A Closer Look at the Coconut Craze: Are These Tropical Fruits All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

Image courtesy of Flickr user neloqua
Image courtesy of Flickr user neloqua

It seems everyone is cuckoo for coconuts these days.

Coconut has emerged as a hot flavor trend – showing up in everything from ice cream and gelato to chips and snack bars. You couldn’t miss all the new coconut products at the Winter Fancy Food Show, according to The Food Channel, and at the Natural Products Expo (via Prepared Foods).

Mixologists are shaking up cocktails with coconut vodka.  And the morning after a few too many coconut cocktails, you can reach for coconut water – which is being touted as the perfect cure for a hangover.


Coconut water also has been anointed nature’s sports drink and cartons of the electrolyte-laden liquid are suddenly appearing  in gyms, yoga studios and the hands of the Hollywood elite.

Coconut oil is generating  big buzz of its own.  Some advocates claim it’s a health elixir that can prevent  heart disease, strengthen the immune system, cure cancer, fix a sluggish thyroid, burn fat and boost energy.

So  can one tropical fruit deliver all of this?

That’s the question I asked in my latest article in the Chicago Tribune.

I wasn’t sure that coconuts could really live up to all the hype, and I interviewed a couple of experts to get their thoughts.

‘The fluid of life’vitaco

Coconut water is naturally rich in potassium and this liquid found inside young, green coconuts has a long history as a medicinal drink in developing countries – including being used as an intravenous hydration fluid during medical emergencies.  This historical link to hydration  has paved the way for coconut water to become the new sports drink.

Liz Applegate, PhD, director of sports nutrition at University of California-Davis, thinks coconut water is fine to drink for hydration – if you like the taste.

One recent study that was presented at the American College of Sports Medicine found that coconut water did help athletes rehydrate after vigorous exercise.  In fact, it performed just as well as a commercial sports drink and better than plain water.  However, the coconut water was not as desirable to the athletes in the study, and Applegate said taste is key to encourage adequate hydration after a work-out.

“lf you enjoy the taste you’re apt to drink more, and that’s crucial to properly rehydrate after exercise,” said Applegate.  “if you take small sips, you may not drink enough to replace the fluids and electrolytes that were lost.”

Coconut water may fall short for the serious athlete who needs to refuel muscles after exercise.  Applegate said coconut water has fewer carbohydrates compared to commercial sports drinks so it may not be sufficient for longer workouts lasting an hour or more.   Plus, it lacks the sodium levels found in other sports drinks – which is the primary electrolyte that needs to be replaced after strenuous activity.  Applegate said she’s disturbed that the coconut water companies put so much emphasis on potassium to prevent cramping, because when you sweat you lose sodium.  “They’re promoting more misconceptions,” she said.

So what do I think?  Coconut water is lower in calories compared to soft drinks and juices, and unflavored varieties don’t contain added sugars.  So grabbing a carton of coconut water may be a better alternative than sugar-sweetened beverages.  You could certainly do a lot worse.  Drink coconut water if you enjoy the taste and you find it refreshing.  However, don’t expect the drink to “detoxify,” help you lose weight or make your skin smoother  — some of the additional claims linked to coconut water.

Slick marketingcoconut oil

Coconut oil is being heavily promoted on websites, where you can read stunning  testimonials about the oil’s ability to prevent and cure a range of ailments – statements that sparked a series of warning letters from the Food and Drug Administration citing unsubstantiated therapeutic claims.

Most of these sites that promote and sell coconut oil (including jars of virgin coconut oil and coconut oil supplements) originate from coconut-producing countries – including India, Indonesian and the Philippines.

Instead of research studies, you’ll find articles written by coconut oil advocates including naturopathic  physician Bruce Fife, director of the Coconut Research Center and  author of “The Coconut Oil Miracle,” and Mary Enig, vice president of the Weston  A. Price Foundation – an often controversial organization that is critical of “traditional diets” and extols the benefits of saturated fat.

Many of the arguments made by these coconut oil enthusiasts are related to the low rates of heart disease in tropical populations that have consumed large quantities of coconut oil for centuries.

Yet, that’s not reliable evidence, according to Linda Van Horn,  chair of the nutrition committee for the American Heart Association, who said other diet and lifestyle factors play a larger role.

“Those kinds of statements are always problematic,” she said.

Coconut oil may not contain cholesterol, but it’s  the most saturated of all fats – including butter.   It has 10 times more saturated fat compared to olive oil.

