Solutions

Is coconut the new superfood?

Some experts are hailing this tropical food as a superfood that can promote digestive health as well as fight infections and improve brain function. Here's how you can use it in its different forms.
 

WATER
Refreshing and cooling, coconut water is cholesterol-free and low in calories and fat, while high in potassium and magnesium - minerals essential to your health. Pooja Vig, a nutritionist and co-founder of The Nutrition Clinic, recommends it as a good drink for those who exercise. It is best obtained from young green coconuts, which have the highest water content.

Coconut water can also help relieve constipation and prevent kidney stones, says Pooja, as it is a natural diuretic and promotes digestive health. If you're pregnant, the minerals and fluids in coconut water are especially nourishing, according to Pooja.

It is available at sports stores as dehydrated coconut water, a powder that you can mix with water, but Pooja advises going with fresh coconut whenever it is available. 

HAVE IT... Chilled, or as a drink with a spicy meal, or a pick-me-up on a hot afternoon.

FLESH
Fresh coconut flesh is high in fibre, minerals, and the healthier kinds of saturated fats. The medium-chain triglycerides in it are a type of fat that is easily digested and absorbed, and can be quickly burnt to release energy. 

Choose young, green coconuts as their flesh is softer and more succulent than that of their more mature counterparts.

HAVE IT... Fresh, by scooping it straight from the fruit. Or blend it with yogurt, berries or bananas for a nutritious and delicious breakfast smoothie. You can even blend it to make a smooth butter (or liquid, depending on the temperature) that can be spread on bread or added to ice cream for extra flavour. Shredded coconut flesh can also be lightly browned over medium-low heat to bring out a stronger fragrance.

MILK
Make coconut milk by scooping out the meat and putting it in a blender, then straining it. It's high in protein, potassium, iron and zinc.

Coconut milk is often used to flavour curries and other Asian dishes because of its rich texture and taste, but it should be consumed in moderation because it's high in calories and fat (one cup has 445 calories and 48g of fat). 

It's a good dietary substitute for vegetarians or for those with food sensitivities, as it does not contain dairy or gluten. 

HAVE IT... Stirred into chicken curry, or with Thai sticky rice with mango - an indulgent after-meal treat.

OIL
Made from coconut flesh blended with water, this multi-purpose product can be used as a condiment and health supplement. "Coconut oil was treated with a lot of skepticism because of its high levels of saturated fat, but the whole question as to whether all fats are bad is being re-looked at in a big way," says Pooja.

About half the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has antibacterial and antiviral properties. Pooja adds that many benefits have been attributed to taking coconut oil - it is said to boost resistance to disease, give you an energy boost, and improve thyroid function (which can help you gain or loose weight).

Some US studies have also found that coconut oil is a source of ketones, with which the body can fuel the brain. As it is a brain food and a good source of energy, Pooja recommends cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil as a supplement for active schoolgoing children. Give it to them the same way you would fish oil - by the spoonful.

coconut oil can improve oral health as well, through a method called oil pulling, where you swish a tablespoonful of the oil around your mouth for 10-15 minutes before spitting it out. This helps remove bacteria and fungi, cleaning the mouth, teeth, gums and throat. However, oil pulling can be hard to do if you are not used to it.

HAVE IT... By the spoonful. If you're new to taking coconut oil, start with one teaspoon a day in the morning.

If you're concerned about the saturated fat content, Pooja recommends swopping some of the vegetable oil you use in stir-fries for virgin coconut oil. "If you make a switch, you're not necessarily adding extra fat," she says.

SUGAR
The brown sugar obtained from the sap of the coconut palm's cut flowers looks like powdered gula melaka, but has a distinct coconut flavour. 

As coconut palm sap undergoes a natural two-step evaporation process to become sugar, the end product is a natural sweetener that retains its minerals, including calcium, iron, zinc and potassium. Coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index (GI) than regular sugar, which means that consuming it does not result in as high a sugar spike. However, it has the same number of calories as regular sugar, so it should still be enjoyed in moderation. Coconut sugar can be found in health stores.

HAVE IT... Sprinkled on yogurt or as an additional flavouring in plain vanilla cupcake batter.

DESICCATED
Desiccated coconut is made by drying coconut flesh and grating it finely. An excellent source of fibre, it can help prevent constipation and improve the digestive system. It is also high in protein and iron, and can thus help to maintain the health of your muscles and tissues. 

Desiccated coconut is used in various Asian and western dishes and desserts, but it can also be a replacement for flour if you are on a gluten-free diet. 

HAVE IT... Mixed into biscuit batter ot make delicious coconut biscuits.

This story was originally published in Simply Her July 2014.