Ah, yes. The humble coconut.
It’s gone from a much-maligned source of saturated fats to the worlds superfood hero in the space of a few years. What’s true and what’s fiction? What on earth is a “drupe”? Questions we hope to answer in this guide, jam-packed full of coconutty-content.
So, without further ado, let’s get stuck into the world of the coconut.
- What are coconuts?
- Are there different types?
- Producing countries
- Quick-fire coconut facts
- Coconut nutrition
- What ingredients come from coconuts?
- Uses for coconut products
- Health benefits of coconut
- Coconut recipes
- Are there coconut supplements available?
- What not to use coconut for
- Side effects of using coconut
- Coconut for dogs
- How sustainable are coconuts?
What are coconuts?
Despite the name, coconuts aren’t actually a nut – confusing, right? Just to make that confusion worse, the term “coconut” can actually be used to mean the whole coconut palm, the seeds, or the fruit (botanically known as a “drupe”).
This, again, leads us to another thing – what the heck is a “drupe”?
In botany, a drupe is a fruit in which an outer, fleshy part surrounds a single shell with a seed inside. Common drupes include fruits like apricots, cherries, damsons, nectarines, peaches, and plums as well as things you wouldn’t think of describing as fruit such as pistachios, coffee and cashews.
The coconut is also classified as a drupe – although not a typical one. This is because the outer, fleshy part of the fruit (the “mesocarp”) is fibrous and dry. Because of it’s hardened, fibrous nature, you may hear this part of a coconut be called a “husk”. (1)
Unfortunately, for the sake of this article, it doesn’t seem like anyone can agree on the exact origins of the coconut – however, it has been generally agreed that its origins lie in the India – Indonesian area.
Because of the coconuts unique structure, it is believed that it distributed itself around the world by floating across oceans. It’s thought that the similarity in names across Austronesian languages (Polynesian “niu”, Tagalong and Chamarro “niyog”) and the Malay “nyiur” or “nyior”, is further proof of the coconuts origins.
History of the coconut
The first recorded reference to the coconut was in the “One Thousand and One Nights” story of Sindbad the Sailor – where it is mentioned that he bought and sold the ubiquitous drupe. (2)
Way back in the year 1280, Marco Polo used the word “nux indica” to describe coconut – a name taken from the Arabs who called it “jaws hindi”, meaning “indian nut”. (3)
So old is the origin of the coconut, fossils have been found dated 55 to 37 million years ago – the coconut is definitely not a new kid on the block!
The Latin name for coconut is “cocos nucifera” with “nucifera” being the Latin for nut-bearing. A bit of a misnomer, considering what we have learnt about the coconuts botanical description!
The modern word “coconut” comes from as far back as the 16th and 17th century where Spanish and Portuguese explorers used the word “coco” (meaning skull or head) to reference the three indentations on the coconut shell. These explorers felt that the drupe reminded them of a witch in Portuguese folklore, also called “coco” or “côca” – and the name has stuck around ever since. (4)
Are there different types?
There are two distinct types of coconut, categorized by the stature of the palm – Talls or Dwarfs. (5)
Talls are the most commonly grown across the world. Because of cross pollination, you’ll see lots of variety within Talls which can show as the variable size, colour and shape of the drupes. Dwarfs are self pollinated and as such are more homogeneous in appearance.
The tall variety can be split into two main types. The first, called “niu kafa”, is considered the wild type and is no longer grown because of the proliferation of the second type.
This type is called “niu vai” and has essentially displaced the “niu kafa” type because it is easier to cultivate and produces large fruits – which are far more valuable to the commercial grower.
Dwarfs, as the name suggests, are much smaller than their tall brethren and produce smaller fruits – albeit in much larger quantities. Because of their smaller stature, the Dwarf type is popular in gardens and parks.
As well as this, Dwarfs come into maturity quicker (3 years as opposed to 5 in Talls) meaning that they bear fruit a lot more quickly.
Although coconuts have a wide distribution, with over 90 producing countries and territories, there are certain countries that are more prolific in their production. Coconut producing countries also benefit greatly from its cultivation. These areas include: Southeast Asia, Indian Subcontinent, parts of Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.
