If you’ve done any research into health in the last 20 years or so, it seems like coconut is everywhere. Cocos nucifera, commonly known as the coconut palm, grows throughout tropic regions around the Earth. It prefers areas with sandy soil, lots of fresh water, humidity, and an ambient air temperature of around 80 or more degrees Fahrenheit. The word ‘coconut’ typically refers to the seed or fruit of the coconut palm. Most people may not realize there are two main types of coconut palms. A harder-to-grow dwarf palm is commonly used for the food industry and a tall palm is used for many applications including building.
The coconut palm itself is referred to by several cultures as a life-giving plant due to its cultural significance and diversity of uses. In South Pacific island cultures and India, it has a place in social and religious ceremonies including death rituals and marriages. Its nicknames include “tree of life,” “tree of abundance,” and “tree of heaven” by the people who depend on it. There are around eighty-three functional uses of coconut palms including wood to make beds, buildings, small toys and boxes, utensils, musical instruments, brushes, cricket bats, etc. Coconut produces five different types of food products including coconut water, coconut milk, sugar, oil, and meat. Coconut water is sterile and best harvested from young coconuts. Coconut sugar is made from boiled-down coconut water.
Additionally, coconuts have been used as medicine since ancient times. Traditionally, it was used as a folk remedy for a variety of conditions including alopecia, amenorrhea, asthma, bronchitis, bruises, gastrointestinal conditions (constipation, stomach ache, etc), and skin conditions such as rashes and wounds. In more recent times, during World War II, it was used directly for blood transfusions when plasma supplies were low. In modern times, research is ongoing on the benefits of coconut. Most research studies are very small, so more information will come out as studies continue. Evidence suggests it may be beneficial for those with cardiovascular disease. One paper found it significantly increased HDL with this increase being more significant in women. Another study looked at oil pulling using coconut oil for dental health. Researchers found it was comparable to Chlorhexidine when using 10 mL of coconut oil for 10 minutes. The oil is to be swished for 10 minutes and then spit out in the trash according to the study.
There are many different ways to use and consume coconut. Coconut water is loaded with B vitamins and minerals including calcium, magnesium, and potassium. This can be purchased in cans or cartons at your local store. It can be used in cooking as coconut oil or milk which are loaded with short- and medium-chain fatty acids. Coconut sugar can be used instead of cane or beet sugar. Generally, this sugar is considered healthier and can be used 1:1 instead of other sugars. Coconut sugar contains more minerals than brown sugar. Overall, it can be easy to integrate this nutrient-dense food into your diet to gain some tropical health benefits!
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Ahuja, Subhash & Ahuja, S. & Ahuja, U. 2014. “Coconut – History, Uses, and Folklore.” Asian Agri-History; 18: 221-248.
Cox, C. et al. 1995. “Effects of Coconut Oil, Butter, and Safflower Oil on Lipids and Lipoproteins in Persons with Moderately Elevated Cholesterol Levels.” Journal of Lipid Research; 36(8): 1787-95.
Hewlings, Susan. 2020. “Coconuts and Health: Different Chain Lengths of Saturated Fats Require Different Consideration.” Journal of Cardiovascular Development and Disease; 7(4): 59. doi:10.3390/jcdd7040059
Kaushik M, et al. 2016. “The Effect of Coconut Oil Pulling on Streptococcus mutans Count in Saliva in Comparison with Chlorhexidine Mouthwash.” Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice. DOI: 10.5005/jp-journals-10024-1800