coconutCoconut water, oil, sugar, flesh, milk and yoghurt: coconut is filling up our supermarket shelves in many guises, notes Sophie Claessens, RD, VavistaLife Dietitian. But, she asks, what benefits can it bring to our diet?

Although coconut is technically a type of fruit, it is classified as a nut because of its high fat (particularly saturated fat) content in the flesh and its products such as coconut oil. Saturated fat is the type of fat that has been found to increase both good and bad cholesterol, leading to an increased risk of heart disease. But can there can be some benefits too?

For Health?
There has been a lot of hype recently about the fact that the saturated fat found in coconuts called medium-chained triglycerides is healthier, but this hasn’t been proven in humans yet, only animals! Coconut water — the juice found in the middle of a cracked coconut — is now marketed as a highly hydrating fluid. It has less sugar than fruit juices and more minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium. These properties are great as a post-workout drink if you’ve only been doing moderate exercise, but there isn’t enough protein or carbohydrate if you’re undergoing vigorous exercise for more than 1 hour.  However, you can achieve the same results by eating a balanced diet and having a banana and a glass of milk after a workout, which costs far less than a bottle of coconut water!

A Dairy Supplement?
Coconut milk is frequently used as a dairy supplement.  There are two types of coconut milk widely available – one is about 8% coconut cream mixed with water, sugar and preservatives, the other is mixed with rice milk without the need for sugar and requires fewer preservatives. Both have a similar kcal content to soya milk (about 1/2 that of semi-skimmed milk) but a much lower protein content than both soya and semi-skimmed milk. Ensure that if opting for coconut milk you choose one with added calcium and vitamin D, which cannot be naturally found in this product.

You can also now buy coconut yoghurt, which is great for those who are lactose-intolerant and who fancy a change from the soya varieties! It is much higher in fat than both natural dairy yoghurt and soya yoghurts, but also much lower in carbohydrates

A Baking Alternative?
Coconut sugar can be used instead of traditional sugar in baking. It has a lower GI than standard granulated sugar, however a similar kcal content per gram. It may be a healthier alternative to traditional granulated sugar, but it is still an energy dense food-type that should only be used on special occasions.

Similarly,  coconut oil is becoming more and more popular for roasting and baking. It has a similar nutritional profile to butter in that it has a high saturated fat content which is currently being discovered to be less harmful to health than initially thought, particularly the type of saturated fats which are found in coconut oil: lauric acid and myristic acid. Coconut oil also contains some poly- and mono-unsaturated fats that bring additional health benefits. It is still an energy dense food so should be used in moderation.

For Weight Loss?
Fresh coconut flesh is delicious, full of vitamins and minerals and goes really well in a smoothie. Enjoy as a snack but go easy on your portion sizes. Some studies have found that trialling a coconut oil supplement has encouraged weight loss: however, 1 tablespoon of coconut oil provides 115 kcal and 13 g of saturated fat (double the kcal and saturated fat that you’d find in the same sized lump of cheese). So I’d advise that you stick to a mono-unsaturated fat to cook with such as rapeseed oil, which has a high smoke point (therefore less harmful free radicals) and has been proven to increase your good cholesterol and reduce your bad cholesterol.

New studies may find that it’s healthier for animals or that some people lose weight, but adding 115 kcal to your foods and drinks is going to increase your calorie intake — so I’d say it’s not worth the risk and it’s more likely to cause weight gain. In short, it’s an unproven fad as of yet!