In total, the world produced over 59 million tonnes of coconuts in 2016. Most of the worlds production is focused around tropical Asia, with Indonesia, the Philippines and India accounting for over 72% of the worlds production. (6)
That’s a lot of coconut!
Quick-fire coconut facts
- Coconut water can actually be used as a substitute for blood plasma. The high levels of sugars and salts work similarly to a typical IV solution and was used during World War II during emergency situations. (7)
- Coconut fired carbon was used in gas masks and is still used at sites of nuclear disaster such as Fukushima, due to its superior filtering effects. (8)
- There is a palace in the Philippines of which 72% is constructed from coconut lumber. (9)
- In the Philippines, you can buy a 80 to 90 percent proof alcohol called Lambanog which is fermented and distilled from coconut sap. (10)
- In the tiny Micronesian island of Kiribati, suits of armour were made from woven coconut fibre and consisted of a cap, body armor, back plate, leggings, and jerkin. (11)
- The largest species of land crab in the world is called a Coconut Crab and it feasts mainly on the fallen fruit of the coconut palm. (12)
- Coconuts can float for extremely long distances. There has even been report of the drupes reaching Scotland! (13)
- In Hindu culture, human sacrifice was replaced by the offering of coconuts. (14)
- Amazingly, cooking rice with a spoon of coconut oil can reduce the calorie intake of rice by as much as 60%! (15)
- During Mardi Gras, party goers throw hollowed out and painted coconuts called “Zulu Coconuts” to celebrate the occasion. (16)
Coconut itself is a rather broad term, seeing as there are so many products that are derived from the drupe. So, for the sake of clarity, we’re sticking to the generic “coconut” so that we can have a little dive into its nutritional profile.
Per 100g serving of coconut, you’ll get 354 calories of which 33g are fat. Of that 33g of fat, 89% is saturated fat. You’ll also be getting 15 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of protein. Nestled in with those carbohydrates is 6g of sugars and 9g of dietary fibre. (17)
Because of its high energy content, an average 400g coconut and its water may provide almost all the daily-required essential minerals, vitamins, and energy of an average-sized individual – making it an indispensable crop in areas of poverty or natural disasters.
This energy density makes it an excellent food for when produce is scarce, but due to the high fat content, it may be better to stick to one portion a day if you’re eating an otherwise balanced diet.
Vitamins and minerals
Of all of the vitamins and minerals, the most significant one in that same 100g serving is manganese. That 100g contains 1,500mg or 71% of your recommended daily allowance of manganese. Alongside this, coconut also contains good levels of copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
Relatively unique to coconut are its high levels of lauric acid. Other than coconut, palm kernel, and laurel, lauric acid is fairly uncommon – although, it’s actually found in low concentrations in human breast milk (6.2% of the total fat content).
Lauric acid has been shown to increase blood cholesterol levels more than many other fatty acids. No need to panic, though, as the cholesterol is increases is the HDL or “good” cholesterol rather than the bad stuff.
What ingredients come from coconuts?
As you’ll have already noticed, it can be difficult to talk about “coconut” in the generic sense, because there are just so many ingredients and foods that can be made from it. Here, we’ll talk through the most common ones you’ll find and the ones that you’ll most likely see lining your supermarket shelves.
Ok, sure, “meat” probably isn’t the best way to describe something so vegan friendly – but it’s what we call the white, fleshy part inside the coconut shell.
Coconut meat can be juicy and tender, slightly thick and crunchy, or tough and fibrous depending on how long the drupe has been stored. This is definitely one of those ingredients where fresh is best. As for versatility, coconut meat can be eaten either raw or cooked.
Gluten-free fans rejoice! Coconut flour is naturally gluten free, making it a great substitute for those that are intolerant – or even allergic.
Coconut flour is generally made as a byproduct of producing coconut milk. When coconut milk is pressed from coconut meat, bits of solid coconut meat are leftover. These leftover bits are then then dried at a low temperature and ground until it produces a soft, fine powder or meal.
Due to its absorbency, coconut flour can make baked goods a little on the dry side. To counteract this, we would always recommend adding plenty of moisture back into your bakes by adding things like mashed banana or fruit puree.
Coconut sugar is a palm sugar produced from the sap of the flower bud stem of the coconut palm.
