The wonderful thing about coconut is the fact that it is super versatile. Walk inside your local health food store and you will discover an array of coconut products, everything from coconut oil to healthy coconut-based snacks and skincare products.
As well as having a never-ending number of uses, coconuts have so many health benefits too. Coconut is one of the richest sources of natural saturated fats and medium chain fatty acids, with almost 90 percent of the fatty acids in it being saturated. People are often concerned by its saturated fat content and are under the misconception that this means it’s unhealthy, but almost 50 percent of the fatty acids in coconut are a health saturated fat called lauric acid.
When lauric acid is digested, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both monolaurin and lauric acid can kill harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi. This is what gives coconut its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. In addition to this, lauric acid raises the levels of ‘healthy’ HDL cholesterol and helps to convert the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol into good cholesterols.
As well as clearing cholesterol and fighting off bacteria, research has shown that these medium chain fatty acids also improve metabolism, aid in digestion and ward of depression.
Coconuts are also highly nutritious, they are packed with a variety of essential vitamins and minerals, including iron, selenium, calcium, magnesium and vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6.
Cooking Oil Alternative
In recent years coconut oil has soared in popularity, with people swapping the olive or sunflower oil in their kitchen cupboard for it.
“Coconut oil has numerous reported benefits, largely coming from the medium chain triglycerides in it – such as lauric acid and caproic acid,” comments Al Shariat, director of Coconut Merchant Ltd. “Another great benefit of coconut oil is it naturally has no cholesterol and a high heat point, which means you can cook with it and it will keep its benefits – unlike olive oil, which is great at low temperatures and better in salads.”
Due to coconuts having a very high saturated fat content, when used for high-heat cooking, such as frying, it can retain its structure – preventing it from being converted into toxic compounds when heated, which is what happens to other oils. Saturated fats retain their structure when heated at high temperatures, unlike the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils. This makes coconut oil a safer alternative for high-heat cooking.
It’s not just useful for frying though, Shariat explains: “The question really becomes, what can’t you do with coconut oil? It’s great inside and out. You can cook with it, fry with it, roast with it, spread it and bake with it! You can also use it as a moisturiser, hair conditioner, and even natural make up remover!”
Skin and Hair Saviour
That’s right, that pot of coconut oil in your kitchen can also be used as a beauty treatment. Coconut oil is wonderful for both skin and hair as it’s highly moisturising.
For skincare, use it as an all-over body moisturiser straight after a bath and shower. You can also use in on your face morning and night, and it’s fantastic at removing make-up. Simple apply all over your face and use a muslin cloth to wipe off and remove your make-up.
Coconut oil is great as a lip balm, simply pop a couple of teaspoons of it in a small pot and apply when needed, and for healing cuticles, just massage a tiny amount into your cuticles a couple times a week to keep them healthy. It can also help restore cracked heels, spread a generous layer on your heels at bedtime, pop on your socks and leave on while you sleep – continue on a daily basis until your heels are repaired and smooth.
It can also be used to care for your hair too. Before bedtime scoop a generous portion of coconut oil from the tub and warm it in your hands until it all turns to liquid, then apply to the ends of your hair up to your scalp. Leave on overnight and wash your hair as normal. You will be left with super soft, shiny and smooth locks.
Coconut oil has really taken off in terms of beauty and is often used as a key ingredient in moisturisers, body scrubs, soap, face masks, haircare products and make-up.
Delicious Milk and Water
It’s not just coconut oil that has many benefits and uses, coconut milk and water are also super versatile.
Coconut milk is a delicious, dairy-free alternative to cow’s milk; drink it straight from the glass, use it in milk and tea, and add it to smoothies. It’s also great in curry and soup dishes and can be used in your morning porridge and baking recipes, such as cakes and cookies, as a replacement for traditional milk or nut milks.
“Coconut milk is naturally lactose free, so is a great way to add some creamy flavour to dishes for people with lactose intolerance,” explains Shariat. “It’s a staple all round the world, use it to add a creamy richness to your Asian, Caribbean and African cooking.
“A common misconception is that coconut milk is measured by the percentage of coconut, though an important indicator of quality is better measured by the fat content and the ingredients – good coconut milk should be at around 17 percent fat per 100ml and you want to avoid unnecessary ingredients. There should be three ingredients max: coconut, water, guar gum or another organic stabiliser.”
Coconut water is different to coconut milk, coconut water is the clear liquid found in the centre of young coconuts – coconut milk is from the flesh of the coconut. Even though coconut water does not contain any of the fat derived from the flesh, it is high in potassium – which is essential for heart health and good skeletal and muscular function.
Improve Dental Health
Due to coconut oil’s antibacterial properties, it’s a powerful weapon against bacteria, including Streptococcus mutans – the bacteria in the mouth which causes dental health problems, such as dental plaque, tooth decay and gum disease.
To keep your mouth healthy, you can use coconut oil for oil pulling. This is when you swish the oil in your mouth for 10 minutes. Studies have found that oil pulling with coconut oil reduced these bacteria as effectively as rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash. In another study, swishing daily with coconut oil was found to significantly reduce inflammation and plaque in teenagers with gingivitis.
Selecting a Coconut Oil
There’s so many available on the market it can be difficult knowing which one to buy. You will come across labels such as virgin, extra-virgin, organic, cold pressed and centrifuged – but what exactly does this all mean?
Virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconut meat with minimal application of heat or chemicals. There is no industry standard for extra-virgin, so if you see a coconut oil labelled as this, it’s the same as those labelled virgin.
Pure coconut oil is extracted by manual compression, known as cold pressing, from dried coconut kernels. The oil is basically squeezed out of the coconut with no heating methods – so the nutrients are retained. Pure coconut oil is unrefined and free from additives.
Centrifuge and expeller are the two other methods of extracting oil from the coconut. During the centrifuge process the coconut meat is emptied into a machine that chops it into smaller pieces. The milk is then extracted from the meat, and then the remaining coconut is placed in a high-speed centrifuge that rapidly spins the contents which separates the oil from the meat. This process generates a high amount of heat due to friction; which experts argue can destroy the coconut’s nutrients.
In the expeller process, heated coconut is placed into a barrel and a rotating metal rod crushes and breaks it down, this is to prepare the meat for oil extraction. The extractor then uses a chemical solvent to separate the coconut and the oil. Further refining is often necessary to cleanse the extract.
When you see the label organic, it means the oil has been extracted from coconuts that are grown on organic manure – with no synthetic fertilisers or insecticides used during the growing process. It also means no chemicals have been used during the extraction process.
So, when you’re looking for a coconut oil, look for those labelled as pure organic virgin coconut oil – that way you can be assured that the coconut oil is of the highest quality.
There are so many coconut alternatives available now, look in your local health
food store to discover:
▶ Coconut flour (gluten-free)
▶ Coconut vinegar (substitute for apple cider vinegar)
▶ Coconut milk (dairy-free)
▶ Coconut oil (substitute for butter, vegetable oils and olive oil)
▶ Plus coconut sugar, jam, nectar, water