Saturated fat is the main culprit in raising blood cholesterol and the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of daily calories.  That translates to about 16 grams of saturated fat a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

As a consultant to the coconut industry, Enig  has made numerous presentations providing  an  update on her efforts to educate the American public on the benefits of coconut  oil. She calls  coconut oil  a “functional food” that is capable of not only fighting heart disease, but preventing cancer and treating AIDs.  She  recommends eating 3-5 tablespoons of coconut oil every day, which would add up to as much as 600 calories and 65 grams of saturated fat.

“Show us the data,” said Van Horn, who recently completed an extensive review of the scientific literature as  chair of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which reinforced the limits on saturated fats.  She said there are no clinical trials to support the claims made by the coconut industry, yet there is substantial evidence  to suggest the opposite is true.

Don’t you find it strange that the ONLY people who claim that coconut oil has such miraculous powers are those linked to the coconut-producing countries?  No independent scientists or health organizations are recommending that we go out and eat coconut oil by the spoonfuls to protect our health.  Yes, the saturated fat in coconut oil may differ from other saturated fats.  This much is true.  But there’s no scientific evidence that the fat in coconut has any protective effects.  Even if it’s neutral, there’s no reason to go out of your way to add coconut oil to your diet.

Plus, if you switch to coconut oil for cooking at home, you’re not only adding more  saturated fats to your diet, you’re missing out on the well-documented benefits  of olive oil and other unsaturated oils.  It’s not a trade I’d recommend.

Bottom line…

Coconuts are certainly enjoying their day in the sun, and there are now a bunch of  new ways to buy them. Eat coconuts because you enjoy them — not because you think they can work miracles.

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18 Comments

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  • Seth W.

    It sounds like the saturated fat condemnation will never die…..how sad. Even the American Heart Association says that you should take fish oil to combat heart disease risk — and what does (wild) fish contain a hefty amount of?? Omega 3s of course…. But why would anyone want to be taking in Omega 3s (or additional Omega 3s through supplements)? To combat the inflammation caused by Omega 6s. And where are Omega 6s found? — Unsaturated fats. So why the heck would we want to embrace unsaturated fats that have hefty amounts of Omega 6s and shun saturated fats that don’t cause inflammation (worthy to note that saturated fats raise LDL as well as HDL). There are numerous studies showing that there are peoples around the world that consume a larger portion of dietary calories from fat — even saturated (gasp!) and don’t have nearly as much heart disease as we do. It’s my belief (as well as many other educated folk) that refined carbohydrates, sugar and vegetable oils that contain hefty amounts of Omega 6 (but they’re liquid at room temp!!…..) are to blame for heart disease. This makes sense because we are the biggest consumer of that stuff and are suffering from heart disease, obesity and cancers (In fact I have an Organic and Biological Chemistry book in front of me here that states that polyunsaturated fats promote certain types of cancers – whoops).

    I also have to say that the quote from Van Horn regarding the low rates of heart disease in peoples who consume large amounts of saturated fats through coconut oils is pretty fallible. She says that other diet and lifestyle factors play a role —- however the fact still remains that they consume large amounts of saturated fat. Therefore one can conclude that saturated fat isn’t the causing heart disease. (Ummm by the way it’s crazy to me to think that coconut oil is a heart attack waiting to happen…Not to mention even fish that contain Omega 3s — as well as saturated fat! Same goes with nuts and seeds – they contain the stuff too.

    So no matter what I guess we’re screwed…I mean the stuff is in everything.

  • Thank you for this!! I have found it incredibly difficult to find solid information with all this coconut craze. I frequent your blog almost daily, and happen to have had an email from a follower of my blog this morning. Im the midst of my quest for coconut info, I clicked, like usual to your site, and hello- here are my answers 🙂 Thanks!

    And, thank you for being an inspiration to young dietitians like myself 🙂

  • Janet

    Amber,
    So glad my post was helpful! And really appreciate your kind comments! Keep up your great work!
    Best, Janet

  • Janet

    Seth,
    Thanks for your message…although I did have a bit of trouble following your argument. You make some good points…however, I firmly believe that the coconut oil claims are widely over blown. You cannot make comparisons to countries where coconut oil is heavily consumed. What else are these people eating…likely their diets are a far cry from what Americans typically eat.
    So what if coconut oil was neutral? Does that mean we need to gobble it up by the spoonfuls? Sure, we may need to eat fewer oils that are abundant in omega-6s. That doesn’t mean coconut oil is the answer.
    I’m just troubled by the “miracle” halo that’s surrounding coconut oil. Just don’t think it deserves it. I love lots of coconut products — coconut milk in curries, shredded coconut in desserts. I’m just not convinced of anything more.

