There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the coconut, which in recent years has been catapulted from humble beginnings (think Cherry Ripes and lamingtons), to celebrity-endorsed superfood (coconut water and oil). Today it’s touted as the solution to everything from beating stress to boosting metabolism – but do the health claims really add up?
Coconut… is it a fruit or a nut?
First things first, what even is a coconut? Fruit or nut? Technically, the answer lies somewhere in between. The coconut – like olives, dates, peaches and even pistachios – is classified as a drupe, a fruit whose flesh encases a hard inner shell containing the seed.
These coconut drupes are processed to bring us a seemingly endless list of food products, including coconut water, coconut juice, coconut cream, milk, flour, sugar, vinegar, nectar, butter, and of course good old-fashioned desiccated coconut.
Historically, coconuts have been used worldwide for at least half a century. In particular, they have featured heavily in the diets of countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines, where they have been favoured both for their wide availability and appealing taste and texture. But where are all these superfood claims coming from?
Many of those who promote coconut’s health benefits have pointed to the fact that countries traditionally consuming coconut products have generally lower incidence of diet-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It’s an appealing theory – cardiovascular disease is a growing problem in Australia, being one of the biggest burdens on both our health and the country’s economy, and it would be nice to believe that the solution is so simple – but the facts are a little more complicated.
And while coconut consumption may well have had some influence on these statistics, there are certainly far more powerful factors at play. Genetics, physical activity, and an overall diet that would presumably be low in processed foods and high in fruit, vegetables and seafood – all these could well account for a low incidence of lifestyle-related diseases.
What’s wrong with coconut?
Looking at the nutritional profile of coconut, what immediately stands out is the fat content. With the exception of coconut water – the clear liquid from immature green coconuts – most coconut products are extremely high in both total and saturated fat. Coconut oil, for instance, is so high in saturated fat (around 85%) that it’s actually solid at room temperature. Comparatively, olive is around 16%.
For this reason, peak bodies such as the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia do not recommend including coconut products as a regular part of a healthy diet.
What’s right with it?
Those arguing the case for coconut oil will state that not all saturated fats are created equal; that saturated fats are made up of many different fatty acids, and each affect our bodies differently. This is where it gets interesting, as what appears to set coconut apart from other traditional sources of saturated fat is the large proportion of medium chain fatty acids as opposed to long chain fatty acids found in animal products such as meat and dairy.
In general, fats are considered the most difficult and lengthy of macronutrients to digest. Long chain fatty acids are highly insoluble, requiring bile salts for digestion and absorption, before being transported to body tissues for energy and storage.
Medium chain fatty acids however, are absorbed and transported directly to the liver, where they are then used for energy. Due to their rapid absorption, proponents say, these medium chain fatty acids are more quickly removed from the body, surpassing the transition into cholesterol and stored fat, and thus are not associated with weight gain.
What does the evidence say?
The difficulty in assessing coconut’s worth is in the lack of conclusive evidence. But though it’s far from miracle cure-all it’s often marketed as, coconut does show some interesting prospects.
Studies investigating the effects of individual fatty acids on both cholesterol and the risk of heart disease demonstrated that while Medium chain fatty acids did raise total cholesterol, a large proportion of this was the good cholesterol (HDL).
That being said, the latter study also showed evidence of an inverse correlation between polyunsaturated fats and the risk of heart disease – in other words, while consuming coconut products with their saturated fats might have some positives, consuming products without saturated fats will be more beneficial still.
Another plausible theory has arisen from researchers who have spent many years following the diets and health of people living in West Sumatra. Historically, West Sumatrans have had high intake of coconut oil, but low rates of heart disease. Yet, interesting, as coconut use has decreased in recent years, the rate of heart disease has risen.
The researchers theorise that the increase in these health afflictions is not so much a result of the drop in coconut consumption itself as it is the drop in all the foods eaten in conjunction with it. Dishes containing coconut products would traditionally include an extensive variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish – but these are gradually losing popularity in West Sumatra as people increasingly favour meats and processed foods.
What does it all mean?
The jury is still out. Although coconut certainly exhibits many interesting and exciting health prospects, there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to start recommending it as part of a regular diet. However, as with any healthy diet, moderation is key – so while there’s no need to rush out and swap your cooking oil just yet, having some coconut every now and then is perfectly healthy.