To produce the sweet stuff, farmers “tap” the flower bud stem of a coconut palm and drain away the sap. This sap is then simmered away over a medium heat to evaporate the moisture content. What’s left is a thick, sticky syrup. This is often reduced further to produce a paste or block. To get to the sugar you’ll most likely see for sale in the supermarket, the “block” of sugar is left to crystalize and is then ground down to a finer texture.
Coconut sugar is subtly sweet with a taste similar to brown sugar. The sweetness can vary as it depends highly on the coconut it was made from. The brown colour comes from the caramelization produced when heating the sap and also lends the sugar a hint of caramel flavour.
Coconut cream is very similar to coconut milk – though it has a thicker, more paste-like consistency. Coconut cream has a very mild, lightly coconutty, flavour. This lends itself to a whole manner of vegan recipes that mimic dairy, such as whipped cream and cream cheese.
Don’t confuse coconut cream with creamed coconut as they’re quite different ingredients. Creamed coconut is pressed and dehydrated coconut flesh sold in blocks, whilst coconut cream is most easily found in tins of coconut milk.
To obtain coconut cream easily, just pop a can of coconut milk in the fridge. After a few hours, open the can and scrape away the thick, white, cream that will be at the top of the tin. Discard the leftover coconut water.
Coconut oil has become quite the health food and beauty superstar in recent years, due to some of its unique properties.
The oil is extracted from the mature meat or kernel of the coconut and, due to its high saturated fat content, coconut oil is slow to oxidize – meaning it goes rancid much more slowly than its counterparts.
The oil comes in three different types: refined, unrefined, and fractionated. Refined oil is processed so that it no longer has any coconut flavour, whilst unrefined still tastes and smells strongly of coconut. Fractionated oil is highly processed and converts the whole oil into “fractions” of its specific fatty-acids.
Coconut oil is often liquid at room temperature, though if you live in a cooler climate it will most likely solidify. Coconut oil is frequently used in cooking because of its high “smoke point”. Unlike oils such as olive or avocado, coconut oil can be heated to high temperature without losing its nutrient value.
Similar to its dairy counterpart, coconut yogurt (or yoghurt) is made by combining milk (from the coconut) with probiotics and allowing the liquid to culture.
Because of the probiotics, coconut yoghurt is great for gut health. It’s also very mild in flavour and has a creamy texture – making it a great dairy substitute for us ethical eaters.
Coconut water is actually one of the few products obtained from immature or “green” coconuts.
Though coconut water can be obtained from mature coconuts, the flavor is much preferred in the green kind. It’s produced by simply tapping a hole through the coconut shell and drinking the water within. In tropical countries it is often served “as-is”, often with a straw to reach all of the coconut water within. Commercially, coconut are drained of the water and packaged in Tetra-paks, cans or bottles.
Coconut water has a mild but distinct flavor – strangely, it doesn’t taste much like coconut! It also has reasonable levels of hydration salts and minerals like potassium, sodium, and magnesium.
Coconut butter is similar to peanut or almond butter in that it contains no dairy and can be made with just one ingredient – coconut! To make it it home, all you need to do is to put some dried coconut into a high-powered food processor and whizz up until smooth.
You can also buy the stuff ready-made in jars. It has a wonderful, light, coconut flavour and is great simply spread on toast. Or straight from the jar – we won’t tell!
Unlike coconut water, which comes straight out of the coconut shell, coconut milk is made by processing the coconut meat.
Thick coconut milk – the stuff you’ll find in cans – is made by grating the flesh of a ripe coconut, mixing it with water and then squeezing the pulp through a cheesecloth. Thin coconut milk is made after thick milk by adding more water to the leftover pulp and straining again.
Thick coconut milk is best in cooking – either for desserts or in things like curries – whilst thin milk is best in hot drinks as a dairy substitute.
Coconut vinegar is a common ingredient in Southeast asian cuisine – mainly the Philippines – and it’s made by fermenting the water from a young, ripe coconut. It’s a cloudy white liquid with a particularly sharp, acidic taste and a slightly yeasty note.
When buying coconuts fresh, it’s key to know whether they’re still good to eat as well as how to store, shop and prep them. The article we wrote on how to tell when coconuts are bad gives some key tips for when you’re next in the supermarket.
