“For I am coconut
and the heart of me
than you know.”
~ Nikki Grimes
Coconut is the darling of the paleo community, offering flour to bake with, oil to cook with, milk as a dairy alternative, and the meat itself as a recommended snack. So, what makes it so special? Coconut is high in a rare form of saturated fat called MCT lauric acid, which is also found in mother’s milk:
- It absorbs quickly and easily, even in people with digestive trouble.
- It metabolizes quickly, meaning your body is more likely to use it as energy, and less likely to store it as fat.
- It stabilizes blood sugar.
- It’s anti-inflammatory.
- It’s anti-microbial, meaning that it fights to keep you well. People with leaky gut will be happy to hear that it’s effective against candida, one of worst offenders of bad bacteria in the digestive tract.
Impressive, right? If some part of your mind is thinking, “Wait a minute. Haven’t I been told that coconut oil is bad for me?” Yes, we’ve been told that all saturated fats are bad for us, a theory that simply isn’t backed up by the science:
How is it made?
Now that you know how fabulous coconut is, are you curious how each of the products is made, and how you can use them in your kitchen?
- Coconut oil: First we have to talk about refined and unrefined oils. Refined coconut oil is liquid at room temperature, clear and scent-free. There are no health benefits to this oil. It has been chemically extracted, bleached and deodorized. What you want is the unrefined, virgin coconut oil. It’s an opaque white color which solidifies at temperatures below 76 degrees. Look for it in jars (not bottles) at your grocery store. Don’t worry about extra virgin vs. virgin labeling. Unlike olive oil, there is no difference in these two classifications; with coconut oil, the “extra” is just a marketing ploy. Unrefined, virgin coconut oil is made in one of two ways: (1) Fresh coconut meat is quick-dried and then mechanically pressed to release the oil. (2) The oil is extracted from moist coconut meat, and then the water is separated from the oil through boiling, fermentation, refrigeration, enzymes or mechanical centrifuge. No chemicals are used in in making of virgin coconut oil. Cooking with coconut oil is an excellent way to get more of this nutritious food in your diet. Winter tip: Sometimes it’s hard to scoop the hard oil when your house temperature is in the 60’s. Just run your spoon under some hot water until it heats up, dry it off, and the hot spoon will cut easily through hard oil. Favorite brand: Dr. Bronner’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil. Update: After writing this article, I learned that there is a coconut oil that’s somewhere between the refined and unrefined forms I mention above. It’s Expeller-Pressed Refined Coconut Oil. It’s solid at room temperature, but no longer has the smell or taste of coconut. Although this special refining process removes beneficial phytonutrients, the fatty acid profile remains the same. So, while unrefined coconut oil is still the healthiest choice, if you dislike the taste of coconut oil, this version of refined is a good compromise, and still contains the magic fat (MCT lauric acid).
- Coconut flour is the fibrous part of the coconut that is left over after making the oil, and then ground into the consistency of flour. For this reason, it’s wise to buy organic, so you’re not getting chemical residue from the refining process. Coconut flour is high in fiber, low in carbohydrates, contains some protein and has a natural sweetness. Because it’s grain-free, it’s a wonderful alternative flour to use in baking. However, you can’t simply substitute coconut flour into a wheat flour recipe. For example, a typical wheat muffin recipe calls for 2 cups of wheat flour and 2 eggs. A typical coconut muffin recipe calls for 1/2 cup coconut flour and 6 eggs. That’s a big difference, but it makes your baking much more nutrient-dense (the opposite of the empty calories typical of wheat-based baking). Favorite brand: Bob’s Red Mill. One last thing: there is such a thing as too much fiber, especially for people with digestive issues. For that reason, eat these baked goods in moderation.
- Coconut milk is something you can easily make yourself, and I have a recipe at the bottom of this post. It’s made from the coconut meat and contains mostly fat (the wonderful kind discussed above), along with some protein and a little bit of fiber and sugar. The coconut milk you buy in the store may seem easier than making your own, but the cans are usually lined with BPA and contain guar gum (which is made from legumes and can be difficult to digest). The large cartons of coconut milk often contain sugar as well as carrageenan (a seaweed derivative that has been proven in 18 research studies to cause inflammation), and a number of synthetic vitamins, which sometimes the body cannot identify as real food and therefore cannot absorb safely.
- Coconut butter is a relatively new product to hit the store shelves. It also goes by the names coconut spread, coconut manna and coconut concentrate, and it’s delicious. What is it? It’s simply coconut flakes whipped long enough that it turns into a butter consistency. Favorite brand: Artisana. You can make this at home, too. Here’s a link to show you how.
- Fresh coconuts: How to you buy them, and how do you open them? First, make sure the shell doesn’t have any cracks in it, and shake it next to your ear. You should hear the liquid splashing inside. This indicates it’s fresh. After you get it home, check out this excellent video on how to crack a coconut. Once you’ve opened it up, you can drink the water inside (it should taste sweet if it’s fresh). Eat the meat “as is” or grate it for use in the coconut milk recipe below.
- Coconut Water: This is the liquid in the hollow of a fresh coconut. It has also become rather trendy, sold in cans as a “healthy” beverage. The positives: It contains 5 healthy electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, and calcium.) The negatives: It’s relatively high in sugar, containing 16 grams in 12 ounces of water; this is equal to 4 teaspoons of sugar, with no food substance to counteract the glycemic effect. The canned coconut water is also pasteurized to promote a long shelf life, and you have the leaching potential from the cans. My opinion: If you have a fresh coconut, by all means, drink the water, but don’t buy the canned variety, thinking it’s a health drink.
- Coconut Aminos: You’ll see this ingredient pop up in a lot of paleo recipes. It’s essentially being used as a soy sauce replacement. It’s derived from the sap of a coconut tree, and adds an umami flavor to dishes. Although it’s advertised as containing 17 amino acids, the sauce is used in such small quantities that it doesn’t provide any health benefit. However, it is a good flavor enhancer. Some people are concerned about one of the amino acids being “glutamic acid” which is a building block of MSG. However, in order for it to become MSG, it needs to be isolated and refined. Coconut Aminos are a whole food, and don’t undergo this process, and glutamic acid occurs naturally and harmlessly in all foods containing protein (chicken, salmon, walnuts, etc.) If you can’t find it at your local health food store, you can buy coconut aminos through ShopAIP.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Because of its wide variety of uses in the paleo community, some people go a little crazy with coconut, eating a lot of it daily. That can pose a problem for a few reasons:
- Remember those health benefits of coconut oil listed at the top of the article? It’s not a matter of “more is better.” Too much at once can overwhelm the body, making you feel worse instead of better. We’re all unique in what our bodies need – pay attention to how you feel and adjust accordingly.
- Coconut is high in fiber, which is healthy in moderation, but can cause digestive problems at high doses. So, if you find yourself reacting negatively to coconut, consider the amount you’re eating. Even with healthy foods, moderation is wise.
- Is it possible to have coconut sensitivity? Yes. While many people in the paleo community do very well with coconut (myself included), some people feel better when they avoid it altogether. Everyone is so unique. If you’ve been eating a lot of coconut and feeling worse, first try cutting down on the amount. If you still aren’t feeling your best, try removing it from your diet altogether for 30 days and then reintroduce it. If you are sensitive to coconut, you’ll have a clear negative reaction. If you aren’t sensitive, your body will respond neutrally. This will let you know if it’s a healthy food for you.
You can use this milk as a substitute in any recipe that calls for dairy milk. Feel free to divide the recipe in 1/2 or double it, depending on how much you need.
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Credit: image at top of page from Robert Wetzlmayr via Wikimedia.