Superfood Spotlight: Nutty for Coconuts

Is this health food all it’s cracked up to be?

Is this health food all it’s cracked up to be?


Coconuts have claimed superfood status in recent years—and for good reason. Coconut products such as coconut oil, coconut butter, and coconut milk can surely amp up the flavor of food (is coconut addiction a thing?). But while the popularity of coconut products has been on the rise, skepticism still exists regarding the high saturated fat content naturally found in the tropical fruit. With differing opinions, it can be confusing to know which guidance should be followed. We’ll review the facts about this functional food, and provide our take on how coconut products can be incorporated into your wellness routine.

Facts about the f-word

Let’s get something straight: healthy fats are our friends. Fat should not be feared as it has many healthy benefits ranging from regulating hormones and absorption of certain nutrients to building brain cells. Restricting too much fat from our diets (think Snackwells era) only filled us with more sugar and additives that did not do our minds or bodies any favors. Thankfully, our mindsets have changed to embrace the goodness that healthy fats can provide when consumed as part of a balanced diet. However, different types of fat impact our bodies differently. Let’s take a look at what is coined as the “bad” fats:

Trans fats: It is advised to avoid trans fats in order to protect against heart disease. Trans fatty acids, or partially hydrogenated oils, are found in many fried foods and processed foods such as pastries, cookies and crackers. Trans fats are the real villains as they both raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk. They provide no health benefits to us and therefore should be avoided as much as possible. Rather than relying on the nutrition facts label on products (anything less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving can be listed as 0g), check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils—then steer clear.  

Saturated fat: Sources of saturated fat include animal and dairy products as well as coconut, coconut oil, and palm oil. Based on scientific research, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat due to its correlation with increasing cholesterol and risk of heart disease. However, research does not show that saturated fat from coconut oil negatively effects cholesterol. While coconut oil does raise total cholesterol, it also raises HDL (good) cholesterol and improves the quality of the LDL (bad) cholesterol. Therefore, certain forms of saturated fat may not be as bad as once thought when consumed as part of a healthy diet.

How is coconut different? Hello MCT!

Coconut oil comes from the meat of the coconut, which is comprised of nearly 90 percent saturated fat. Of this, nearly 65% of the fatty acids are medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) or medium chain triglycerides (MCT). Nerd alert: there are three types of saturated fat, categorized by the number of carbon atoms present. Short chain fatty acids have 6 or fewer carbon atoms, medium chain fatty acids have 8-10, and long chain fatty acids contain 12 or more. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid—a fatty acid that is abundant in breast milk and beneficial for increasing immunity.

Most of the fats we consume in our diet are long-chain fatty acids. These are not easily absorbed in our intestines, require pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to help break them down, then go through a complicated process of delivery to tissues before being transported to the liver and metabolized for energy.  MCTs are different as they are more easily absorbed in the intestines. They do not require work from your pancreas for breakdown, are transported straight to the liver via the bloodstream, and can supply immediate energy. So while coconut oil is comprised of high amounts of saturated fat, it does not have the same effect on the body as other sources. Bottom line: MCTs result in faster energy and store very little fat in tissues.

Health benefits of coconut oil

In addition to boosting energy, coconut oil has been linked with the following health benefits (though more conclusive research is needed):

·      Does not adversely affect cholesterol

·      Helps immunity

·      Has antimicrobial and antifungal properties (due to lauric acid)

·      May help with weight loss and reduction of belly fat

·      Boosts metabolism

·      Improves gut and digestive health

·      Supports the body’s natural hormone production

·      May enhances mental performance and focus

·      Contains antioxidants which helps protect against chronic disease

·      May improve thyroid function

A jar of coconut oil goes a long way. In addition to its edible qualities, there are numerous natural remedies for this product. It can be used as part of your oral hygiene routine (oil pulling), serves as a great skin moisturizer, or can be used as a conditioner to provide nourishment to your hair.

If you’re looking for ways to incorporate coconut products into your diet, we’ve got you covered. Here are ten ideas to try:

1.     Add a scoop of coconut butter or coconut oil to your breakfast smoothie.

2.     Stir coconut oil or coconut butter in your oatmeal.

3.     Coconut butter serves as a great butter replacement. Spread on whole grain toast or baked sweet potatoes.

4.     Coconut oil has a high smoke point (meaning it remains stable at high temperatures), so it works well for dishes that require high cooking temperatures such as a stir-fry.

5.     Coconut milk is delicious and works beautifully in curry or other Thai dishes. It can be used to add creaminess to soups, overnight oats, lattes, smoothies, or chia pudding.

6.     Coconut flakes can be used in baking, making energy balls, or topping your favorite smoothie. Add coconut flakes to homemade trail mix for a crunchy snack.

7.     Coconut water contains electrolytes and can help you stay hydrated.  

8.     Coconut yogurt is a great dairy alternative.

9.     Coconut flour can be used in baking and adds more nutritional value than white flour. It is also gluten-free and high in protein.

10. Coconut aminos is comparable to soy sauce or tamari and can be used as an alternative seasoning for those with soy or wheat allergies.

The takeaway: Any energy-dense food should be consumed in moderation (as too many calories from anything can lead to weight gain). Go ahead and enjoy the wonderful flavor attributes and health benefits of coconut and coconut oil—just don’t go too crazy.


Blogpost written by Ascend Content Expert, Ashley H

Kat Zajac