Getting creative with the coconut

As more products derived from the fruit hit shelves, here's what you need to know about the nutritional benefits

March 05, 2013|By Sierra George, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical Center regularly contribute a guest post. The latest post from Sierra George, dietetic intern, is printed here.

Despite its name, the coconut is a fruit from the coconut palm. Tropical cultures have been using this delicious fruit for everything from food to body lotion and even currency.

Until recently, Americans have seen coconut mostly as the dried, shredded ingredient of cookies, candies and cakes. Now, as more products derived from the coconut hit grocery store shelves, we are given the delicious opportunity to get creative with the coconut. Consider the following:

Coconut flour: Coconut flour is a finely ground version of the flakes we're used to seeing in the baking aisle. It's not the best choice to replace flour since it lacks gluten, the proteins in wheat flour and many other grains. Thus, foods made with coconut flour would not rise well nor have a strong structure, but it does work nicely as part of a gluten-free flour mix.

Coconut water: When young, green coconuts are plucked from the tree, they harbor an electrolyte-packed water inside that's mildly sweet and tangy.

Coconut milk: There are many types of coconut milk with various concentrations of fat. Coconut cream, for example, is thick and has a high concentration of fat, while light coconut milk is thin with much less fat. It's used traditionally for sauces and desserts in Asian and island cuisines but is gaining popularity as a milk-alternative beverage. Keep in mind that it is high in calories.

Dried coconut: This is what most people envision when they hear "coconut." It's the white flesh of the coconut that has been dried and grated or shredded. When it's toasted in the oven, it develops a delicious crisp texture and nutty flavor. You can use it for more than just baked goods: Toast some shredded coconut and use to garnish salads and curries.

Coconut butter: This smooth spread of coconut meat and oil has a distinct coconut flavor with a unique texture. It can be used as you would peanut butter, but they are nutritionally different: Peanut butter is much higher in protein while coconut butter is higher in fiber. Per ounce, peanut butter has 165 calories, 14 grams of fat, 2 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein. An ounce of coconut butter has 158 calories, 15 grams of fat, 4 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein.

Coconut oil: Unlike most vegetables oils, coconut oil is solid at room temperature. This is related to its high saturated fat content (similar to butter). There has been buzz regarding the potential health benefits or hazards of incorporating coconut oil into a daily diet. Health claims for this unique oil include weight loss or improved heart health. Here's what you need to know regarding coconut fat so you can form your own opinion:

•Coconut oil is composed of 92 percent saturated fat.

•Other vegetable oils (olive, peanut, canola, and corn oil) contain mostly the healthy, unsaturated fats.

•Saturated fats are associated with increased risk of heart disease, as higher intakes of these fats correspond to higher levels of blood total cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.

•The saturated fat in coconut oil is approximately 50 percent medium chain fatty acids.

•Medium chain fatty acids are shorter in length than other long chain saturated fats. Some argue that these shorter fats are immediately burned for energy and not directly stored as fat in the body. Either way, coconut oil still contains long chain fats.

•If you're eating more than your body needs, excess calories will be stored as fat.

•Coconut oil, like all other fats, has 120 calories per tablespoon and should be consumed in moderation.

Curious about cooking with coconut? Follow this link to a simple recipe for pumpkin soup with coconut milk

Try using coconut oil instead of the butter to up the coconut flavor.

For more information on coconut products and nutrition, visit or

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