Have we gone crazy for coconut? Just take a look around the supermarket these days: Coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut water.
It’s hard to think of a dietary villain that’s had a faster turnaround. For years, we were told to check ingredient labels for the dreaded words “partially hydrogenated coconut oil.”
Now we’ve got more coconut in our diets than a Mounds bar, with health claims ranging from weight loss to the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
We recently spent a few days cooking, tasting and studying coconut products, from oil to water. We made coconut milk curry and coconut oil pie crust, whipped up coconut oil mayonnaise and quenched our thirst with coconut water.
While the results were tasty – and often, not all that coconutty – another message came through on the health claims: Not so fast. Many claims aren’t proven, and the products can have hidden nutrition costs.
“You have to really check the calories and saturated fat,” says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Don’t assume because it’s coconut, it’s good for you.”
For vegans and vegetarians, coconut oil and coconut milk can replace butter and cow’s milk in cooking. For athletes, coconut water quenches thirst fast, and has electrolytes and potassium.
Along with all that, though, there are things to be cautious about. Let’s start with coconut water. This is actually the clear liquid you hear sloshing around when you shake a coconut, and it has a light coconut flavor.
These days, it’s being packaged and marketed as a sports drink. But like most sports drinks, unless you’re a high-intensity athlete, you don’t need it, says Leibman.
“You’re better off drinking water,” she says. “The only time you need those electrolytes is when you’ve really been working out and sweating.”
While coconut water is low in fat, it’s not calorie-free. Unsweetened, unflavored versions have 60 calories in 11 ounces. Flavored versions can have more calories, often from sugar.
Next up is coconut milk. Made by soaking ground coconut meat in hot water and straining the result, it’s rich and creamy. The distinct flavor is popular in many Asian dishes. However, it can be high in fat, unless you make a point of getting the light versions or discard the creamy layer that rises to the top of the can.
Products that replace dairy with coconut milk also may be high in fat, Liebman warns. Coconut-milk yogurts aren’t very high in protein, and coconut-milk frozen desserts aren’t as virtuous as they sound.
“You might as well have Haagen-Dazs,” she says. “The word ‘milk’ fools people into thinking the nutrients are the same in almond milk and coconut milk as they are in dairy products.”
Cooking with coconut
That brings us to coconut oil. It’s very popular with several specialty diets, including Paleo and gluten-free, as a plant-based source of fat.
It’s creamy and solid at room temperature, so you can beat it or spread it like butter. Melted, it becomes a clear, neutral oil that’s easy to use in frying, roasting or in a vinaigrette.
The versions available in jars at supermarkets are mostly free of transfats and don’t taste or smell like coconut. They’re more like a waxy version of vegetable shortening.
Still, while coconut oil is nonhydrogenated, it’s 92 percent saturated fat, higher than beef fat and even butter. It is different from many other fats because it has medium-chain fatty acids that are metabolized differently by the body. Some fans of the products say that’s less harmful, but many nutritionists are still concerned.
Coconut oil has the unusual effect of raising both HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol, and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, says David Schardt, a senior nutritionist with CSPI. And while increasing good cholesterol is good, he questions whether it’s good enough to offset the increase in bad cholesterol.
And whether that level of saturated fat is dangerous could depend on your overall diet, he says.
“Vegans can use it as a substitute for butter,” Schardt says. Because they’re already consuming very little saturated fat, adding some to their diets isn’t a big deal.
But for others, particularly people on Paleo diets that are high in pasture-raised beef and eggs, coconut oil might be a bigger risk.
“That’s a diet that’s already high in saturated fat,” Schardt says. “Adding a product that adds even more may be a problem.” Schardt says most studies have shown the early weight-loss claims are overstated.
“It turns out, it just doesn’t have that big an impact,” he says. “There’s a slight advantage to using it, but it’s not going to make a big difference. It’s certainly not the miracle weight loss.”
The Alzheimer’s claims, he says, also haven’t panned out. The medium-chain fatty acids have an effect on the brain that is so small, it doesn’t appear to help, he says.
