The Versatile Coconut Fruit
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Coconut is the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It’s used for its water, milk, oil, and tasty meat. Coconuts have been grown in tropical regions for more than 4,500 years but recently increased in popularity for their flavor, culinary uses, and potential health benefits (1).
Here are 5 health and nutrition benefits of coconut.
Types of coconut products
The raw white meat inside a coconut is referred to as the kernel. It has a firm texture and delicious, slightly sweet flavor (2). If you have a whole coconut, you can scrape the raw meat out of the shell and eat it. In its processed form, you’ll usually find it sliced, shaved, or grated (2, 3). Coconut milk and cream are made by pressing the raw, grated meat (2, 3). Dried coconut meat is usually grated or shaved and used in cooking or baking. It can be further processed and ground into flour (2, 3). Coconut oil is also extracted from the meat (2, 3, 4Trusted Source).
SUMMARY Coconut meat is tasty and slightly sweet, and you can enjoy it raw or dried. Many related products are produced from it, including coconut milk, cream, and oil.
1. Highly nutritious Unlike many other fruits that are high in carbs, coconuts provide mostly fat (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source). They also contain protein, several important minerals, and small amounts of B vitamins. However, they’re not a significant source of most other vitamins (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source). The minerals in coconut are involved in many functions in your body. Coconuts are especially high in manganese, which is essential for bone health and the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and cholesterol (8Trusted Source). They’re also rich in copper and iron, which help form red blood cells, as well as selenium, an important antioxidant that protects your cells. Much of the fat in coconut is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source). Your body metabolizes MCTs differently than other types of fats, absorbing them directly from your small intestine and rapidly using them for energy (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source). One review on the benefits of MCTs in people with obesity found these fats may promote body fat loss when eaten in place of long-chain saturated fats from animal foods (14Trusted Source).
SUMMARY Although coconut meat is high in fat, the MCTs it contains may help you lose excess body fat. The meat also provides carbs and protein along with many essential minerals, such as manganese, copper, iron, and selenium.
2. May benefit heart health Studies have found that people who live on Polynesian islands and frequently eat coconut meat have lower rates of heart disease than those who follow a Western diet (10Trusted Source). However, native Polynesians also eat more fish and less processed foods, so it’s unclear if these lower rates are due to eating coconut or other aspects of their diet (10Trusted Source). Another study in 1,837 Filipino women found that those who ate more coconut oil not only had higher levels of HDL (good) cholesterol but also higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides (10Trusted Source). Overall, it concluded that coconut oil has a neutral effect on cholesterol levels (10Trusted Source). Consuming virgin coconut oil, which is extracted from dried coconut meat, may reduce belly fat. This is especially beneficial because excess belly fat increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes (14Trusted Source, 15). A study in 20 people with obesity found the waist size of male participants decreased by an average of about 1 inch (about 3 cm) after they consumed 1 ounce (30 ml) of virgin coconut oil daily for 4 weeks. The female participants did not experience a significant reduction (16Trusted Source). However, in one longer study, women who consumed 1 ounce (30 ml) of refined coconut oil daily for 12 weeks experienced a reduction of 0.5 inches (1.4 cm) from their waist measurement, on average (17Trusted Source).
SUMMARY Eating coconut may improve cholesterol levels and help decrease belly fat, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
3. May promote blood sugar control Coconut is low in carbs and high in fiber and fat, so it may help stabilize your blood sugar. One rat study found that coconut had antidiabetic effects, possibly due to its arginine content. Arginine is an amino acid that’s important for the functioning of pancreatic cells, which release the hormone insulin to regulate your blood sugar levels (18Trusted Source). When rats with diabetes were fed protein made from coconut meat, their blood sugar, insulin levels, and other glucose metabolism markers were much better than those that didn’t eat coconut protein (18Trusted Source). In addition, beta cells in their pancreas started making more insulin — a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. Researchers suspected the improved beta-cell function was also due to the high amounts of arginine found in coconut (18Trusted Source). The high fiber content of coconut meat can also help slow digestion and improve insulin resistance, which can help regulate blood sugar levels as well (19Trusted Source).
SUMMARY Coconut is low in carbs and rich in amino acids, healthy fats, and fiber, making it a great choice for blood sugar control.
4. Contains powerful antioxidants Coconut meat contains phenolic compounds, which are antioxidants that may help protect cells from oxidative damage. The main phenolic compounds identified include (20):
Lab tests on coconut meat have shown that it has antioxidant and free-radical-scavenging activity (20). The polyphenols found in it can prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, making it less likely to form plaques in arteries that can increase the risk of heart disease (4Trusted Source). Some test-tube and animal studies have also shown that antioxidants found in coconut oil may help protect cells from damage and death caused by oxidative stress and chemotherapy (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
SUMMARY Coconuts contain polyphenol antioxidants that can protect your cells from damage, which may reduce your disease risk.
5. Easy to add to your diet Flaked or shaved, coconut adds a nice flavor to savory dishes. Its meaty texture and flavor work well in curries, fish stews, rice dishes, or even on breaded shrimp. Be aware that some brands contain added sugar, which you may not want for savory dishes. Be sure to check the ingredient label. Shredded coconut is great for baking and adds a touch of natural sweetness and moisture to cookies, muffins, and quick breads. A sprinkle of raw coconut adds some texture and tropical flavor to oatmeal. Stirred into pudding or yogurt, it’s also a delicious calorie booster for someone who wants to gain weight. Coconut flour is used in baking as a substitute for wheat flour. It’s gluten-free, nut-free, and a popular option for anyone who’s counting carbs. Because it’s grain-free, the flour is also good for those on the paleo diet, which does not allow grain products like regular wheat flour. However, coconut flour is best used in recipes that have been tested, as it won’t rise like wheat flour and absorbs more liquid than other types of flour. Additionally, coconut oil is a delicious heat-stable fat that can be used in baking, sautéing, or roasting.
SUMMARY Coconut is versatile in the kitchen and works well in both sweet and savory foods. It’s a great choice for those on low-carb, paleo, gluten-free, or nut-free diets.
Because they’re so high in fat, coconuts are also high in calories. Depending on your calorie needs and intake, they might promote weight gain if you don’t account for the extra calories elsewhere in your diet. There still isn’t much good-quality research on coconut, cholesterol, and heart disease. Thus, while eating coconut in moderation is probably fine, you should ask your healthcare provider about it if you are at risk of developing heart disease. Additionally, some people are allergic to coconuts, though this is rare. If you have this allergy, you should avoid consuming all coconut-derived products.
SUMMARY Coconut is high in calories, so if you’re watching your weight, keep your portions small. Check with your healthcare provider about eating it if you have very high cholesterol or are at risk of heart disease.
The bottom line
Coconut is a high-fat fruit that has a wide range of health benefits. These include providing you with disease-fighting antioxidants, promoting blood sugar regulation, and reducing certain risk factors for heart disease. However, coconut is very high in fat and calories, so watch your portion sizes if you are trying to lose weight or need to follow a low-fat diet. Whether you eat it raw, dried, or as flour, coconut meat is delicious and easy to incorporate into both sweet and savory dishes.