When does a regular food become a super food? When it has lots of dough spent on promotion. And the over-hyped, “super” food of the moment is coconut: the Kardashian of the food world due to abundant self-promotion. Its uber-cool aura has now drifted from the health nuts to normal folk who are apparently caught; hook, line and sinker.
I love coconut for its flavour, texture and versatility in the kitchen. What I hate is amateur nutritionists encouraging coconut oil in everything because “it helps lose weight”, and the shameless marketers and their misleading advertising and PR. If I see another dodgy, unfounded, exaggerated and pseudo-scientific claim about the superiority of anything to do with coconut I think I’ll scream. And it’s often a svelte, whippet of a trainer preaching to podgy, office-dwelling clients about ditching their usual oil and switching to coconut oil for cooking and dressing because “it won’t turn to fat” and “it’s good for the heart”. Talk about tinkering around the edges; adding coconut oil will not health-ify an average diet. This is a classic case of wanting your cake and eating it too in a world filled with too much cake. The evidence for coconut oil helping with weight loss and cholesterol is scant. In fact, the position of heart health organisations around the world is to caution against too much coconut fat because it is 90% saturated fat and likely to increase bad LDL cholesterol.
Now, let’s get back to good things about coconut. It’s a very clever food which yields many different products: coconut water (fat-free liquid from inside the coconut), coconut flesh that can be eaten fresh or dried (desiccated), or squeezed to make oil, milk and cream. Nowadays there’s even coconut milk yoghurt, coconut flour, coconut sugar, coconut syrup and even coconut vinegar – très exotique! This product diversity is born of necessity in countries for which coconuts are a staple crop, but they’ve taken on new-age cachet (and premium price) in our natural food stores because they are interesting and different.
- Coconut flour is gluten-free, which is great for those with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. It is also high in fibre and therefore absorbs a lot of liquid in cooking so be sure to use recipes developed with coconut flour to ensure they work.
- Coconut sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm and has a low GI value (GI 54, see Product News below for more details). Although it contains small amounts of minerals, it contains just as many kilojoules (calories) as regular table sugar and enjoyed in moderation contributes very low levels of nutrients, which are found in everyday core foods in greater amounts anyway.
- Dried coconut is fabulous in baking because it adds chewy texture, subtle coconut flavour and desirable moistness to cakes, loaves and biscuits (cookies). And I really enjoy ribbons of dried shredded organic coconut from the local farmers market in my muesli.
- Coconut water has a little natural sugar and low levels of electrolytes, minerals and antioxidants and tastes refreshingly different, but it doesn’t live up to the marketing hype. I don’t mind the occasional coconut water (although I know many others don’t as they don’t like the taste). The Nudie brand has been tested and has a GI value of 55. (The 350ml serving provided 18 grams available carbohydrate and the glycemic load is 10 which is considered low.)
- Coconut milk is lower in fat at 24%, (and there are light (fat-reduced) versions available) than coconut cream, which as the name suggests is rich and high in fat at around 35%. I like to add coconut milk to a Thai or Indian chicken curry. Sticky rice in coconut milk is a classic South East Asian not-too-sweet and terrifically different dessert.
- Coconut milk yoghurt alternative is dairy free and much higher in fat and kilojoules than regular dairy yoghurt.
There’s a lot to love about coconut, provided you take the marketing hype with a large grain of salt.