Anyone who has ever taken a hammer to a coconut will know that it is a hard nut to crack. You might find some of the health claims just as hard to swallow. Is the coconut deserving of its alpha status, and do the benefits justify the effort?
The peoples of Asia and the tropical regions know that they owe their survival to this fruit of the coconut palm. Not for nothing is Cocos nucifera known as the Tree of Life. It holds an important position in Indian traditional healing and its use as food and therapy was recorded 4000 years ago.
Any plant food so highly revered, and for so long, is likely to find itself the subject of some quite extraordinary health claims. The coconut is no exception. Traditionally, it is said to cure almost anything, from abscesses to syphilis, from baldness to toothache. It certainly isn’t doing anyone any harm. Although the evidence for some of the more interesting claims may be lacking, we do know from studies that Pacific islanders who eat large amounts of coconut have been found to have a low incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. So no complaints there.
Making Good Use of a Whole Food
Imaginative health claims aside, the coconut is unquestionably a versatile plant. In its lifetime, a coconut tree can produce up to 10,000 nuts. Every part of the tree is either edible or usable. The leaf and trunk are traditionally used as building materials, and its fibrous roots used in medicine. The hair – coir – can be processed into rope and matting. The hard brown shell can be used to make household items, or charcoal. That’s all before you crack open the contents.
Inside, the generosity of this fruit continues. So complex and rich in terms of nutritional value is the coconut that it should be viewed as providing two distinct sources of nutrition: the fleshy part, which is called the meat, and the water. Coconut oil and milk are both obtained from the meat.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the water which is, as you’d expect, mainly water. But the sum of its parts adds up to so much more. As well as decent amounts of many B vitamins, and even some vitamin C (rare, in nut world), coconut water is rich in inorganic ions. The potassium, sodium, magnesium and calciun found in coconut water can help replace electrolytes lost through sweat. And because it is so refreshing, it is said to make a great rehydration drink. Indeed, during the Second World War coconut water was used as a short-term intravenous hydration and resuscitation fluid.
Coconut Claims: The Evidence
Coconut water has a unique composition of sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytohormones – plant hormones that regulate growth. For this reason, the water is used as a growth promoter in the culture of plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. It also contains cytokinins (proteins involved in immunity) which have been shown to have significant anti-oxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-thrombotic and anti-ageing effects. One cytokinin in particular – kinetin – is often incorporated into skincare products.
Coconut meat also boasts an extraordinary range of nutrients, and health claims to match. Coconut milk is extracted from the meat, and this milk is the source of coconut oil. Around 92% of the fat in coconut is saturated, and this saturated fat is mainly in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These fats are easily and readily digested, providing a ready supply of energy.
They also make a fantastic cooking medium. Being mainly saturated, coconut oil remains stable, and does not degrade even at very high temperatures.
The health claims stand up to scrutiny. These MCTs, which include lauric acid and caprylic acid, are not just a source of instant energy. They have been shown to be effective in the treatment of urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers and food poisoning, and to act as antifungal agents in the treatment of various fungal overgrowths, including Candida albicans. Lauric acid in particular has strong antibacterial properties and has been found to be effective against pathogenic bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori and Salmonella.
Coco For Cognition
But perhaps we have saved the best till last, as far as the health benefits of coconut go. Over the last few years, there has been a flurry of research activity in the MCT department. These MCTs are unique in that they are metabolised by the liver and are easily transformed into ketones. These ketone bodies provide a readily available, alternative source of fuel for the brain, when it can’t use glucose.
This has huge implications for people with dementia.
“Significantly, some clinical studies of AD or mild cognitive impairment patients have reported positive effects on cognitive performance after consuming MCFA (medium chain fatty acid) -rich foods”
People with Alzheimer’s disease more often than not have faulty glucose metabolism. That’s why Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes – you can read more about this in this earlier AYCE article. Ketones act as a back up fuel, when required.
“They (reports) demonstrate that ketones can sustain normal brain function even when plasma glucose is severely reduced.”
There is more and more research in this area, so check in to AYCE regularly for updates.
To top it all, this bountiful food is quite delicious, lending itself well to both savoury and sweet dishes. However, before you rush out to buy, be aware that, like olive oil, when buying coconut oil you should seek out cold-pressed virgin coconut oil (VCO) which is made from fresh coconut kernel, dried in the sun or on a low heat. Avoid copra, which is industrially produced, refined coconut oil whose nutritional value is negligible compared to VCO.
You can buy coconut water in any supermarket these days. Have you tried them? Tasteless! Pasteurisation is responsible for that taste-killing effect. The high temperature treatment of pasteurisation denatures the fresh coconut water, killing off bacteria and just about everything else. All to have a long shelf life, albeit a sterile one.
So go native and crack your own coconut. For a final tip – put your redundant cork screw to good use and extract the water by screwing into one of the eyes at the top of the nut. Conclusion: yes, definitely worth the effort.