Why's Everyone So Coconut-Crazy

Natural food enthusiasts and the health industry are abuzz over this tropical tree fruit. We dug into this trend to reveal coconuts' nutritional pros and cons.

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Coconut Primer

If you love food as much as we do, you’ve probably noticed that in the past year coconut has undergone an extreme makeover. Once vilified as a high-fat food on the do-not-eat list, coconut is now a darling of the health food movement, with coconut oil, flour, water, sugar and flakes making an appearance in health-forward recipes. But are all these ingredients truly good for you?

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is composed of 92% saturated fat — far more than most other fats and oils. While saturated fat is generally linked to higher cholesterol levels (which can raise your risk of stroke and heart disease), the type of saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly made up of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides), which are less likely to be stored as fat than the LCTs (long-chain triglycerides) that are commonly found in butter and other oils. MCTs instead go directly to the liver to be burned off as fuel. Coconut oil also has lauric acid, which has some antibacterial properties. (Coconut oil's high saturated-fat percentage also means it has a high smoking point, which makes it great for sauteing food at high temperatures.)

Coconut Flour

Coconut flour has gained popularity among Paleo dieters and others who shun grains. It’s made from the dehydrated flesh of coconuts. Among its health benefits, it’s super high in fiber (5 grams in just 2 tablespoons), low in carbohydrates and relatively high in protein. It soaks up a lot of water, so cooks recommend you use a 1:1 ratio of coconut flour to liquid. You also need much less of it than grain-based flour, so you should experiment to get the best results.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the liquid found inside young coconuts. It's low in calories, with a slightly sweet flavor. It's prized as an electrolyte-rich beverage. In fact, during World War II and the Vietnam War, it was used as an emergency IV fluid! It is high in potassium, magnesium and calcium, but low in sodium. That’s not a bad thing if you’re drinking it in place of water, but if you're using it as a sports recovery beverage after a long, hard workout, you'll need to make sure you also eat or drink something with salt in it (like bread or milk).

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is made from the sap of flower buds on coconut palm trees (which is why it’s often called “coconut palm sugar”). Since it’s not made from the coconut fruit, it doesn’t really taste like coconut –– it’s more similar to brown sugar. Less refined than white sugar, it also has trace amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, including potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin C and many of the B vitamins. But gram for gram it has just as many calories and carbohydrates as table sugar. The American Diabetes Association says to treat it like any other sugar and use sparingly.

Coconut Flakes

Coconut flakes are made from the flesh of coconuts. They’re much larger than shredded coconut pieces, so they really stand up in recipes where you want some texture (like in granola, this baked shrimp dish or even kale chips). Look for “unsweetened coconut.” This kind has a naturally sweet coconut flavor without unhealthy added sugars. A quarter cup of coconut flakes delivers fiber, copper and manganese. However, it also delivers half a day’s worth of saturated fat. And while some saturated fat is good, that doesn’t mean more is better. So use these sparingly as well.