As the landscape of nutrition changes, in both our sciences and our homes, our food choices evolve and accordingly influence our health and environment. In recent years, one of the most prominently recommended, yet debated foods, has been the coconut with its high saturated fat profile and numerous food products. To help you attain a more complete understanding of this food from a holistic perspective, this guide will explore coconut’s diverse role as it relates to nutrition, health, and its common edible forms.
The coconut is one of nature’s many wonders with respect to its incredible value and versatility. Every part of the coconut palm provides beneficial uses that are effectively illustrated in this infographic. When it comes to its use for food, even here we can experience the coconut’s widely versatile nature. It provides us with high energy-dense flesh and richly hydrating water, and numerous food products that arise from these.
Even though the coconut deserves its long and respected history, in recent years its superiority has been inflated in imbalanced ways.The coconut craze has bedazzled many, but as with all such trends the hype is often louder than the truth. Unfortunately, amidst the many heavily-marketed coconut food products, we’ve lost sight of the original food source and its full spectrum of benefits. We’ve also lost sight of basic optimal nutrition guidelines. Diets are not meant to revolve around any one specific food, and definitely not around high fat intake. It isn’t going to be one food, but the overall quality of our diet and lifestyle that will be the ultimate determining factor in the quality of our health and weight. This is why, as much as I love all things coconut, today I take a much more modest stance when it comes to this food source and my professional recommendations about it. Through this guide, I hope to infuse back some balance into this topic and help us see the bigger picture, so that we know how to work with the coconut for optimal health and wellbeing.
Coconut & Nutrition Trends
The Philippines, Indonesia, and India are the top three world producers of coconuts. Thanks to global transport, today many of us all over the world can enjoy the various, edible wonders of the coconut, which we will explore in this guide. Given Evolving Wellness’ commitment not just to optimal health but also to green living, we have to understand that for many of us the coconut will not be a local food source and thus needs to be used in ways that respect environmental sustainability.
The coconut, especially in oil form, played a prominent role in the American diet until the post-war period. The 1960s and 1970s experienced rapid change and industrial expansion, and by the 1980s America had declared a new war on saturated fat. Foods like coconut oil became vilified, though little good did that do us as we turned, to what became even more problematic, vegetable oil fats.
As we ushered in a new millennium, transformational developments within the field of nutrition and food industry opened up a brave new world. Natural health food stores and sections began popping up everywhere and conflicting nutrition claims became more amplified than ever. One miracle food after another entered the scene and captivated us with its alluring health promises. Luckily, more and more of us began to see through the elusive, yet clever, marketing tactics that were being flung from every direction. Whether conventional or alternative, paleo or vegan, it seemed everyone had a stake in how they wanted the pendulum to swing.
In the midst of the nutritional madness, full of confusion and contradiction, an increasing number of us decided to take back the reigns and get responsible for our own health by building foundations that went beyond miracle foods and fad diets. As I explain in my book Healing & Prevention Through Nutrition, there is a timeless foundation upon which we now know the human body thrives on. It is based on real, whole food, as opposed to refined or processed food, and on high-quality, nutritionally-intact plant food, which offers us the most in terms of healing and protective value. This is what we have to remember when it comes to the coconut and recognize its potential as a whole food, rather than get lost in the controversies of its isolated parts.
Coconut Nutrition Profile
According to NutritionData.Self.com, the nutrition properties of whole, fresh, raw coconut flesh, per cup, are as follows:
- 283 calories
- 27g fat (24g saturated fat)
- 12g carbohydrates, which include:
- 7g fiber
- 5g sugar
- 3g protein
It offers a small source of vitamins, but does include some (in descending order):
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B3
- Vitamin B5
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin E
It is a good source of minerals, including (in descending order):
It is important to understand that nutritional properties will vary amongst the different coconut food products depending on the parts used and processing methods employed. The above nutritional profile will NOT apply to refined coconut products or its isolated parts.
Being high in calories and fat, especially saturated fat, it is smart to use coconut sparingly, infrequently, or in small quantities in our diet. (I am not going to say moderation, because this term has been misused greatly in our society and is today pretty much meaningless.) Its use must also be diet-dependent. A person who consumes a whole-food, plant-based diet has greater wiggle room in this area than someone whose diet is based on animal products and/or processed foods. The diet of the former is naturally low in fat and protective on every level, where wholesome coconut can be a complement. The diet of the latter is already high in fat and stressful for the body on every level, where the coconut only adds more calories and fat. The dietary context, therefore, must be factored in, if we are to use foods like the coconut in intelligent ways. The problem with most studies and recommendations out there today, when it comes to coconut and its products, is that they do not factor in such variables and when it comes to foods like the coconut, one size definitely does not fit all.