  • JT

    The words “warning letters from the FDA” send off warning bells in my head. Speaking of not being convinced of anything…especially things that come from the FDA.
    Coconut oil is wonderful to use in baking and it brings such a wonderful flavor to food. The point is…even if the people in the other countries have diets that are a “far cry from what Americans typically eat”, isn’t the point that the American diet needs to change?
    Instead of ruling out coconut oil, why not try ruling out McFat burgers and fries?

  • Interesting information about coconut oil..I love coconuts myself…does that make me cuckoo? 🙂

  • Rookantha Rajapakse (Sri Lanka)

    I’m writing since I’m going to establish a new plant to produce bottled coconut water from waste coconut water. Still I’m looking for the filtering system. that should be cheap and can be filtered out all the waste materials in the coconut water. u have any idea or any contacts please send me to my email.
    Thanks a lot
    Regards

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  • Judith

    Can anyone please tell me where to purchase coconut water in Melbourne, Australia?

  • Nicky Haston

    Again! not differenciating between synthetic ( Polyunsatured etc) and natural fats (butter coconut oil ,olive oil etc) blame the stuff created in laboratories + hydroginating.. ,Yog etc, so many products having the so called ‘fats’ removed ,depriving children and all who eat them of the beneifits of natural fats..we need them! avoid them and you’ll dry up,look older than your age ..and damage childrens health, they NEED ( natural) fats to grow..
    Enjoy olive oil coconut oil avocado etc
    Full fat yog is GOOD for the heart! it affects the arteries esp in the neck where there can be a build up of ‘BAD’ esp Synthetic fats..that clogging can lead to Stroke..
    Enjoy NATURES bounty and don’t let Scientists( paid by big business) CON you INTO EATING WHAT THEY CREATE ( IN THEIR WHITE COATS,IN A LABORATORY) DOES THAT SOUND LIKE IT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH FOOD..DON’T IMAGINE THAT THEY EAT WHAT THEY PRODUCE!..they’e always lookinG for NEW ways of getting more money out of us.. THEY CALL IT ‘ADDING VALUE’ coming up with a TWIST on a product eg;yog to draw your attention..don’t kid yourself that they care about our/Childrens health..THEY CARE ABOUT MONEY!..FULL STOP.
    UNSCRUPULOUS ,CONTEMPTIBLE HORRORS..DON’T GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY!.

  • The post is written in very a good manner and it entails many useful information for me. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept.

  • Jackie_Chanly

    that’s not really fair. sure yell at the big business for pushing an agenda, not the scientist who went to school to learn how to do a job: perform emperical research with proper laboratory technique.
    it’s no the scientist’s fault that data and techniques can be manipulated.

    • JohnS

      Some scientists, not all, have forfeited their integrity and objectivity when they accepted the role as politicians at a time when pressure to do so by globalists was too overwhelming, thus forcing them to disavow the existing evidence disproving the validity of man-caused global warming, resulting in the public’s inevitable and growing expectation of suspect research and its data from other areas of science.

  • Jackie_Chanly

    yeah the American diet does need an overhaul. also, the FDA is not immune to agency capture so I don’t feel comfortable trusting their “information” outright either.

  • Jackie_Chanly

    I’m not even convinced that we need to be adding oils at all instead of just getting them naturally from whole foods. however, I do love so Thai curry, Indian chutney, and a glass of coconut water on a hot day of mountain biking. 🙂

  • JohnS

    Janet,

    Thank you for at least questioning the validity made by growing claims and advertisements on the internet about the wonders and benefits of coconut oil. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I read all this hype supporting it with little hard facts and notice on these very same sites a mass marketing effort to advertise its sale. At best the public should wait for hard scientific research results to come out with the verdict on coconut oil. why put your health at risk by ingesting a substance that has many times the saturated fat as butter just because of a few whimsical stories told by those who either have a financial stake in it or by those who do not know any real facts about it.

  • maria

    I believe it’s more the fact that we don’t have to particularly exchange olive oil or add excessive coconut oil in the diet vs. eliminating it completely. Supplementing omega 3’s without any change in reduction in omega 6’s is counterproductive the same that having an HDL of 58 is in the setting of an LDL > 100 and TC >200.

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