Uses for coconut products
Coconut is an extremely versatile product which has many uses. From food to beauty, construction to medicine – it’s a true all-rounder.
Here, we’ll go through in a little more detail some of the weird and wonderful ways we can use the humble coconut.
Although this is the obvious one, there are so many ways that coconut can be consumed we simply couldn’t leave it out:
Coconut is a traditional addition to curries, such as Thai red or green, and is often used to temper strong spices. It’s also extremely popular for use in sweet products as its texture and mild flavour lends itself to all sorts of desserts and treats.
Traditional desserts usually involve mixing sweetened coconut milk with cooked rice, or using a setting agent like agar agar to create gelatinous blancmange-like puddings.
As for drinks, thin milk is used in tea and coffee whilst thick milk can be drunk straight up. It’s also a key ingredient in the ever popular Pina Colada where coconut milk is whizzed up with pineapple and rum to make the indulgent drink.
As we’ve mentioned, the water is another popular drink and is either drunk straight up from a young coconut or from one of the many brands sold throughout supermarkets.
We’ve already mentioned Ayurveda – but if you’ve never heard of it before, it’s simply a Hindu system of medicine based on balance in bodily systems. It relies heavily on diet and herbal remedies – of which coconut plays a big part.
In Ayurvedic practice, coconuts are said to strengthen muscle, the cardiovascular system and various bodily tissues as well as cleansing the urinary tract. (18)
Ayurveda also considers coconut a natural stress buster – so it can be a great addition to the diet if you find yourself getting a bit burnt out. It’s also considered a metabolism booster, digestion fixer and slimming elixir. According to alternative medicine, there isn’t much it can’t do!
Coconut beauty uses
Coconut oil is used in many natural beauty products, and we can see why: It’s naturally antibacterial and anti-fungal, is an excellent moisturizer, it can penetrate hair better than other oils and the unrefined stuff smells wonderful!
Coconut oil can be used as a rich and nourishing hair mask for dry hair. Simply melt a little coconut oil and comb through. Leave on for a few hours – or overnight – and rinse out thoroughly. Follow with shampoo and then leave the hair to dry.
The result? Glossy, shiny locks that’ll be the envy of everyone you meet! A little drop of oil can also be uses to tame flyaways or to add a shine to dry hair – just use sparingly.
The video below shows how to use coconut oil at home to make your tresses shine.
Face and body
For facial concerns, the oil can be used to remove stubborn makeup by massaging across the face then gently rubbing away with a warm, damp flannel.
It also makes an excellent moisturiser for dry skin – both for the face and the body. All you have to do is to warm some oil in your palms and then massage across the desired area. Check out our article on the best massage oil for dedicated products.
This video shows a lovely, natural vegan skincare routine which utilizes coconut oil in a scrub and avocado for a face mask to leave you looking radiant.
Coconut oil can also be a great addition to your shaving routine. The silky oil helps the razor to glide across the skin – meaning fewer bumps, redness and razor rashes.
Simply wet the skin under warm water to soften the hairs then rub coconut oil along the areas you wish to shave. Just be sure to rinse your cruelty-free razor thoroughly after use.
Finally, lets tell you about one of the weirdest – but most intriguing – uses for coconut oil. It’s called “oil-pulling”, and involves swishing a great big spoon of melted oil around your mouth. (19)
Sounds gross, but devotees swear by the ancient Ayurveda technique. Because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties, it’s believed that this swishing helps to reduce the number of bacteria in the mouth for all-round cleaner teeth and fresher breath.
This video shows how to give oil-pulling a go, as well as explaining all of the benefits you can possibly get from trying out this weird trick.
Debate over coconut beauty results
Some people declare it the holy grail of skincare, clearing their complexion and leaving them glowing. Others have suffered breakouts and bouts of bad acne from using it on their face. So is it safe to use?
Acne and coconut oil
Simply put, acne is caused by dead skin cells and bacteria clogging pores.
A bacterium called P.Acnes feeds on the clogged dirt and oil and this bacteria is then attached by white blood cells – causing redness and inflammation that we know as acne.
For some people, coconut oil is highly comedogenic – meaning that it clogs pores – so in those individuals, coconut oil applied topically is not recommended.