As for the saturated fat specifically, we currently know that not all saturated fats are bad or equally harmful. Here again context matters with respect to what food is being considered, what is its fatty acid profile, who will be eating it, and how much of it. All variables aside, while saturated fats may be out of the red-light zone, they still do not get the all-clear green light. They are definitely in the yellow light zone, where we need to proceed with caution in terms of how we use saturated fat-rich foods, like coconut in our diets.
Coconut Health Benefits
Like all of nature’s plant foods, the coconut has a unique set of nutritional benefits and health attributes. We can benefit most from these when we work with, rather than against, nature’s intelligent design and packaging. In this sense, we will gain the most well-rounded benefits when we consume the coconut in its fresh, raw, whole form. Even though modern transport brings whole coconuts to most parts of the world today, the coconut is still the most ideal for inhabitants who live in areas where coconuts are a local resource. Diets based on local foods support optimal health and environmental sustainability. I truly believe that every set of plant foods grows where it does to perfectly support the inhabitants of that given area and their unique needs. Of course modern farming methods, import, and export has skewed natural growing patterns, but still, general trends prevail. So if you get to include some coconut in your diet from time to time, that is great. If not, no problem, as it is the overall quality of our diet that creates the most powerful and sustainable health benefits, not any single food.
The coconut’s chief health characteristics are derived from its unique saturated fatty acid composition, which is as follows :
- lauric acid = 49%
- myristic acid = 18%
- palmitic acid = 8%
- caprylic acid = 8%
- capric acid = 7%
- oleic acid = 6%
- stearic acid = 2%
- linoleic acid = 2%
Roughly 65% of these fatty acids are medium-chain (MCFAs), which are easily digested, absorbed, and used for energy production. Lauric acid is the fatty acid responsible for most of the benefits associated with coconuts. Its abundant presence also promotes the formation of monolaurin — a powerful immune-boosting and supporting compound with many antimicrobial properties.
Health benefits attributed to the coconut include :
- supportive for immune health on several levels
- high antibacterial activity, effective against many common pathogenic bacteria
- antiviral activity
- antifungal activity
- antiprotozoal activity
- supportive in the treatment of Candida
- antiseptic properties
- supportive for oral health
- anti-cavity effects thanks to the presence of sucrose monolaurate
- anti-dermatophytic activity
- anti-diabetic effect, supportive for prevention and treatment of diabetes
With respect to cardiovascular health, there is still speculation as to how coconut impacts cholesterol and heart health, though it is safe to say that high quantities of coconut, especially in isolated forms like oil, are not a good thing for our health or weight. The effect appears to be very diet-, quality-, and quantity-dependent, but popular media headlines paint incomplete pictures by presenting only one side of the story. Some of the research is focused on coconut oil, which does not represent the wholesome coconut accurately and appears to also be highly contextual. How coconut oil performs appears to be based on what it is compared to.
Perhaps the best overview of coconuts and its various food forms and health impacts is presented by top nutrition researcher and medical doctor, Dr. Michael Greger in this video: What About Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs? .
Coconut Food Forms
As shared in the introduction, there are many coconut food products that have made their way into the market. Some of them are wholesome, while others isolate various parts of the coconut. Below, I will explain each one to bring further clarity to how coconut may be optimally used in your diet.
Dry coconut can be the next best thing when it comes to consuming the coconut in its whole, pure form and benefitting from the full spectrum of coconut attributes. However, just as with most food products, the quality will make a big difference where our health is concerned. All dried coconut is definitely not considered equal. There are many kinds of dry coconut available to us today. The most common include chips, shredded, flaked, and desiccated.
The methods of cleaning, drying, and processing involved will determine whether the dried coconut will be additionally supportive or destructive to our health. For example, the purest and most wholesome dried coconut will come from organic coconuts, be washed in water, dried within temperatures that maintain the rawness factor intact, and get no additives. Such would be the case with dried, raw (dehydrated at 98F degrees) coconut from Wilderness Family Naturals. Another high quality, pure, dried coconut, though not raw (dehydrated at 203-212F degrees), comes from Let’s Do Organic.
The worst-case scenario when it comes to dried coconut is what is often called desiccated coconut and found in the common baking aisles at grocery stores. It comes in many forms, shredded and flaked, and is almost always sweetened. The ingredients usually read something like this: Coconut, Sugar, Propylene Glycol, Starch, Salt, and Sodium Metabisulfite. I probably don’t have to explain what is wrong with this picture. In such cases, the coconut is typically washed with chlorinated water and soaked in a solution of sugar/corn syrup, propylene glycol, and metabisulfite; you can quickly see how quality makes a big difference. We must pay attention to how our foods get processed and always read our ingredients if we are to make smart choices.
Dried coconut is composed of about 60% fat, 20% carbohydrates, and 8% protein, with the remainder accounting for some sugar and moisture content.
