All these grey skies have most of us craving a tropical escape – white sands, palm trees, the sweet scent of coconut. Luckily, the latter's surge in popularity has led to the release of scores of coconut products. Coconut oil, milk, water – the (sunny) sky's the limit.
And based on what you may have heard, the health benefits of coconut could be just as limitless. But is that really the case? It seems to be in direct contradiction to what we know about coconut's nutritional breakdown...
Coconut Oil: Heart Healthy?
Coconut is one of the only plant sources of saturated fats, which are normally only found in animal foods like meat and dairy. Getting too much saturated fat increases our LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, so many health organizations – the FDA, World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, and more – recommend consuming only small amounts.But compared to other sources of saturated fats, coconut has a larger proportion of a type called medium-chain fatty acids. Some studies indicate that these can have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. Indeed, they are linked to higher HDL ("good" cholesterol). However, they can also increase LDL. Keep in mind that this is an emerging area of research.
Until we know more, I think it's fine to use coconut oil in cooking and baking.
Just be mindful of the saturated fat content in the context of your overall eating pattern.
Coconut Milk: Better than Dairy?
Don't forget about any coconut milk you drink; those aforementioned fats show up there, as well. Now although coconut milk is now found in the dairy aisle, it's not nutritionally the same as cow's milk. It may be slightly lower in calories, but is low in protein and other nutrients compared to dairy milk. This can become an issue over time if we don't make up the difference somewhere else, especially for growing children.
Coconut milk can be a nice addition to a smoothie or a beverage option for those who are lactose intolerant, but read those labels and be careful to make up those nutrients elsewhere.
Coconut Water: Nature's Sports Drink?
How about coconut water, which is being marketed as nature's sports drink? Coconut water does naturally contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which need to be replenished after intense exercise. But first, ask yourself if you've worked out hard enough to even need that. (Hint: You probably don't, unless you're doing extended vigorous exercise or you sweat profusely).
Also, consider how coconut water stacks up to sports drinks. Sports drinks typically have about 100 milligrams of sodium and 40 milligrams of potassium per cup. Compare that to a wide range of 40-250 milligrams of sodium and 600-700 milligrams of potassium per cup of coconut water. Chugging coconut water on a regular basis could potentially lead to high levels of potassium in the blood; for people with kidney and heart problems, this can be life-threatening.
Coconut water can also be a bit expensive and depending on the brand, it can be high in sugar (like typical sports drinks). But hey – if you're looking to add a little variety to your beverage choices now and then, I'm all for it.
So, yea or nay?
The moral of the story is that despite the hype, coconut products aren't necessarily worth going nuts over. As much as we'd like to believe it, there's no such thing as magic foods or miracle cures. But are coconut products worth a try for a little novelty and – dare I say – a tropical escape? You'd better believe it.
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.