Benefits for some acne sufferers
However, the lauric acid in coconut oil has strong antimicrobial and anti-fungal effects – meaning it can help kill the bacteria that causes acne. Coconut oil is also an excellent moisturizer and can promote skin healing for those with scarring caused by acne.
It seems that the effects can vary from one person to another – so we would suggest adding coconut oil to your skincare gradually, discontinuing use if it causes any breakouts, dryness or irritation.
Oh, and probably give it a miss altogether if you suffer with oily skin.
Just as coconut oil has many uses for the body, it can also be used all over the home – making it a true multi-purpose product:
If you love plants as much as we do, it might be the case that you’ve begun collecting a variety of houseplants. To keep the specimens looking bright and healthy, simply pop a little coconut oil onto a cloth and give the leaves a quick buff to leave them sparkling.
To keep things looking in tip top condition, coconut oil makes a great alternative to conventional polishes. From shoes to tables to your car dashboard a little coconut oil will get things looking shiny in no time.
Got squeaky hinges or a sticky zipper? Grease them up with some coconut oil to get things moving smoothly again. Coconut oil makes a great alternative to the chemical ladened WD40.
This one’s a bit more unusual – but if you suffer with allergies or sensitive skin this could be a great alternative to store bought washing detergent. Simply mix up coconut oil, lye, water and an essential oil of choice for a fresh scented, non toxic detergent.
We’ve also covered a whole list of laundry products over in this article on the best vegan laundry detergents – a few of which utilize coconut as a key ingredient.
Other uses for coconut
Not only can you consume this magnificent drupe and use it around the home, you can also find coconut in a few other places, too:
Coir (or coconut fiber)
Similar to hemp, coconut fibers have been used since ancient times in the making of things like rope, furniture and brushes. The fiber itself is harvested from the tough husk (or shell) of the coconut and there are two main types, white or brown. White coir is harvested from immature coconuts whilst brown coir is harvested from fully ripened coconuts.
White coir tends to be finer and softer than its brown counterpart, so it’s often used in things that require finer detail such as brushes or is spun to create a fine yarn used in mats or rope. Brown coir, on the other hand, is thick and strong, though less flexible than its white counterpart and is used where tougher fibers are required.
Coir fibre is relatively waterproof and one of the few natural fibers resistant to damage by saltwater. Because of this, it remains buoyant when immersed in water – making it a fantastic material for making ropes and items for use on ships.
When it comes to purifying water, activated carbon pre-filters are the most commonly used. Often, these are made from coal, peat, or petroleum – which aren’t exactly environmentally friendly.
How can we improve this process and make it more sustainable? Enter coconut shells – they’re shown to actually have a superior effect on filtration! It can be a hugely complicated process to explain, however, and we want to keep it simple. (20)
Essentially, coconut husks are put through controlled oxidation by using high temperature steam. When activated, they have ‘micro pores’ which are the exact size of many micro-contaminants in water – meaning that these impurities are absorbed by the coconut husk, leaving clean water behind.
Health benefits of coconut
Coconut has seen a meteoric rise to fame in recent years – being touted as the cure for everything from acne to Alzheimer’s. But what’s fact and what’s fiction?
One cup of shredded coconut meat contains a whole 7 grams of dietary fiber. Diets rich in fiber can normalise bowel movements which can lower your risk of hemorrhoids, lessen blood sugar spikes, and lower blood pressure.
For those of us concerned with weight, fiber is an excellent addition to the diet. This is because fiber leaves us feeling satiated (or “full”) meaning we are less likely to overeat. This in turn can protect against diabetes and even boost the immune system. (21)
You may not of heard of it before, but scientists looking into seizures have begun research into the “ketogenic” diet.
This diet is very low in carbohydrates and very high in fat. It’s currently being used to treat children with drug resistant epilepsy because, for some reason, the high levels of “ketones” in the blood seem to drastically reduce seizures. (22)
So where does coconut come into it? Well, when you ingest coconut oil, the fatty acids get shipped straight to the liver where they are turned into ketones. This in turn induces “ketosis”, the effect in which we have seen the most positive effects in epileptic patients.
