The coconuts that drop from palm trees in tropical climates have enriched salads, curries and pies worldwide. But when the meat was found to be primarily saturated fat, they were labelled unhealthy. Now studies show that the medium chain fatty acids in coconuts are not like other saturated fats. One, lauric acid, is the predominant fatty acid in mother's milk. Medical professionals still urge moderation--and more studies.
Coconut meat, flaked or squeezed to make milk and oil, has been the primary diet for healthy tropical islanders, who believed it possessed antibacterial and other healthy properties. When scientists found saturated fats to be a cause of heart diseases in the 20th century, they put coconuts, high in saturated fatty acids, on the same "avoid" list as animal fats.
New studies show coconut fats--medium-chain triglycerides (MCT)--are absorbed directly by the liver, not stored in fat cells. This means they produce energy much faster, raising the body's metabolism. A 2003 study showed MTCs in coconut flakes and oil helped burn more calories, contributing to weight loss.
Dietary fibre from coconut flakes has been shown to curb cholesterol and a 2005 study indicated coconut water from squeezing coconut meat was significant in reducing hypertension. "Two components, lauric acid and monolaurin, found in coconut oil appear to have antibacterial and antiviral properties," said Ray Sahelian, M.D. "So impressive are the antiviral properties of coconut oil that it's being studied for use as an HIV treatment."
Coconut flakes (and oil) have been touted on websites as preventing cancer or curing AIDS. From baldness to weight loss, diabetes to digestive problems, coconuts are said to be superfoods with antibacterial and antiviral properties. Such claims are unsubstantiated by scientific studies. Some studies have confirmed benefits in coconut flakes and oil, but caution is urged to seek legitimate studies and ignore misleading miracle food claims.
Jennifer Aniston uses coconut products. British rugby players swear by it. "It is the most misunderstood of all fats," said team nutritionist Matt Lovell. "It is what we call a 'functional food' because it provides many health benefits beyond its nutritional or calorie content." There is evidence that MCTs elevate the body's metabolic rate, but the amount of coconut needed to produce significant energy or weight loss would be significant. What to do? Don't overdo, say experts. Used in normal cooking, "coconut oil will certainly do you no harm," says Dr. Toni Steer, nutrition scientist with the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research Unit. And it may do good.
Coconut Flakes in Diets
Coconut flake quality varies. Supermarket--and some health food store--brands are made for long shelf life by using additives (sulphites, propylene glycol and sugar). Shredded and flaked air-dried coconut can lose flavour. The best flakes for a healthy diet are the freshest and most pure. Freeze-dried coconut flakes are naturally sweet and need no preservatives or chemical additives. Frozen fresh to minus -6.67 degrees C, they are then dried, retaining flavour and nutrients.