Fantastic food 1: Coconut

Coconut. I had no idea it was so delicious! When I first started looking for meal ideas, I couldn’t believe the number of coconut recipes that kept popping up on MDA or paleo websites. An entire cookbook devoted to coconuts, even! Coconut was a fruit to be revered. I’d never really enjoyed coconut… except the tanning oil I would steal from my sister Shelley during the summer holidays, or the coconut covered Snowballs from Cadbury. I didn’t really get the excitement. Particularly as I’ve been advocating for years that people should avoid it due to its saturated fat content. And some of the claims seemed outlandish:

  • Coconut burns fat, therefore helps you lose weight!
  • Coconut is antimicrobial, therefore is great for fighting bacteria!
  • Coconut has anti-inflammatory properties, therefore good for recovery from heavy training and overall health!
  • Coconut can’t be stored as fat, therefore when we eat coconut, it is directly used for energy and can promote ketosis!

Wow. Coconut must be some kind of Superfood. But, actually, I’m not a big believer in Superfoods. I’m much more about Superdiets and Superlifestyles. Also, I think it’s a good idea to be sceptical about things, and as a lot of these claims come from the Coconut Research Center, or coconutsareus.com, I thought I’d try a more academic-style search. After a bit of searching on Scopus and Pubmed, I came across some research that suggests there is (at least) some grain of truth to the seemingly outlandish claims. From what I have found:

1. I would say it’s probably overstating it that ‘coconut will help you lose weight by speeding up metabolism.’ Coconut contains medium chained triglycerides (MCTs) which aren’t stored as fat and end up increasing metabolism through thermogenesis (digestion) and increasing energy expenditure in the short term. Though studies show this is statistically significant, this appears to be short term. Statistical significance in science does not necessarily make something that meaningful in real life. Thermogenesis contributes a small amount to overall energy expenditure, and if you go to town and consume more than you need, then (like anything) coconut could also promote weight gain.

2. Yes, coconut does have bacteria-fighting properties. The medium chained triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut are antimicrobial, including oral bacteria. It appears to be the case. Awesome. I’m all about dental hygiene. (As an aside, if you are a consumer of sports drinks, please always take a swig of water after each drink of your sports drink – teeth are important, people.) Benefits have also been found when applied topically for skin conditions.

3. Extra virgin coconut oil has been found to reduce inflammation in cells. This is primarily from Lauric acid, an MCT that is also found in breast milk. The anti-inflammatory effects of Lauric acid have been found in test tube studies and in animal models, and I couldn’t find any human studies. The mechanism is there for it to work, but like most things, more research has to be completed.

4. As coconut oil is made up of 66% MCTs, these are in fat used by the body for energy as opposed to stored. As they don’t require bile for digestion, they are metabolised easily by the body. I couldn’t find any study that directly tested coconut (and not MCT oil) as being able to promote ketosis. There are plenty of studies investigating the use of MCTs in sports performance, which largely show no additional benefit in the doses that could be tolerated before gastrointestinal distress kicked in. If you have seen some research around coconut oil and ketosis, I’d definitely be interested.

And… what about the whole saturated fat deal?

Well, despite what is ‘common knowledge’ in the public sphere regarding saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease,  there is no good evidence to show that saturated fat is related to heart disease. Saturated fats don’t promote inflammation in the body and, as mentioned above, Lauric acid is involved in processes that exert an anti-inflammatory response in the body. As inflammation is the underlying cause of metabolic disorder, it’s safe to say that this is not an issue for most people. In addition, Lauric acid has been found effective at raising HDL-cholesterol, thus improving blood lipid profile overall.

Should some people NOT eat coconut??

People with familial hypercholesterolaemia should try and minimise saturated fat in general in the diet. This is a genetic disorder where the gene responsible for removing LDL cholesterol from the blood stream. This can accelerate plaque deposits in arterial walls, increasing cardiovascular disease risk. For these people, it’s a good idea to try and lower cholesterol overall.

Some tips and tricks with coconut

I’d heard of people having coconut butter (much as you do almond butter), and went to my local health food/organic vegetable store to buy a jar: $36.95 for 454g Hmm. Pricey. I looked online at iHerb for the same brand to be delivered to NZ: $NZ14. I ordered it in. Delicious. Then I thought I’d try and make it myself from coconut threads.  $2.80 for 250g? My kind of product. Note: not all coconut is created equal. Spot the difference:

The two coconut products (top) blended to make coconut butter, and the end results below. Needless to say, I binned the one on the right.

The two coconut products (top) blended to make coconut butter, and the end results below. Needless to say, I binned the one on the right.

The coconut on the left took about 8 min to blend down to a liquid and has a beautiful sweet flavour. The one on the right took 25 min, didn’t get quite as smooth, wasn’t quite as sweet, and I don’t need to point out the colour difference.

Other ideas:

  1. Scramble eggs in coconut oil, it gives a really yummy flavour. Use coconut oil when you roast any vegetables: pumpkin and kumara are particularly nice.
  2. Mix 200g cottage cheese with 2t organic cocoa powder and 1T creamed coconut, melted. Yummy dessert like treat with no sugar.
  3. Coconut milk smoothie: with ½ c coconut milk, ½ c unsweetened almond milk, ½ c berries and a banana. That and a couple of eggs for breakfast would be perfect.
  4. Added to this yummy pumpkin bake, inspired by Melissa at WellFed.
  5. Vegan ‘yoghurt’ (don’t be a hater, vegan’s are people too): ½ c coconut milk, 2T cashew butter, ½ c unsweetened milk + 1 ½ T chia seeds
  6. Thai curry (obviously)
  7. And this from coconut mama: 25 other ways with creamed coconut.
Tasty coconut treats. Smoothie (L) and vegan 'yohurt' (R).

Tasty coconut treats. Smoothie (L) and vegan ‘yohurt’ (R).

There are obviously many many other things you can do with coconut, and it is natural, delicious, and very versatile. The most obvious thing to do is to get a whole coconut and use that. I’m sure it’s amazing, but have yet to get a kitchen gadget that can help me successfully open the nut. Anyway. Dig in.

3 thoughts on “Fantastic food 1: Coconut

  1. I thought coconut was only 50% MCTs if you are lucky. Also, I would be interested to see if coconut was beneficial performance wise when someone was fat adapted. I imagine most of the research was done in average athletes who as we know are usually the ones who are keen to try the next and greatest so likely into the sports drinks and gels. Ive found even if it doesnt give you a boost when training is a good way to put something in your tummy. I make coconut butter truffles and have one every 2 or so hours. Mix in some nuts or chia seeds and flavouring of your choice. Nommy

    • From what I’ve read Anna it’s as above, but the majority of the MCT is Lauric acid, close to 50%. There isn’t a lot of coconut specific literature that I came across, more MCT related. GI issues with too high a dose. Your truffles sound awesome!

      • Yeah when I was looking into it a few years back there was only MCT research but again mainly in the average athlete. Might have to put it on the ever expanding to do list. Compare fat adapted versus average athlete versus a high carb user. Damm it I may be in the wrong field :p

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