The Great Coconut Craze

Everything you need to know about what coconuts can—and CAN’T—do for you

I received a question from a reader recently regarding the health benefits of coconut oil. Indeed, coconut oil and, more recently, coconut water are taking their turn in the spotlight of the natural product industry.

And like any new industry darling, there are all sorts of wild claims about what coconut can do for you. Some of them more accurate than others. Will coconut help you shed 50 pounds by summer? Probably not. But coconuts do have some impressive—and surprising—health benefits.

Nature’s perfect IV solution

During the late 1970’s on the southern island of Mindanao, while tracking down the origins of a parasitic tropical disease, I met with an insurgent group known as the “New Peoples’ Army.” They had built “bamboo hospitals” in the jungle and were using coconuts as intravenous drips. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds. This use was also known in the South Pacific during WWII.

You see, the water naturally present inside coconuts contains sugar and electrolytes and mixes easily with human blood. And the hard shell surrounding the water keeps it sterile until it’s opened.

Coconut water’s electrolyte content is one of the attributes that has propelled it to recent fame as well. There are dozens of different coconut water beverages on the market now. They’re being touted as a healthier “sports drink” for athletes. (Of course, I still believe red bush tea is the best beverage to give your body the hydration it needs for peak performance—whether you’re an athlete or an average Joe. To read more about it, refer back to my report Miracle at Red Bush, which you received when you subscribed to Insiders’ Cures. I recommend RedJoe brand water-soluble red bush powder from ELEV8. Call 941-623-8811 or 941-487-8008 to order.)

Of course, long before coconut water was trendy, coconut “milk” was a common ingredient in Indian, Southern Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese cuisines. Coconut milk is made by soaking shredded, dried coconut “meat” (or copra) in water.

Asian cultures use it to add healthy essential fats and some protein to their carbohydrate-rich diets. Coconut milk also neutralizes the bitterness of the fresh herbs and vegetables that are staples of these cuisines.

The reason that the interior of the coconut has all these nutrients (electrolytes, essential fats, protein) is to support the growth of a new coconut palm when it washes ashore on sandy soil after an ocean journey of potentially thousands of miles (see sidebar at the end of this article).

But the real coconut “superstar” these days is coconut oil.

The controversial coconut cure-all

Of course, as you might remember, back in the 1990s there were all sorts of warnings against coconut oil.

In the early research studies, coconut oil raised the cholesterol levels of laboratory animals. Of course, the medial research complex and consumer “watch dog” groups were quick to pounce on this detail.

And to point to coconut oil’s high saturated fat content as the culprit. But these alarms were based on misunderstanding of natural products and nutrition, as well as the actual studies that were done.

Those early studies used chemically altered, partially hydrogenated coconut oil. Partial hydrogenation creates the toxic trans fats that we now know are the real killers. It also destroys many of the beneficial natural essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other components in virgin coconut oil.

Most of the fats in virgin coconut oil are saturated. But as I’ve pointed out before, science shows that saturated fats are not the villains they were once made out to be.

Plus, it turns out, not all saturated fats are created equal. Different types of saturated fats behave differently.

The secret to coconut oil’s success

The main saturated fat in coconut oil is called lauric acid. Lauric acid does increase cholesterol levels in the blood. But it increases levels of both “good” HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and “bad” LDL, or low- density lipoprotein. So it doesn’t negatively affect the overall ratio of the two. And the role of cholesterol in heart disease and mortality is questionable at best anyway.

But aside from its effects on cholesterol, a number of additional health claims are being made for lauric acid. According to proponents, it’s yet another wonder substance with possible antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties. Which could (they claim) combat H.I.V., clear up acne, and speed up your metabolism. However, most researchers—myself included—remain skeptical.

While debate continues about the internal benefits of coconut oil, it does have healthy effects on skin and hair. In fact, lauric acid is already an ingredient in many hair products. It helps protect keratin, the protein found in hair.

And applying coconut oil to the skin helps keep it moist, but doesn’t interfere with absorption of sunlight for vitamin D.

The bottom line? Coconut oil certainly isn’t harmful (in moderation). And it does have some nice cosmetic benefits. But it remains uncertain whether coconut oil is actively beneficial in the way that olive oil, for example, is proven to be.

Sidebar: Coconuts’ early sea voyage

The first record of the coconut palm in the west was by an Egyptian writer Cosmos, who reported seeing them in India and Sri Lanka. Marco Polo saw them in Indonesia in 1280. When Portuguese maritime explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in the 15th century he brought back what would be the first coconuts in the Atlantic. Eventually, coconuts made it from Cape Verde in South Africa to Puerto Rico in 1549.

Botanists have concluded that coconuts originated in the Malay- Indonesian region of southeast Asia and probably floated on their own to the Pacific coast of Central America before the Spanish got there.