Coconut is celebrated for its low sugar and high healthy fat content. Commercially sold products include water, oil, milk, juice, sugar, and even flour— and each one touts a dense nutritional content of antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. What does the science say?
This post first appeared in November 2016 and the market statistics were updated in February 2019
Coconut products are available in a variety of forms. From raw products like coconut water, fresh coconut meat, and coconut oil to processed products like coconut palm sugar, coconut flour, and coconut flavoring, consumers are going nuts for this proclaimed “superfood.”
The seemingly endless health claims include high in vitamins, high in minerals, high in fiber, healthy saturated fat content, aids digestion, antiviral and antifungal properties, antioxidants, and electrolytes.
Coconut products are officially mainstream and (because of the perceived health benefits) they appear to be here to stay. According to some industry estimates, the Coconut Water Market is expected to exceed more than US$ 2.7 Billion by 2024 at a CAGR of 15% between 2017 and 2024.
But before we hop on the coconut bandwagon, the D2D team wanted to make sure that these health claims are substantiated by scientific research. While we found many small, short term studies that indicated coconuts are a healthy addition to your diet, there is still a significant need for long term research and human trials to conclude that coconuts can provide these health benefits over time.
Saturated Fat and Digestion
One of the claims surrounding coconut products, particularly the products that are made from coconut meat (like coconut oil) is the “healthy fat” claim. As we reviewed in our article “Fat: Our New Friend,” new research indicates that consumption of healthy fats can help increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) (the good cholesterol), which helps your body regulate overall cholesterol levels and possibly lower your LDL cholesterol levels. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, coconut oil gives your body a good HDL cholesterol boost, which can actually help improve overall blood cholesterol levels.
The most prominent fatty acid in coconut meat is lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). Lauric acid is considered a healthy saturated fat because of its composition. MCT fatty acids are easily absorbed by the human body. This means the fatty acid is easily broken down, used for energy, and can help aid digestion.
A very small study published in 2003 by the Journal of Nutrition followed 11 women over a 20-22 day period and studied the effects of high-fat versus low-fat coconut oil consumption. The research found that the women who consumed high-fat coconut oil demonstrated the biggest reduction in inflammation markers as well as markers for heart disease risk.
Definitive research on the health content of coconut oil only exists in the short term, so there is no certainty over how the high-fat content of coconut oil affects heart disease or long term heart health.
Anti-fungal and Anti-bacterial
Beyond the cholesterol and potential weight loss benefits of healthy fatty acids, the fat content of coconuts is also believed to have anti-bacterial properties. In a 2004 study published by the Journal of Medicinal Food, the antimicrobial properties of coconuts were proven to be a treatment of fungal infections. The lauric acid content of coconuts is believed to “kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” However, there is a lack of research to substantiate this claim. While the fatty acid in coconut may have some antibacterial properties, there is no long term research that validates coconut oil as an antibacterial agent.
Antioxidant, Electrolytes, Vitamins and Minerals
Coconuts are particularly high in B vitamins, like B6, B2 (riboflavin), and B1 (thiamine). B vitamins are a good source of energy and can give your body a quick pick me up. Coconut meat is also high in vitamin C, which helps boost your immune system, is an antioxidant, and helps aid digestion.
In addition to a rich vitamin complex, coconuts have a dense mineral content. These minerals include potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorous, manganese, iron, and calcium. Of these minerals, potassium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous, and magnesium are electrolytes.
These minerals may also be good for your blood pressure as high potassium content can balance some of the negative effects of sodium. A 2005 study published by the West Indian Medical Journal found that 71% of participants that were given coconut water experienced a decrease in blood pressure.
Lastly, coconuts are believed to have a strong antioxidant component. But, as we learned in our recent article on chocolate, antioxidant content is very complex. Unfortunately, there is very little research that proves the effects of antioxidants in the human body. However, in a 2007 study performed over a 45-day period on rats, researchers at the University of Kerala found that animals fed virgin coconut oil had higher antioxidant vitamin levels at the end of the study than the animals fed sunflower oil or copra oil (which is oil from more mature coconuts). Additionally, a 2013 study conducted in Brazil determined green dwarf coconuts exhibited antioxidant properties.
If you are incorporating coconut into your diet there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Coconut meat is high in fat, dietary fiber, and minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, and phosphorous.
- Coconut water contains the same minerals as well as amino acids, electrolytes, and B-complex vitamins.
- Stick to the raw, unrefined options. Unprocessed coconuts (both juice and meat) will provide the most nutritional value.
- Be mindful of serving size! One serving of coconut water (8 ounces) contains roughly 14 grams of sugar. As we have discussed in “Sugar is Sugar”, that is roughly half of the added sugar recommended per day.
- As with all fats, overconsumption can cause cholesterol to rise—even if you are overconsuming healthy fats!
Source: Harmless Harvest
The Bottom Line:
The health benefits reliably associated with the consumption of coconut are healthy fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. When incorporating coconut into your diet, look for unrefined products to gain the most nutritional value.