Coconut flour is made from the leftover coconut milk pulp. The pulp is dried and ground down into a fine, powdery substance. Since it comes from coconuts, it is naturally gluten-free. Unlike most grain flours, it can be used in its raw form. For baking purposes, it takes some experimenting, as it cannot simply be substituted in most recipes that call for grain flours.
One can also make a rudimentary coconut flour by simply grinding dried coconut into a powder using a high-powered blender. This would be most useful for use in smoothies or raw, vegan meals and snacks. As with all foods, pure, organic options are ideal.
Coconut milk comes in many forms, but its most natural and wholesome form occurs when the fresh meat or white flesh of a mature coconut is grated and mixed with some water. In North America, we are familiar with two main types of coconut milk: canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk.
Canned coconut milk is either thick (full fat) or thin (low fat/lite). The fat composition varies tremendously between the two, so it is important to pay attention, depending on your health and cooking needs. Canned coconut milk is the more true, rich coconut milk and typically used for sauces, curries, soups, and desserts. While it can have a delicious flavor and most of the coconut’s wholesome benefits, those benefits become compromised in the midst of the processing and packaging. Canned food is far from ideal for us; most cans are coated with synthetic materials and include the hormone-disrupting BPA. While I love coconut milk and would like to give it a culinary chance more often, the can aspect is a big turn-off for me, as it will be for most optimally health-conscious consumers. Even if one buys the highest quality option available (pure, unpreserved, organic) the presence of a slightly metallic flavor is undeniable if the product is tried on its own. Additionally, most canned coconut milk contains various questionable additives and is therefore not an optimal way to go.
The coconut milk found in cartons is a greatly watered-down version of coconut milk and has become highly popularized as more of our society moves away from dairy milk. It is typically more processed and includes various additives like one or several sugars/sweeteners, thickeners, stabilizers, and synthetic vitamins/minerals. While there are definitely better or worse options available of it, and it is essential to read our ingredient labels, it pales in comparison to fresh, homemade versions of coconut milk.
So whether we want a thick or thin milk, the optimal way to go here would be to purchase a real coconut and blend the white flesh with some water in a high-powered blender. We can further strain it through a nut-milk bag if we want to have a silky consistency, and even flavor it ourselves with high-quality ingredients like pure vanilla or raw cacao.
A derivative of coconut milk is coconut cream, which is basically a thicker coconut milk. It has a lower moisture (water) content and is more paste-like, appearing more solid at room temperature. It is most commonly used for specialty desserts, but can also be used for curries, and similar meals.
Coconut water is the naturally-occurring, clear liquid that is found inside young, immature, green coconuts. It is therefore quite different nutritionally speaking from the white coconut flesh. Like coconut oil (discussed below), it fell into the coconut craze and got awarded numerous, yet often questionable health claims, some of which resulted in lawsuits. As it happens, time and time again, most of the claims are over-embellishments from the industry that they aim to support. There is no doubt that coconut water has some outstanding properties, but so do all whole, plant foods, as does plain water. Of course, as industries tap into new markets, it becomes convenient to exploit products that can provide lucrative returns, as in the case of coconut water.
Coconut water has about 46 calories per cup, including 6 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, and no fat. It is a source of vitamins and minerals, including electrolytes. A cup provides about 600mg of potassium and 250mg of sodium. (Source: NutritionData.Self.com) It generates an osmotic pressure similar to that of blood, has a positive electrolytic effect, and has been known to positively influence blood pressure, as well as decrease the effects of certain toxins.
The most intelligent way to analyze and make sense of coconut water’s potential role in your life is to consider the context it is used in:
- If you replace soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, or pasteurized fruit juice with coconut water, that is a healthy move. Drinking coconut water with hopes that it will fix your health and weight or give you an edge in athletic performance is not.
- If you enjoy some fresh coconut water while present in a tropical climate, that is a healthy move. Drinking a processed product that is being shipped from around the world, while it sits in aluminum-lined cartons for months, and often contains additives is not.
The take-home message here is this: Eat real food, mostly plants, and drink enough water (flavor it as needed with fresh lemon or lime juice). Don’t allow yourself to be misled by catchy and clever marketing that wastes your money and our environmental resources due to the unnecessary strain that comes from processing, packaging, and transporting so many of these coconut products.
Coconut butter is a minimally processed coconut product; it is a purée of the whole, dry, mature coconut. It can, therefore, be considered a whole-food, as it contains not only the fats, but also some protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Coconut butter is solid at room temperature and is a much more wholesome way to enjoy the coconut, than coconut oil, as I will describe below. There are many wonderful, healthy and delicious, recipes that fall under the umbrella of raw and vegan, which require a hardening substance like coconut oil. In nearly all cases, coconut butter can be substituted for coconut oil to provide a more wholesome ingredient. Some EvolvingWellness.com recipes, which use coconut butter include:
You can buy coconut butter or easily make it yourself at home by processing pure, dry coconut flakes in a high-powered blender. Either way, this like most coconut inclusions should be consumed in a smart way and not something we want to center our diets around.
