I've always been a huge fan of coconut. When I was a kid, my favorite candy bar (yes, we still ate such things back then) was Almond Joy. I loved it when my sister would return from Mexico with a fresh coconut. She would crack it open on our metal basement storm doors with a hammer and screwdriver, then drain out the sweet water. Then she'd crack the entire thing open on the driveway and let me try the delicious meat inside.
Coconut used to be a flavor that you'd find occasionally - in macaroons, frozen bars and of course the Girl Scouts' infamous Samoas. But more often than not, that wonderful tropical coconut flavor was paired with a hefty amount of sugar and was far from the fresh coconut flavor my sister had introduced me to. Plus, coconut products were not considered healthy. Coconut oil was shunned by the nutrition community for its high saturated fat content.
Fast forward to today and coconut has exploded onto the scene. Products made with coconut (including coconut water and oil) accounted for 26 percent of new food product introductions in 2012. That's a huge amount of products! Does everyone suddenly love the flavor of this tropical fruit as much as I do? Not so much - the rise has been due to the perceived health benefits of coconut. Perhaps most surprisingly, coconut oil has taken off as a healthy ingredient. Let's take a closer look at these benefits, as well as some of the new coconut products that have been introduced.
Touted for its rich electrolyte content, coconut water is great as a post-exercise recovery drink. The first entrants to the market were offered in Tetra Paks and were flash pasteurized. Pasteurization of coconut water involves heating it at 120 degrees for five seconds to kill any bacteria that may be present. The slightly whitish liquid in these little cartons has a vaguely coconutty flavor, but I've only ever been able to drink them ice cold. The new wave of "cold-pressed" juices are being sold in plastic bottles and are pasteurized using high pressure processing (HPP), also called pascalization. HPP is a cold pasteurization technique that involves subjecting the food or beverage to a high level of hydrostatic pressure for a few seconds to a few minutes. Apparently it's the same effect as taking the product down to the ocean floor. Advocates of HPP say that it creates a safe product without changing the flavor or nutrition of the raw ingredients. I can't vouch for the nutrients, but I can say that the cold pasteurized coconut juices I've tried - Harmless Harvest and Copra - both had a wonderful coconut flavor and a delightfully fresh sweetness that I have only experienced from fresh coconuts. And the juices from the Starbucks-owned Evolution Fresh, which are showing up everywhere, are also processed by HPP.
Once thought to provide unhealthy amounts of saturated fat, there is now evidence that the type of saturated fat it contains (medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs) does not raise total cholesterol levels - only good HDL cholesterol. Coconut oil is also used in lots of vegan food products, and since that way of eating is gaining followers, it makes sense that more products include it.
I remember when the only type of shredded coconut you could get was the sickeningly sweet kind that looked like wet snow. Now you can find wonderful unsweetened coconut flakes, as well as coconut chips. Dang, a small San Francisco-based company, makes super crispy coconut chips that add a wonderful crunch to everything from salads and cereal to ice cream. Coconut chips are made by slicing up the meat of the coconut, or "copra," and then toasting it until it's golden. In addition to being delicious, the chips provide a good amount of fiber. You'll get 3 grams from less than an ounce.
Coconut ice cream
Non-dairy ice cream alternatives have been produced using coconut milk for a few years now. They've been OK, but all of the flavors - whether it's chocolate or mocha chip - seem to have an underlying coconut flavor. Even for coconut lovers, that gets to be a bit much. Now Amy's Organic, the queen of healthy frozen cuisine, has developed an organic vegan coconut milk-based treat that manages to not taste very coconutty at all. It's incredibly creamy and rich, and while it's certainly not low in fat, it's a few grams lower than a comparable dairy-based ice cream and has zero cholesterol. And at 12 grams of sugar per half cup serving, that's pretty sweet.
[Read: Healthy Homemade Ice Cream Recipes.]
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Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.