fat is bad, the truth turns out to be a bit
more complicated. There are numerous kinds of saturated fat, each of which has
a different effect on your body. Depending on the length of their carbon
chains, various saturated fatty acids have very different effects on human
For example, lauric acid, which makes up about half the
fat in coconut oil, has been shown to
favorably alter the ratio of HDL (“good”) cholesterol to total cholesterol.
While lauric acid does raise total cholesterol, it raises HDL cholesterol to a
greater extent than LDL. This means it favorably alters the ratio of HDL to
total cholesterol. It’s unclear what effect this may have on heart health and
longevity. But at least, based on lab results, it could be a positive step.
(For more on cholesterol, read this
Lauric acid converts to a compound called monolaurin in the
body, which may have antiviral, antifungal, and antiseptic properties. It’s for
this reason that many people have tried “oil pulling,”
or the process of swishing and spitting out coconut oil for oral hygiene.
Coconut oil is also a source of medium-chain triglycerides
(MCTs), which may have health benefits like supporting healthy weight loss, brain function,
sensitivity. However, the benefits of the MCT oil in coconut may be
overblown because many of the studies showing benefit from the use of MCTs were
based on 100% MCT oil. In contrast, coconut oil contains only around 14% MCTs.
But although lauric acid and MCTs may have some health
benefits, the fact remains that a tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams
of overall saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends you
eat less than 13 grams of saturated fat per day (from all sources). That’s the
primary reason that most health professionals do not recommend
coconut oil as a health food.
Coconut is delicious, useful, and potentially nutritious.
But coconut oil is highly processed, and it may be the least healthy way to
consume coconuts: Many of the compounds in coconut and coconut products that
are responsible for its health benefits, including most of its flavonoids,
antioxidants, sterols, stanols, and phytochemicals, are largely eliminated in
the manufacturing of coconut oil.
You’ll find two main types of coconut oil in stores: refined
and unrefined. Refined coconut oil has been bleached of its color and
deodorized. Often, sodium hydroxide is added to increase its shelf life. A
typical part of the manufacturing process for refined coconut oil is to use
chemical solvents to extract the oil. The only advantage of refined versus
unrefined coconut oil is that it cooks at very high temperatures, with a smoke
point of 450°F (232°C), whereas unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of
350°F (175°C). Refined coconut oil has a milder taste than unrefined.
Other Uses of Coconut Oil
Besides being a kitchen staple, coconut oil does have some
great personal care benefits. Coconut oil is very rehydrating and has uses as a
lip balm, a skin and hair moisturizer, a lubricant, a remedy for diaper rash,
and even as a shaving cream. It also has uses as a makeup remover. Natural soap
makers favor coconut oil as a main ingredient, as it produces a hard bar that
lathers well without requiring laurel and laureth sulfate as foaming agents.
Are Coconuts Ethical Or Sustainable?
The global demand for coconut has been rising fast.
And Allied Market Research projects that
this trend will continue, with global sales exceeding $31 billion by 2026.
Coconut trees live for about 100 years, but they reach their
peak production (as many as 400 coconuts per year) between 10 and 30 years of
age. Global demand for these products is growing at more than 10%
annually. But the present rate of production growth is only 2% per year. This
is driving up prices for all things coconut. Unfortunately, little of that
money reaches the farmers who grow the coconuts.
Most coconut farmers in Southeast Asia are living in
poverty, often earning less
than $1 per day. The world demand for coconut centers on value-added
products such as virgin coconut oil, coconut water, and activated carbon
filtration elements, not the raw nuts. The processors, distributors, marketers,
and retailers receive roughly 89 cents of every dollar spent on these coconut
products, while the farmers end up with a meager 11 cents. Without enough
income to invest back into what they’re growing, many farmers cannot adequately
protect their coconut crops against things like pests, inclement weather, and environmental
destruction, or investing in long-term sustainability.
A small but growing number of coconut farmers are working
with Fair Trade USA, which seeks to create a better situation for farmers as
well as the environment. This entails using fewer pesticides and promoting more
biodiversity among crops. It also puts money back into disaster relief
programs, tree replanting, and community development. If you’re going to
purchase coconut products, and you care how they’re grown, and the impact they
have on farmers and the environment, purchasing Fair Trade
Certified products is a good place to start. You can look for the Fair
Trade logo on the packages of coconut products.
Should You Buy Organic?
How important is it to buy organic coconuts? The answer is,
it depends. If you like to purchase all organic produce, there certainly are
organic coconuts and coconut products available. However, studies have shown
that coconuts are not at high risk for showing up on Environmdntal Working
Group’s Dirty Dozen list
of the most pesticide contaminated foods anytime soon. In fact, testing for
pesticides on coconut products has come out with little to report. It probably
helps that nobody is taking a bite directly out of the coconut husk. A 2002 study looked
for 11 pesticides in 15 samples of coconut water and found no detectable levels.
And a 2016 study analyzed
36 samples of coconut pulp and water for 10 pesticides, finding only four
present, but in unquantifiable amounts.
But if a coconut isn’t organic, this means that it was
likely grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers – with all of the
corresponding environmental impact. So even if the pesticide residues aren’t
detectable in your food, there are still some good environmental reasons to go
organic. And many of the fresh eating coconuts (the soft ones with meat you can
scoop with a spoon) are treated with
post harvest bleaching agents, fungicides and preservatives to help them
survive boat trip to the US or Europe and still arrive with weeks of
shelf-life. I’m not aware of any research showing residues making their way
inside, but it’s something to be aware of.
How to Eat Coconut
While most coconut in non-tropical areas is purchased from
the store in the form of oil or has been shredded, dried, or canned, you might
be able to find whole coconuts throughout the year too. Often Asian and
specialty markets carry young coconuts, which are a common staple for many raw
The coconut’s characteristics change depending on its age.
Young coconuts contain more water, while mature coconuts contain more meat.
Young coconut meat tends to be mild-flavored and rubbery, while mature coconut
meat is more flavorful, thick, and fibrous. On the outside, young coconut is
typically white and angular without a husk. A mature coconut, on the other
hand, will be round and have its brown, fibrous outer shell still intact.
The main components you’ll get from a raw coconut include
its meat and its water. Some of the best uses include:
- Eating it with a spoon (or your hands!)
- Creamy sauces, like curry or a vegan mac and cheese
- Baked goods, like moist cakes and fragrant desserts
- Beverages, such as mocktails,
smoothies, coconut milk lattes, and golden milk made with turmeric
- Soups with a thick base
- In stir-fries
But when you first purchase a raw coconut, the first step is
to open it. You can use a hammer and a rock, of course, but there are easier
and safer methods (no, don’t run it over with your car!). Here’s a great tutorial for how to open a
out the Food Revolution Network site for 7 refreshing coconut recipes.
Should You Eat Coconut?
Studies show us that that coconut offers a number of health
benefits, but not all parts and forms of coconut have the same health impact.
It matters how or if it’s been processed, which parts you’re eating, and where
and how it was grown. And there are some people, especially those with heart
disease, who should probably steer clear of coconut milk, cream, and oil
altogether. And, of course, if ever you purchase coconut products, supporting
Fair Trade Certified farmers is a positive investment in farmers, soil, and the
world we share.