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The Incredible Coconut and its Many Uses

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“He who plants a coconut tree, plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself and a heritage for his children.” ~ South Seas saying

Chances are, you pass right by an amazing, versatile, and nutritious item in your local market without giving it much thought – the coconut.

Commonly referred to as a fruit, a nut, or a seed, the furry-looking coconut is botanically classified as a drupe, which is a fruit with a hard covering enclosing the seed. Other drupes include peaches, plums, and cherries.

Coconuts are often called the “Tree of Life” because every part of the drupe and tree can be used.  An ideal sustainable food crop, the roots, trunks, leaves, husks, fiber, fruit, water, sap, oil, milk and meat all are useful [2]. The plant not only supplies food for millions of people, but also can be used to make skincare products, household cleaners, toys, instruments, furniture, housing, bowls, utensils, lighting fixtures, baskets, utility boxes, gardening planters, mattresses, draperies, upholstery, chicken feed, carbon-based water filters, and bio-diesel fuels.

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In emergency situations [4], coconut water has been used for intravenous rehydration:

A 2000 report tells of a stroke patient in the Solomon Islands who was too ill to drink or use a nasal tube but was successfully rehydrated with a coconut-water IV when no other fluids were available. Emergency coconut IVs were reportedly used by the British and Japanese during World War II, and they’ve been clinically tested on humans several times to see how well they’d be tolerated. Answer: overall, pretty well.

And, according to a study [5] in the Journal of Endodontics, coconut water is even better than milk for keeping a knocked-out tooth viable while on route to the dentist.

In addition to all of its practical uses, the coconut has many nutritional benefits:

There are several ways to incorporate coconut into your diet:

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Coconut water: This is extracted from young, green coconuts that have not reached maturity. It contains electrolytes, and has more potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium than most juices – for less calories. Coconut water is a great choice for hydrating after hard work or exercise.

Coconut oil: This is a true superfood, and is the best way to reap all the health benefits of the coconut. It is one of the richest sources [6] of saturated fat [10] (once demonized, but now known to be far less harmful than once believed, and actually beneficial to health).  In fact, coconut oil can actually help people lose body fat, get leaner, and improve their cholesterol levels. And, the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil have been shown to increase 24 hour energy expenditure by as much as 5% [6], potentially leading to significant weight loss over the long term.

Coconut oil can be used as a sunscreen, moisturizer, and hair conditioner. It also can be used to improve dental health:

Studies on individuals with dry skin show that coconut oil can improve the moisture and lipid content of the skin.

Coconut oil can also be very protective against hair damage and one study shows effectiveness as sunscreen, blocking about 20% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Another application is using it like mouthwash in a process called oil pulling [11], which can kill some of the harmful bacteria in the mouth, improve dental health and reduce bad breath.(source [6])

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and melts at a low temperature. It can withstand high heat, unlike many other cooking oils. It can be used for sautéing, baking, roasting, and even frying. You can use it to replace butter in many recipes. I’ve made cupcakes and brownies with it, which provides a nice light coconutty flavor, in addition to being a healthier fat choice.  There are two main types of coconut oil: refined/expeller-pressed and unrefined/extra-virgin (or virgin). The refined version does not taste or smell like coconut, and can be used in recipes where you don’t want to taste any trace of coconut. Check to be sure the brand you buy doesn’t use solvents in the refining process.

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Coconut meat: This is the thick white lining that covers the inside of the coconut shell. It contains [13] MCTs like coconut oil, in addition to vitamins A and E, polyphenols, and phytosterols – all of which work together to decrease levels of LDL cholesterol.  Coconut meat can be eaten raw, cooked, or toasted. Add it to smoothies, make ice cream with it, or combine it with fresh fruit.

Coconut milk: Not to be confused with coconut water, this is the meat pulped with water to make a creamy texture similar to cow’s milk. The taste, consistency, and health benefits make it a great milk substitute (and of course, it is lactose-free).

You can make your own coconut milk by finely grating the coconut flesh and steeping it in hot water. Then, squeeze the soaked pieces through cheesecloth or a nut milk bag. The liquid collected is coconut milk. This process may be repeated once or twice to produce lighter coconut milk, as different consistencies are required for different uses. When the first pressing is allowed to sit for a while, coconut cream rises to the top. The milk or cream can be used in sauces, curries, soups, smoothies, and desserts.

Coconut milk can also be used as a skin cleanser and hair moisturizer.

Coconut flour: This can be used as a flour substitute, or in addition to other types of flour in recipes. It packs a whopping 5 grams of fiber per 2 tablespoons, and lowers [14] the glycemic index in baked goods (which is a plus for those with diabetes). Coconut flour is grain and gluten-free, making it an excellent choice for those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergies.

Coconut flour can be a bit tricky to use in recipes – you cannot use a cup-for-cup substitution. You can usually substitute about 20% of the flour in a recipe for coconut flour and add at least 20% more liquid. Since it is so high in fiber (it has almost twice as much fiber as wheat flour), recipes will require more moisture. When using it in baked goods, you should also add about 3-5 eggs for every cup of coconut flour you are using. It is best to use established recipes – unless you are feeling adventurous and don’t mind the trial and error of experimenting with measurements (and possibly wasting time and ingredients).

Just as you can make your own coconut milk, you can make your own flour. In fact, if you make coconut milk, you can use the leftover shredded coconut to make flour.  Simply preheat your oven to 170 degrees, spread the coconut pulp on a baking sheet (break up any clumps with a fork), and bake for about 45 minutes. When the coconut pulp is completely dry, it’s ready to come out of the oven. Next, blend the coconut in a food processor for 1-2 minutes or until finely ground. Store the flour in an airtight container in a dark place or the refrigerator, where it will last for about a year.

The next time you are food shopping, grab one or two coconuts and start reaping the benefits this versatile, health-enhancing drupe can provide for you and your family.