While the “keto community” is largely carnivorous (and, frankly, anti-vegan), it is possible to go keto on vegan diet with a little planning if you’d like to explore this option further.
Alzheimer’s is a horrible, progressive disease which is known to be the leading cause of dementia worldwide. It predominantly effects older patients and it’s thought that this is because their brains have trouble utilising glucose for energy. (23)
In the same way the ketogenic diet utilises ketones for energy instead of glucose, researchers have speculated that this may be a way of treating Alzheimer’s – by encouraging the brain to use ketones instead.
In one study, the consumption of medium chain triglycerides (often found in coconut oil and referred to simply as MCT Oil) led to improved brain function in patients suffering with Alzheimer’s. (24)
However, please do bear in mind that the research is still in its early stages and though it has pointed toward MCT’s as being beneficial, this evidence has not yet pointed directly to coconut oil.
Different foods actually affect our bodies and hormones in different ways. Medium chain triglycerides, as found in coconut, can actually burn more calories than longer chain fats. One study found that 15 to 30 grams of MCT’s increases daily energy expenditure by around 120 calories. (25)
Coconut also seems to have a good effect on belly fat – considered one of the worst types to have.
In a study, 40 women were supplemented with 2 tablespoons of coconut oil over a twelve week period. Over that time, there was a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference. A similar study repeated on 20 obese males saw a reduction of 1.1 inches of waist circumference over a 4 week period. (26, 27)
Another profound effect of MCT’s is their ability to reduce hunger. It turns out, the ketones produced when coconut oil is metabolized by the liver can have an appetite reducing effect.
In a small study, 6 healthy males were given varying amounts of MCT’s to eat. Those that consumed the most actually ate 256 fewer calories over the course of the day. (28)
However, one thing to bear in mind is that coconut oil is a high fat and calorie dense food. Because of this we would recommend swapping out the oils you currently use or exchanging it for another foodstuff – otherwise, the added calories could have the opposite goal, and cause you to gain weight.
You may have heard that coconut is packed full of saturated fat – which is true – but, strangely, the fats in coconut can have a positive impact on your cholesterol levels.
HDL or “high density lipoprotein” is considered the “good” form of cholesterol, and coconut oil has been shown to increase the levels of HDL in the body as well as transforming the LDL or “low density lipoprotein” into something less harmful.
There have been a few studies that show the efficacy of adding coconut oil to the diet, but this one in particular, comprising of 116 participants, showed that a diet that included coconut oil significantly increased the levels of HDL in the blood. (29)
Based on this, it’s reasonable to assume that adding moderate amounts of coconut oil to the diet can help keep our hearts and cardiovascular systems healthy.
With all these health benefits on offer, it’s little wonder there’s so many great recipes online that include this amazing ingredient. Here are some of our favorites:
No bake chocolate coconut bars
This recipe is an absolute doozy if you fancy something requiring minimal effort and need something gluten-free – whilst still being super indulgent to boot! With a few simple ingredients, you too can be chowing down on these No-Bake Chocolate Coconut Bars in no time.
Coconut vanilla chia pudding
This one is super simple and ridiculously tasty, which, in my book, is just about the most perfect combination! Brought to you by the wonderful Lindsay Howerton-Hastings over at FunnyLove, this Coconut Vanilla Chia Pudding ticks all of the boxes in terms of health, too. Try this once and it’ll be in your breakfast arsenal forever.
30 minute coconut curry
Fabulous for a simple weeknight dinner, this recipe combines warm, comforting spices with the richness of coconut milk to make a simple and healthy meal. This one is full of veg and easy to customize should you have any other veggies that need using up.
Vegan coconut lime drizzle cake
For a tropical twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake, give this one a whirl. Combining two ingredients that go together perfectly, the tangy lime cuts through the rich coconut to make a delicious cake to impress your friends and family.
Coconut crusted tofu
A lot of recipes out there utilize coconut milk heavily. This one mixes it up my making use of desiccated coconut. By drenching tofu in a coconut milk batter, followed by a coating of breadcrumbs and desiccated coconut, you’ll be left with a crispy, more-ish dinner.
