The coconut palm has been used as a source of food and medicine by the people of the Pacific Islands for thousands of years. Coconut remains a dietary staple in the cuisine of Southeast Asia and India and is slowly emerging on plates and in the pantries of Americans. Although coconut products are popping up all over the natural foods marketplace, many consumers have reservations about their high saturated fat content.
Saturated fatty acids are relatively simple molecules, chemically speaking. They consist of chains of carbon atoms with an acid group on one end. Each carbon atom in the chain is fully “saturated” with two hydrogen atoms. This structure gives saturated fats stability—they are not susceptible to damage by heat, light or oxygen which is why food manufacturers frequently choose to add them to processed foods. This structure is common to all saturated fats, from tropical oils to beef fat.
Where the difference lies is in the length of the carbon chain, which ranges from 4 to 24 carbons long and affects how the fat is digested and metabolized as well as other effects it has on the body. The saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil are predominantly medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) with chain lengths of 8, 10 and 12 carbons long. In fact, coconut oil is nature’s best source of MCFAs. Comparatively, the saturated fat found in animal products is primarily composed of long chain fatty acids with carbon chains of 14 or more atoms long. Stearic acid, the predominant saturated fatty acid in beef, is 18 carbons long.
The shorter chain length of the MCFAs in coconut oil makes them less sticky and less prone to aggregation as their long chain counterparts; they do not increase the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease, which many people associate with saturated fat consumption. In fact, populations of the Pacific Islands and Asia whose diets are high in saturated fat from tropical oils are relatively free from heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is a much greater problem in Western nations that consume a diet high in saturated fat from animal products and hydrogenated oils.
Fat is a rather difficult nutrient for the body to digest, involving multiple enzymes, bile and the lymphatic system. MCFAs are an exception to this process. Due to their shorter chain length, MCFAs require fewer enzymes and virtually no bile to break down. They are absorbed directly from the intestines and sent straight to the liver where they can immediately be burned for fuel. They do not circulate in the bloodstream as do other forms of fat and do not contribute to fat deposition in body tissue when eaten in moderate amounts. In this respect, the digestion of MCFAs is similar to carbohydrate digestion—they provide quick fuel and are used mainly for energy, not stored as fat. MCFAs in coconut oil are useful nutrients for people with compromised digestion or anyone looking to boost energy quickly without impacting blood sugar.
MCFAs have also been shown to increase metabolic rate, stimulating cellular activity and calorie burning. Similar to the high octane fuel at the gas station, the MCFAs in coconut oil are burned with maximum efficiency, revving up the bodys engine.The MCFAs lauric and capric acids, abundant in coconut oil, have been proven by scientific research to be powerful antimicrobial agents capable of killing a variety of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. Coconut oil may therefore be a beneficial food for those with a weak immune system, prone to common infections, or battling an intestinal fungus such as Candida albicans.
If not convinced by science and nutritional benefits alone, coconut is rich, subtly sweet, creamy and delicious! Not to mention a perfect culinary substitute for dairy products. Coconut products can be found in almost every department of the Co-op; let’s take a look at what the Grocery department has to offer.
Coconut milk is produced by pressing the flesh of mature coconuts and diluting the extraction with water. Light coconut milk contains more water than the classic version, making it lower in fat and calories, but also lower in beneficial MCFAs and flavor. Coconut milk is a great replacement for dairy in a variety of dishes such as soups, curries, and puddings.
Due to the oil’s impressive stability, coconut oil works great for high heat cooking applications such as stir frying and frying and will keep in your pantry for two to three years without going rancid. The oil has a soft buttery texture at room temperature and adds a mild coconut flavor and aroma to food. Coconut oil can easily be substituted for butter, shortening or margarine in most recipes.
Similar to nut butter, coconut butter is the pureed flesh of mature coconuts. It is not an extraction, so all the vitamins, minerals and fiber remain in the product. Coconut butter is not heated during processing; it is a whole, raw food perfect for use in raw food preparation. Mix it with raw honey, vanilla and a pinch of sea salt and you’ve created a finger licking good frosting!
Coconut water comes from the interior cavity of the young green coconut and is a fat-free, electrolyte-packed beverage. Containing five essential electrolytes critical for fluid balance, coconut water rehydrates the body more efficiently than water and is lower in sugar than commercial sports drinks or fruit juice.
In the bulk isle, coconut can be found pre-packaged in shredded or flake form. Both are organic and unsulfured. Dried coconut can jazz up any meal from breakfast to a midnight snack. Just a handful adds zest to homemade trail mix, granola and salads of all sorts. Shredded coconut also makes a fabulous gluten-free “breading” for chicken or tofu.
In the refrigerated section, coconut yogurt and kefir provide the goodness of MCFAs along with a healthy dose of vegan-friendly probiotics. The silky texture and richness of coconut milk make a great substitute for cultured dairy products. The coconut yogurt and kefir found at the Co-op are gluten-free, soy-free, and nut-free, making them a great choice for anyone avoiding the major allergens.
Naturally indulgent, coconut milk was made for “ice cream.” Coconut milk frozen dessert comes in a variety of flavors from Mango Pineapple to Cookie Dough and is sure to satisfy even the most die-hard dairy lovers. Although it remains a dessert, the product contains the beneficial properties of MCFAs, giving you all the more reason to enjoy it.