Part of the The Fiftysomething Diet Special Report
Once shunned because of its saturated fat content, the tropical fuzzy brown coconut has taken a giant leap from nutrition outcast to “good for you” superfood. But what can it really do for health, particularly for fiftysomething bodies?
From the water, to the oil, to the meat, here's a look at what’s really in coconut products and how the health claims match up with current research findings.
Much is made of coconut's fat profile because it contains medium-chain triglycerides — fats that are absorbed differently than the longer chain triglycerides of other plant oils. In addition, one of its saturated fats, lauric acid, may raise HDL or “good” cholesterol.
(MORE: 6 Foods That are Surprisingly Bad for You)
While Internet claims exclaim that coconut oil can help you shed pounds and ward off dementia, there’s no good evidence for either, according to Nutrition Action Health Letter.
And health experts concerned about heart disease caution that this solid-at-room-temperature oil, whether it’s “virgin” or refined, is still 92 percent saturated fat.
“Coconut oil's special HDL-boosting effect may make it ‘less bad’ than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it's still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Harvard nutrition researcher Dr. Walter C. Willet.
His advice: Use it sparingly.
Some athletes and gym jockeys drink coconut water for its generous amounts of potassium, a mineral that gets lost when you sweat. Others like the way this slightly sweet clear liquid (found in young green coconuts) tastes.
But as far as the claims that coconut water slows aging, helps prevent heart attacks or cures cancer, they’re just hype.
“When it comes to cancer, no major studies link coconut water to cancer prevention,” says the American Institute for Cancer Research. “Some of the compounds in coconut water, such as selenium, have antioxidant properties and fight cancer in the lab, but many common fruits and vegetables are packed with these compounds.”
And all those other health claims? They’re just as easy for nutrition experts to debunk.
Should you indulge? Sure, if you like the flavor. At 45 calories per cup, coconut water is a light and refreshing beverage. Just realize it’s no miracle worker.
Made by pressing fresh coconut meat with water, canned coconut milk — the kind used in Thai or Indian curries — is rich in coconut oil. So, of course, it’s rich in saturated fat.
(MORE: Milk Alternatives: Are They Really Better for You, or Is It Hype?)
One cup of the thick liquid contains 445 calories and an astounding 43 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat.
In other words, go easy.
Oh, and don’t confuse canned coconut milk with boxed coconut milk beverages. These “beverages” are mostly water with a little bit of coconut cream. That dilutes the saturated fat content dramatically, to about 5 to 12 grams per cup.
Fresh or dried, this tropical fruit is a rich source of fiber and harbors small amounts of lots of different vitamins and minerals.
But due to the natural oil it contains, those good-for-you ingredients come packaged with plenty of saturated fat. An ounce of dried coconut sprinkled on cereal or into a smoothie adds 187 calories, 5 grams of fiber and 16 grams of saturated fat.
Switch that to sweetened dried coconut flakes, the kind used on cakes and candies, and you can cut saturated fat in half. But you’ll be adding an unhealthy amount of sugar — close to a tablespoon (10 grams).
A relatively new invention, this thick spread offers an alternative to traditional butter for vegans or folks avoiding dairy. It’s also a way to combine the benefits of coconut oil and the fiber and nutrients in the meat.
Made by pureeing raw coconut, it comes with slightly less saturated fat than straight oil. But coconut butter's saturated fat content, about 9 to 10 grams, is still quite high. For comparison, a tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat.
Made by grinding defatted coconut meat, this fine flour is the only coconut product low in coconut’s controversial health component, saturated fat. In fact, 2 tablespoons of the flour has a measly 2 grams of saturated fat. That same portion also sports 5 grams of fiber.
So is it a healthier flour for baking and cooking? Maybe. The flavor is mild and slightly nutty, making it an ideal coating for chicken or fish, but the high fiber content makes baking a little trickier, as these Living Without recipes show.
Most scientists and health professionals aren’t convinced that coconut is a miracle food. Yet, everyone seems to agree that small amounts aren’t harmful.
Consider the American Heart Association's advice that no more than 7 percent of your calories come from saturated fat. For the average person, that amounts to about 16 grams of saturated fat from all sources including meats, dairy and, of course, anything coconut.