One of the things vegans often miss is that salty, unique flavour of bacon. For a cruelty-free creation, this recipe uses dried coconut and a variety of spices to create an addictive snack. (Check out some other vegan bacons here)
Vegan coconut chocolate chunk ice cream
Creamy, smooth ice-cream can still be a delicious treat when you’re vegan thanks to the richness of coconut. This recipe uses coconut milk plus only 4 other ingredients to make an ice cream that’ll make you wonder why anyone even bothers with dairy.
Are there coconut supplements available?
As with most foodstuffs tagged with the prefix “super”, manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and made supplements from coconut.
Because of coconuts popularity as a health food, coconut supplements are readily available – but should we be taking them? As with anything, we would always recommend the consumption of whole foods over supplements, as pills and potions can often miss out on essential aspects of the food, like fiber, for example.
However, they can have their place – let’s explore the pros and cons:
Unlike pure coconut oil in a jar or tub, coconut supplements often come in the form of oil in a dissolvable capsule. If you have liquid restrictions when travelling it can be difficult to take coconut oil along with you. This is where capsules might be useful – providing a convenient way to get some of the health benefits from coconut without the travel concerns.
For some, suddenly adding high levels of coconut oil to the diet can cause gastric issues, with common side effects like diarrhea, bloating and discomfort in some individuals. One way around this can be to gradually increase dosage using capsules as the amounts can be monitored more carefully.
Although I’m certainly not one of them, some find the distinctive flavor of coconut unpleasant – especially in oil form. A key benefit of a capsule is that you’ll be a getting a dose without the taste that comes with pure oil.
The most common dose for coconut capsules is around 1,000mg (1g).
According to various sources, the average person requires 2-3 tablespoons of coconut oil per day to see its myriad of benefits – meaning you’d have to consume 45 coconut oil capsules a day to come close to that amount! This can be both impractical and expensive.
We’d always recommend eating whole plant foods, for one big reason – fiber.
As with most supplements, the whole food is stripped down to its key nutrients, and the fiber is lost in this process. Because of the high levels of fiber in coconut – which is key to gut health and for the optimal function of various parts of the body- we’d recommend eating a portion of coconut meat over a capsule any day.
Gram for gram, coconut oil capsules are far more expensive than simply buying a jar or tub of pure coconut oil. With the amount you would need to consume daily to get the health benefits cited, coconut capsules are not a cost-effective solution.
What not to use coconut for
Coconut can be fantastic for so many things – but there are a few things in which there are much better alternatives – and some things that you should definitely not use coconut for.
As a personal lubricant, coconut oil can be a cheap and natural alternative to the more chemical ladened alternatives. However, you need to exercise caution when using latex condoms, as coconut oil causes the latex to degrade – meaning that the condom will no longer be effective.
In these situations, you should always use a water based vegan lube rather than oil.
Although coconut oil has some protective properties when it comes to skin health, you should not replace your standard sunscreen with it.
Coconut oil simply doesn’t have the UV filters and protective properties of commercial alternatives, meaning you can still burn – causing long term damage. Check out our list of the best vegan sunscreens for some great options.
Side effects of using coconut
Luckily, there have been no reported issues when it comes to medication and the ingestion of coconut. This means that you needn’t worry about eating coconut if you’re on prescription medication. However, there can be certain side effects that come with eating or drinking too many coconut products.
Dried coconut, coconut meat, and coconut oil
Here’s a few reasons why some may want to be leery of dried coconut, coconut meat, and coconut oil:
Drying coconut meat intensifies the sugar within the coconut – one serving contains 2.1 grams.
This isn’t a huge amount, but this is the ‘unsweetened’ version. As soon as you pick up the sweetened version, you’ll be taking in around 10.4 grams of the sweet stuff. The RDA for sugar is 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women – meaning that one serving can be nearly half of your daily limit.
As we know, too much sugar can lead to a high risk of diabetes as well as leading to obesity and its related issues. If you’re concerned, we suggest sticking to either fresh or unsweetened, dried coconut.
Although it has been shown to have significant benefits in regards to weight loss, portion control is key.
Coconut – milk, oil, and meat – are all fat and calorie dense foods, meaning that a small amount has a high concentration of fats and calories (one cup of coconut milk has 550 calories!). Excessive calorie consumption over the calories burnt off during the day will lead to weight gain.
