The recent popularity of “coconut water” beverages has my attention as another example of how our food choices are increasingly driven by forces far from home. I asked a few people (not just all the ones with cans of coconut water in their hands) what they thought about coconuts, and heard a lot of good stories, from recipes to injuries — sometimes both in the same story! Some of you will recall a coconut being used as a “telephone” on Gilligan’s Island.
These days we take our coconuts very seriously, perhaps because there have been some recently published studies with coconut oil showing therapeutic benefits.We continue to hear about the dangers of trans fats, associated with cooked seed and nut oils that coconut oil could safely replace. Coconut oil and most products made from coconuts are usually free of gluten, soy, dairy, corn and genetic modification, but check the ingredients list to be sure. Coconut products are often low on the glycemic index and low carbohydrate.
Besides often finding whole, mature coconuts in the produce department, we are used to having access to dried, flaked or shredded coconut, coconut milk, as well as prepared foods and personal care products with coconut ingredients. Recently there have been many more new products: coconut juice, yogurt, frozen desserts, smoothies, coconut flour and fiber. Beyond products made from the coconut itself, there are those made from the coconut tree sap, such as vinegar, liquid aminos, and sweeteners — liquid or crystals.
You may have wondered what the difference is among coconut milk, water, cream and juice. Here is a basic description. Coconut water is the liquid that runs out when you pierce the coconut shell. This is also called “juice” by some. It is a thirst quenching, heat clearing beverage, high in electrolytes, especially potassium, and low glycemic carbohydrates.
Some folks call the coconut water “coconut milk”; although it seems to more commonly refer to the liquid expressed from pressing the grated coconut meat. The milk may be used just as it is expressed, or it may be separated from the oil,which floats to the top. So coconut milk composition can vary quite a bit, from low to very high in fat; relative to the fat content, protein and carbohydrate levels can be somewhat variable. Compared to dairy or other non-dairy “milks”, coconut milk is very low in protein and potentially high in fat. The milk is a good source of electrolytes, though not as much as the water.
Once the coconut meat has been pressed, removing most of its oil, it can be turned into creamed coconut by adding back a little of the milk and/or oil. Or the meat may also be further dried and ground into coconut flour. Different coconut flours that I compared had a lot of variation in protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber and moisture content. Coconut flour doesn’t make a very good thickener for sauces, but bakes well with some adjustments. I don’t have room to put any recipes in this article, but we have lots of resources available at the store, so please ask us to help!
The oil that is pressed from the coconut meat is its most valuable and voluminous component, and has had a long history of use as food and as medicine throughout its native tropic regions. Although coconut oil has been used for a long time in this country, it fell out of favor a few decades ago when it was categorized with other saturated fats and characterized as artery clogging and unhealthy. The soybean and corn industries seized the opportunity to replace many coconut oil applications with their own oils. Unfortunately, soybean and corn oils needed to be hydrogenated, creating dangerous trans fats, in order to provide the functionality of coconut oil.
Not all saturated fats are the same! Coconut oil is similar to other saturated fats in being a solid at room temperature, and stable enough to use in cooking without being transformed into damaging trans fats. The difference is in the molecular structure; coconut oil is mostly comprised of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), but other saturated fats are almost entirely made up of long chain fatty acids,which contribute to heart disease. On the other hand, MCTs are readily used as a fuel source when ingested, and even promote the efficient burning of other fats, which explains their popularity among athletes and dieters. Certain MCTs also have powerful antimicrobial (e.g. candida albacans, heliobacter pylori) action and have proven efficacy in a variety of therapeutic applications.
When coconut oil is fractionated, the long chain fatty acids are removed first; then the lauric acid is separated from the other MCTs due to its high value for medical and industrial uses. The remaining capric and caprylic acids may be referred to as fractionated coconut oil, or as MCT oil. Various fractionated coconut oil products have been used in non-dairy creamers, manufactured foods, health and beauty aids, medical products, and even fuel for bio-diesel vehicles!
For our home cooking and home remedies, pure extra virgin oil from organically grown coconuts is best. Just a few years ago, most coconut oil available in this country was hydrogenated and often chemically refined. Now it is easy to find high quality, but read the label to be sure it is free of trans fat. Some coconut oil is more fragrant than others; usually a refined oil will be odorless, and if the refining is a heat process rather than a chemical one, the fatty acids will retain their positive characteristics. Its heat stability makes it good for frying, and it works very well in baked goods. Perfect for a curry, peanut sauce or spicy Thai dish.
Coconut oil has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine as a carrier for topical application of herbs. It has also been traditionally used for “oil pulling” which is a method of detoxification through the oral cavity, accomplished by rinsing pure oil through the mouth for15 minutes or so, then discarding it and rinsing with water. There are many ancient and modern medical uses for coconut oil, and more clinical work being published every year.If you decide to embark on a daily regimen of coconut oil use, please remember that while it is a great source of lauric acid and other MCTs, safe to cook with and stable at room temperature…coconut oil supplies ZERO essential fatty acids; so keep eating other plant oils- preferably raw, for your essential fatty acids.