On the Table

Enjoy coconut, but not too much

June 11, 2013 

It appears to be the season of coconut. In fact, we’re practically bingeing on it.

Coconut has always had a loyal following among those of us who love its taste. But it has also acquired an aura of healthfulness.

Maybe it’s spillover from the popularity of yoga and other healthy practices borrowed from cultures outside our own. Some of those emphasize greater use of raw fruits and vegetables in the diet, including coconut – especially coconut water – for promoting health.

What’s so magical about coconut?

It does taste magically delicious. Aside from that, though, its nutritional profile is mixed.

One cup of shredded coconut contains about 280 calories. It’s rich in dietary fiber, and it’s a surprisingly good source of several minerals, including manganese and iron, even if it doesn’t contribute much in the vitamin department.

But coconut is mostly fat – saturated fat, which should be limited to support your heart health.

You’ll find incarnations of coconut in the supermarket in the forms of coconut milk, coconut water, coconut flavoring in foods such as frozen fruit bars, ice cream and sorbet, as well as flaked coconut added to granola and other breakfast cereals.

So how can coconut fit in your diet?

Coconut in general confers no unusual proven health benefits. It tastes good, and it adds texture and color interest as an ingredient in other foods.

And it does contain decent doses of minerals, so it’s fine for a smattering of flaked coconut in a muffin or bowl of cereal.

As a beverage, try the coconut almond milk beverage you see in supermarkets instead of straight coconut milk. It’s fortified and a good source of vitamins A, D and E, potassium and calcium.

The other coconut beverage – coconut water – is a popular refreshment in tropical climates. As the name suggests, it’s the liquid found in the center of an immature coconut.

One cup contains about 40 calories – fewer than fruit juice or coconut milk contain – and coconut water does contain some vitamin C and minerals. In fact, it contains enough sodium and potassium to merit a moniker as a natural sports drink.

Look for coconut water in natural foods stores and even at Costco.

It’s cheaper than a trip to the Caribbean.

Suzanne Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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