Know Your Fruits and Veggies™: Coconut

By Dawn M. Swidorski Fresh coconut

I must confess that when I started working on this article I thought it would be easy. Coconuts are delicious and nutritious and what more can be said? Turns out they are amazing and from a culinary stand point just as versatile as the rest of the plant. Found throughout tropical and subtropical areas, virtually every part of the plant can be used by humans in some manner and has significant economic value.

The word coconut can refer to the entire plant, the seed, or the fruit, which, botanically, is a drupe, not a nut. Drupes are a fruit with a thin outer skin, soft pulpy middle, and hard stony central part that encloses a seed. Apricots, plums, cherries, and almonds are examples of drupes.

As with most fruits and vegetables, the origin of the coconut is the subject of debate. Through study, researchers have discovered two distinct sub-species – one originating in the Indian Ocean, the other in the Pacific Ocean.

The coconut was spread across the tropics, by seafaring people as well as the coconut itself. The fruit are light, buoyant and highly water resistant, and can disperse significant distances via marine currents. Specimens have been collected from the sea as far north as Norway. Coconuts have been in the Caribbean and the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America for less than 500 years, but their presence on the Pacific coast of South America predates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Today coconuts are part of the daily diet of many people.

The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble what you find growing on a coconut palm. A freshly harvested coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is smooth and greenish color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed.

Generally speaking, what you buy at the supermarket has the exocarp and the mesocarp  removed and you are only purchasingthe endocarp. The shell has three germination pores (stoma) or “eyes” that are clearly visible on its outside surface once the husk is removed.

The endosperm is suspended within the coconut water. As development continues, cellular layers of endosperm deposit along the walls of the coconut, becoming the edible “meat”.

Although coconut meat contains less fat than many seeds and nuts, it is noted for its high amount of medium-chain saturated fat. Like most nut meats, coconut meat contains less sugar and more protein than fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges.

Nutritional Benefits

1 cup of grated fresh coconut contains a good range of B vitamins (except B12 and folic acid), vitamin C and E. It is also a good source of minerals including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.

The sticky point of coconut consumption is the fat. 1 cup of grated coconut packs 26.8 grams of total fat with 23.8 grams saturated which means that it is 80% fat.Coconut oil got a bad rap has being unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content (mostly from the soybean growers but that’s another story), it is now known that the fat in coconut oil is different from most other fats.

All fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two methods of classifying fatty acids; one based on saturation, the other on the length of the fatty acid chain. You have saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Coconut oil is a saturated fat composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA).

98% of fats and oils in our diets, whether they are saturated or unsaturated or come from animals or plants, are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA).

The length of the fatty acid is extremely important because our bodies metabolize each fatty acid differently depending on its size. So the effects of MCFA in coconut oil are distinctly different from those of Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) more commonly found in our foods.

MCFA are very different from LCFA. They do not have a negative effect on cholesterol and help to protect against heart disease. There are only a very few good dietary sources of MCFA. By far the best sources are from coconut and palm kernel oils.

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