Coconut oil is the extracted fat, specifically oil, of the coconut. This is one of the more heavily processed forms of the coconut and not considered a whole-food, as it provides us with an isolated nutrient: fat. This is where even more care and responsibility must be applied if choosing to consume coconut in this form.
Even though coconut oil has made a comeback, its new-found image as a miracle cure-all isn’t as justified as it is all too often made out to be. There is no doubt, as presented in this guide, that the coconut has some positive health and nutrition benefits, but these do not translate to its processed and refined forms. Oils, for example, make it very easy to over-consume calories, where just 1 tablespoon provides 120 calories of pure fat that is completely unnatural for the body to intake in such isolation. It is also not ideal to have too much fat in our diet, especially saturated fat, which is even more concentrated in the coconut oil.
The many health claims associated with coconut oil must be critically analyzed. Some are valid, others are anecdotal, and others yet are indirect associations. They include everything from support for our digestive and cardiovascular systems to weight-loss and mental health support. Like the whole coconut, the oil does have antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. A study done on rats also demonstrated some protective effects of virgin coconut oil against stress. But even if these benefits are present, we cannot forget or overlook the bigger downsides. It is also important to remember that whatever the benefits may be, we can get them from the wholesome coconut, which would offer a more well-rounded food source, or other, safer foods altogether.
I used coconut oil between 2009 and 2014, and have had a chance to try or research many different varieties during that time. Much of the coconut oil available commercially is cheap and riddled with problems due to its poor quality and how it is processed. From various chemicals used to various animal product residues, there are all sorts of quality problems. I share more on this in the detailed overview of how to choose a coconut oil. My very first coconut oil experience was with a refined product, as I had no experience with the oil prior to that time. It was a bland and unpleasant experience and it wasn’t until I tried virgin coconut oil when I realized what coconut oil is actually supposed to taste like, given its delicious and rich coconut flavor and aroma. However, as my research continued, I realized that whether it is coconut oil or any other oil, all oils cause artery damage and health problems, and there is nothing in oil that we need or cannot get from other foods in better and safer ways. This is why I stopped consuming and recommending coconut oil and all oil in 2014. Since then, I occasionally still buy virgin coconut oil, however, it is strictly only for use as a skin moisturizer.
Therefore, the best uses for coconut oil include:
- skin and hair care — coconut oil is deeply moisturizing and nourishing
- oral care via oil pulling — helps the body cleanse/detoxify and optimize gum and teeth health
- massage oil — all-natural, easy to work with and absorb
- in aromatherapy and natural skincare
- added sparingly to various meals, raw or cooked
- used sparingly for non-destructive cooking (i.e. sauté, stir-fry)
Coconut oil, being mostly saturated fat, is one of the few oils that can be safely subjected to some heat, unlike any unrefined, unsaturated oils. (We never want to use any refined plant oils as they are highly inflammatory.) Most unrefined, unsaturated oils that are subjected to heat easily oxidize, can produce trans fats and carcinogenic compounds, and become inflammatory. (Note: “Cooking” is a chemical reaction that changes the properties of our food. Many of these changes result in harmful effects for our health, which is one of the main reasons why more people today are choosing to go more raw and natural with their food, subjecting it to minimal heat and without the use of any oils.)
Coconut sugar is another processed form of the coconut and like all isolated nutrients or foods something we must use with due diligence, if at all. It is made from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm, which are “tapped.” The sap is then heated to evaporate the water and reduce the moisture content, and crystallized accordingly. Coconut sugar is brown in color and described as pleasantly sweet with a taste of caramel.
In terms of our health, coconut sugar at least has some nutritional value, compared to conventional sugar. Its claim to fame is often based on glycemic index values, which unfortunately are not accurately indicative of whether a food is healthy or not. You can read more from Dr. Andrew Weil to know how coconut sugar compares to regular sugar.
Ultimately, we cannot forget that isolated sugar is still isolated sugar and not optimal for the human body, especially as part of regular use. To make smart choices in this area, consider the context as well. If you currently use conventional sugar or other blatantly unhealthy sweeteners, then this is a better alternative. But if you normally avoid or don’t consume any isolated and/or refined sugar, don’t start now. Just because something is better than something else does not mean that it should be embraced by all.
Recommended Coconut Products
Additional Reading & Sources
Beyond the links highlighted in the text, which provide elaboration or further information about their respective points, the following resources were used and can be used to learn more about this topic:
What About Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs? — Michael Greger, MD.
 Coconut: In health promotion and disease prevention — 2011 Study
 Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo — 2014 Study