Because of this, we’d recommend sticking to one serving per day of coconut – whether that’s the milk or the flesh – and making sure that you measure out the servings of coconut oil you may be using in cooking. This way, you can get all of the health benefits with none of the weight gain.
We’ve already talked about the key benefits of fiber in the body and how coconut is a great source – but did you know too much fiber can also be a bad thing?
For those who don’t currently eat a high fiber diet, the shock of adding a high fiber food like coconut to the diet can have some unwanted side-effects. These can include gas, bloating, nausea, constipation and diarrhoea.
To avoid this, we would recommend increasing coconut (and thus fiber) consumption gradually so that your body has time to adjust.
When used safely, coconut water benefits can include lowering blood pressure and boosting hydration – however, too much can be a very bad thing.
This is because coconut water contains good levels of potassium. High potassium (hyperkalemia) is a common cause of life-threatening heart rhythm changes, so excessive consumption of coconut water could be dangerous.
However, the average person has no need to fear – in this case, a man consumed eight 11 ounce bottles of coconut water throughout the day whilst exercising, totalling 5,500mg of potassium. (30)
The average person is unlikely to consume so much, but just to play it safe we’d recommend sticking to 1 to 2 servings per day.
Coconut for dogs
Just as coconut can be really beneficial for us, it can also be a great addition to the diet and lifestyle of man’s best friend.
Just as with our hair, coconut oil can be used on a dogs coat. If your dog suffers from dry skin or dandruff, simply warm a little oil in your hands and massage into their coat to moisturise the fur and skin. You’ll be left with a beautifully shiny and coconut-scented pooch!
Coconut oil can also be uses to repel ticks, fleas and mites – so you might want to give them a rub with the stuff before taking them on walks to stop the other little critters from invading your home.
As well as this, if your dog suffers with cracked, sore pads coconut oil can be used to help heal and soothe the dry skin. Because it’s non-toxic and safe for your pet to eat, there’s also no problem if they decide to lick it off…which, let’s face it, they probably will! (31)
As it turns out, adding coconut oil or meat to our furry friends diet is just as beneficial to them as it is us. It’s been shown that coconut can help to balance the thyroid and help with weight loss in overweight dogs – meaning less stress on their joints and organs. (32)
Coconut can also help with gut health, too. Dogs who are sensitive to yeast overgrowth in the stomach can be sensitive to various allergies – luckily coconut oil has been shown to have the biggest effect in inhibiting this growth. It also supports the gut by reducing inflammation, supporting digestion and increasing nutrient absorption.
Adding to their food
The easiest way of adding coconut into your dogs diet is by simply stirring a little oil through their usual food. Quality counts, so make sure you’re investing in extra-virgin oil.
If your dog is a little more picky, try mixing in coconut meat, coconut milk, or coconut water to see which they tolerate best.
How sustainable are coconuts?
Due to the recent boom in the drupes popularity, it’s inevitable that we need to look at what impact that has on the environment. We’ve seen how destructive things like palm oil can be – so how bad is the coconut in comparison?
Luckily, coconuts don’t particularly lend themselves to mass production – taking 10-30 years to reach peak production. This plant will then produce around 400 coconuts per year – nearly exclusively picked by hand. Slow productivity and low yields have prevented the mass deforestation we have seen as a result of palm oil production. (33)
However, the rise in popularity of the coconut has lead to farmers resorting to “monoculture” – where only one form of crop is planted in an area. This has the impact of reducing biodiversity and negatively affects the soil on which it is grown, which often leads the farmers to use chemical fertilizers to increase yields.
So what can an ethical consumer do to make sure that they’re not negatively affecting the environment?
- First, think about buying organic. Buying organic means no chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been used, ensuring the longevity of the areas they were grown.
- Second, always look for fair trade coconut products. This ensures not only that farmers are paid fairly, but their farming practices are sustainable.
- Third, research the company that you’re buying from. Are they transparent with their supply chain? Do they have ethical practices? Make sure your money is going to the good guys!
Hopefully, after reading this you’ll still be nuts for coconuts (that aren’t a nut!) and you’ll be excited to start using the stuff in your diet, your house, on your pet, and as a beauty treatment.
Do you have an interesting fact or a question about the coconut? Leave us a comment below!
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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