So should you switch to cooking with coconut? Using coconut oil to remove something else from your diet, like whole milk or butter, may be a good idea. But adding it to a diet that’s already got a lot of saturated fat may not turn out to be wise.
In a report released in 2011, Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health suggested using coconut oil sparingly. “We don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease,” he said. “And I don’t think coconut oil is as healthful as vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil.”
Blender Coconut Oil Mayonnaise
Make sure you cool the coconut oil completely after melting or it won’t form an emulsion with the egg.
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
MELT the coconut oil in the microwave or in a small saucepan on the stove. Set aside until cool to the touch.
COMBINE the egg, egg yolk, water, mustard, lemon juice and salt in a blender or food processor. Cover and blend to mix.
WITH the motor running, slowly add the coconut oil, starting with a drop at a time and never adding it faster than a thin stream after it becomes creamy. Mix in the olive oil the same way, watching to make sure it continues to absorb the oil.
REMOVE from the blender and place in air-tight container. Refrigerate and use within about 3 days.
Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.
Coconut Milk and Lime Pie
Adapted from “The Dinnertime Survival Cookbook,” by Debra Ponzek (Running Press, 2013). If you don’t want to make a crust, this would be great with a graham-cracker crust.
2 cups whole milk
1 cup coconut milk, blended together if separated
2/3 cup sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks, beaten
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Grated zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut, plus more for garnish
1 baked coconut-oil pie crust, or a prepared graham cracker pie crust
MIX milk, coconut milk, 1/3 cup sugar and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to mix well.
PLACE egg yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar until pale yellow and blended. Whisk in the flour. Slowly stir half of the boiling milk mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the milk in the saucepan, whisking together.
BRING back to a gentle simmer. Boil about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened.
REMOVE from heat and stir in the butter, vanilla, lime zest and lime juice. Stir in the coconut, then pour into the prepared pie shell. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours, until set.
SPREAD about 1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut in a baking pan and place in a 325-degree oven about 10 minutes, until mostly browned (watch carefully so it doesn’t burn). Sprinkle on pie as a garnish.
Yield: 8 servings.
Coconut Oil Pie Crust
As you do with most pie crusts, it’s important to chill the dough to give the gluten time to relax. But chilling coconut oil makes it hard. Leave time for the dough to come back to room temperature before rolling.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coconut oil, at room temperature
6 to 7 tablespoons ice water
WHISK the flour, sugar, and salt together in a mixing bowl. Cut in the coconut oil using your fingers or a pastry cutter until there are no pieces larger than a pea and the mixture resembles coarse sand.
ADD ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking with a fork, until the dough comes together into a ball and you can presssections of dough and make them hold together. Gather into a flattened circle, wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour.
REMOVE from refrigerator and let stand 20 to 30 minutes, until warm enough to roll out. Place on a sheet of parchment, top with a second sheet and roll out. Remove top layer of paper, invert into a pie plate and remove the second sheet of paper. If baking empty, place a sheet of foil in the crust and top with pie weights.
BAKE in a 350-degree oven 15 to 20 minutes, until mostly set. Remove foil and weights and bake about 10 minutes.
Coconut Chicken Curry
From “Keepers,” by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, 2013).
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces and patted dry
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons mild curry powder, such as Madras
1 (13.5-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
4 large handfuls baby spinach
Fresh lime juice
Hot, steamed rice
Optional toppings: Toasted coconut flakes, chopped cashews, chopped cilantro, raisins.
SPRINKLE the chicken with salt. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, working in two batches so you don’t crowd the skillet. Cook, turning several times, until the pieces are lightly browned. Transfer to a bowl using a slotted spoon, leaving the oil behind in the skillet.
REDUCE heat to medium and add the butter. Cook, swirling the pan, until it’s melted and browned, about 1 minute. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring often, about until is softened, about 6 minutes.
ADD the curry powder and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the coconut milk and broth and stir to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 3 minutes.
ADD the browned chicken and any accumulated juices. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Add the spinach and stir until wilted, then season with lime juice. Serve over rice with toppings if desired.
Yield: 6 servings.