Coconut: The pros and cons

I’ve received several reactions to my recent post about coconut, some positive and some negative. As it is such a popular topic, I’ve decided discuss the pros and cons of coconut products in more detail.

There are several different coconut products on the market, each with different health advantages and disadvantages. Coconut water is the fluid that naturally occurs in the centre of the coconut, usually a green, unripe one. You then have fresh coconut flesh and dried coconut flesh (desiccated coconut). Coconut milk and coconut oil are made by soaking grated coconut flesh in hot water.  The coconut “cream” rises to the top and is skimmed off to make coconut oil. The remaining liquid is filtered to make “light” coconut milk. Standard tinned coconut milk mixes the two back together, which is why you sometimes get separation in the tin.

So we’ll start by comparing the basic nutrition for 100g of each:

Table 1: Nutritional information for 100g of popular coconut products.

Product Calories (kcal) Protein (g) Carbohydrates (g) Sugars (g) Fibre (g) Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g)
Coconut water 27 0.4 4.7 4.7 2.2 0.3 0.2
Tinned coconut milk 177 1.0 2.6 1.1 0.5 18 15.7
Coconut flesh, fresh 376 3.8 3.5 3.5 12.2 36 31.4
Desiccated coconut 648 6.6 6.1 6.1 21.1 62 53
Coconut oil 899 0.01 0 0 0 100 87

As you can see from the table above, coconut flesh contains quite a bit of fibre and is low in sugars, especially for a fruit. However, it is high in fats, especially saturated fats. There is convincing evidence that eating a lot of saturated fats raises LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is why the UK government recommends an adult woman get less than 20g of saturated fats per day.

The issue is saturated fats are not one thing but a group of different chemicals that can have different effects on the body. For example, the type of saturated fats found in meat and dairy are mostly myristic and palmitic acids. While coconut is high in saturated fats, they are mostly lauric acid, a different type. Recent research has shown that while lauric acid raises LDL cholesterol, it also raises HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) by the same or possibly an even greater amount. This means the negative effect is cancelled out or even replaced by a slightly positive effect.

And this is one of the reasons it has become so popular. Here we have a fat that is solid at room temperature like butter, but does not have the “bad” saturated fatty acids. Plus it is vegetarian and vegan friendly. So many food companies, especially those with a healthy lifestyle image, have started replacing the butter or margarine in their products with coconut oil.

The second reason coconut products are so popular is that some of them are high in various minerals, as shown in the table below. In particular, anything with coconut flesh is higher in iron than many plant based foods. Coconut is also very high in potassium, an important electrolyte. As all cells and therefore all foods contain some potassium, it is hard to become deficient. But like all electrolytes, potassium can be lost in sweat and through illness (i.e. vomiting and diarrhoea). This is why coconut water has become popular as a natural sports drink and is used as a rehydration solution for sick children in many developing countries. However, if someone is seriously dehydrated, coconut water does not contain enough salt (sodium and chloride) to be an effective rehydration solution.

Unfortunately, coconut does not contain much calcium compared to other foods. If you are a vegan looking to get your 300mg a day of calcium, you are better off with a calcium fortified glass of soy milk (250mg) or a cup of baked beans (125mg).

Table 2: Mineral content of 100g of popular coconut products.

 Product Sodium (mg) Chloride (mg) Potassium (mg) Calcium (mg) Magnesium (mg) Iron (mg)
Coconut water 110 180 280 29 30 0.1
Tinned coconut milk 10.5 55 185 8 21 1.1
Coconut flesh, fresh 17 110 370 13 41 2.1
Desiccated coconut 28 200 660 23 90 3.6
Coconut oil 0 0 0 0 0 0

As a nutritionist, the issue I have is that whether the fats in coconut are “good” or “bad” there are still a lot of them and they are still high in calories. Simply put, while there are some differences in the way certain fats and carbohydrates are used by the body, eating too many calories will cause you to store fat. So while I do enjoy coconut products on occasion, I am not a fan of them being added to every kind of “health” food.

The Score for 4 March:

Calories: Protein: Carbs: Sugars: Fat: Sat Fat: Fibre:  
2393 104.62g 297.17g 137.96g 85.40g 30.47g 25.67g
18% 50% 32%
Calories burned through exercise: 0

What I ate:

Time Item Amount Calories Protein Carbs Sugars Fibre Fat Sat Fat Alcohol
09:00 Centrum Multivitamin,  Vitamin E 400IU, Vitamin D 25 µg
Tap water 250mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Basted eggs, two large 111g 145 13.99 0.00 0.00 0.00 9.99 2.78 0.00
Genius brown bread, two slices toasted 63g 158 1.58 28.35 1.51 6.30 4.16 0.32 0.00
with butter 5g 37 0.03 0.06 0.03 0.00 4.11 2.61 0.00
and St Dalfour Raspberry fruit spread 23g 54 0.12 12.88 12.88 0.46 0.18 0.00 0.00
Black Tea 450mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
12:30 Homemade Chicken and roasted butternut squash risotto 350g 290 19.93 42.37 5.39 3.22 4.02 0.55 0.00
Sliced raw tomato 98g 20 0.70 3.10 3.10 1.00 0.30 0.10 0.00
Kiwi, two medium 97g 53 1.10 10.60 10.30 1.90 0.50 0.00 0.00
13:45 Raspberry sponge cake with butter cream filling about 100g 389 3.30 57.40 30.00 0.80 16.10 8.00 0.00
Chai tea latte, from teabag about 250mL 145 9.00 17.00 17.00 0.00 4.50 2.75 0.00
17:00 Yeo Valley natural yoghurt 150g 123 7.65 8.40 8.40 0.00 6.75 4.35 0.00
Natures Path Mesa Sunrise cereal 50g 195 5.00 40.00 6.50 5.00 1.65 0.25 0.00
Sliced nectarine 106g 47 1.47 9.45 9.45 1.26 0.11 0.00 0.00
Sunflower seeds 5g 30 1.04 0.57 0.13 0.43 2.58 0.23 0.00
Pumpkin seeds 5g 30 1.51 0.54 0.07 0.30 2.46 0.44 0.00
Fresh ginger tea with a splash of lemon juice and 1 tsp honey 250mL 25 0.00 6.25 6.25 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
20:00 Spice tailor tikka masala curry sauce with chicken breasts and red peppers 281g 452 33.44 19.23 15.62 3.48 26.17 7.38 0.00
Brown basmati rice 110g 126 3.17 26.08 0.43 1.22 1.04 0.25 0.00
Yoomoo yoghurt ice lolly, tropical fruit 1 lolly 74 1.60 14.90 10.90 0.30 0.80 0.50 0.00

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