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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