The Truth Behind Coconut Products

By: Kim Beavers Email
By: Kim Beavers Email

Coconuts! The thought conjures up delightful images of tropical islands, soft ocean breezes, blue water and smells of vacation. What is not to love?

These days we do not have to hop a plane to the Caribbean to enjoy coconuts. They are showing up on just about every aisle in the grocery store. So what is the deal with coconut products these days? Well, it seems coconut products are the healthy food du jour. I’ll break it down for you with a few foods, facts and, of course, a healthy dose of opinion.

Coconut water:
Is low in calories and is used as a natural sports drink alternative. It is high in electrolytes (having more potassium than a banana). Consider cooking rice in coconut water for a light Caribbean flavor. Over all not a bad way to go whether cooking with it or drinking it. Coconut juice is the same thing as coconut water.

Coconut milk beverage:
Is being consumed as a dairy alternative. Coconut milk is high in saturated fat! So do drink in moderation and/or reduce saturated fat in your diet elsewhere. The saturated fat in coconut milk is about 50 percent medium chain fatty acid and therefore behaves differently in the body (it behaves better than other saturated fats). However, high fat usually equals higher calories and as always moderation is a good thing.

Canned coconut milk:
Used in cooking and more concentrated than the coconut milk designed for drinking. Very high in saturated fat. I know I just said the fat in coconut milk is partially medium chain fatty acid and behaves differently, but really do you need to eat a product with 9g saturated fat per ¼ cup? Go for the light version.

Canned coconut milk (Light):
This product used to be difficult to find in the store but not any more (yippee). I love the luxury coconut milk brings to rice, chicken and other dishes. Light coconut milk has 6g less saturated fat than regular yet it is still creamy and delicious.

Coconut oil:
Here is where it gets tricky for dietitians like me. I have read some abstracts on coconut oil and a few synopsis-type articles in professional newsletters. I have also seen what is out in the “popular press." I would love to say it is a wonderful item use all you want, if you switch to coconut oil your metabolism goes up, your lipids go down and you lose weight. But I just can not buy into it 100 percent.

So here is my interpretation of the information available to me today (that of course could change … nutrition news changes as we learn more ,and although frustrating, it is a good thing!)

Does the medium chain fatty acid in coconut oil really behave differently in the body? YES it does -- it is transported directly to the portal vein and taken to the liver versus being absorbed into the blood stream and transported throughout the body via lipoproteins.

Does coconut oil raise metabolism? YES, there is evidence of that, although it may be short lived.

Can it improve lipids? YES, there is also evidence of this in more recent studies, but the drawing the conclusion that every person would have this result just by adding coconut oil to their existing diet is premature. I do think there is cause to look at coconut oil with a fresh perspective.

And the bottom line:
Should you use it over other oils or fats in the diet? I am not sure it should be used in place of other oils, but I do not really see why it can not be used in addition to other oils. However oil is oil, fat is fat; it all has about 120 calories per tablespoon. Moderation is necessary for all oil and fat for the simple fact of calories. Too many calories and weight goes up and disease risk gets higher. So you see when dietitians say moderation it is not just our “safety” answer, it is a real and true and sometimes thoughtful answer. Moderation is the best choice in almost all things nutrition (and maybe even life).

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