Our February superfood is none other than the humble coconut. Besides being our ancestors' literal swiss army knife (more on that later), it was a great voyager of the seas.
So whether you best know the coconut from your Mamaw's famous coconut cake, your mom's pina colada, Girl Scout Samoas, your local eatery's coconut pie, gas station snowballs, Tom Hanks, or Arthurian equestrian sound effects, you'll be delighted to know that the coconut is as rich in nutrients as it is in history.
The Coconut: A History
It's little wonder why the coconut is one of the most widespread members of the plant world. It is the palm tree seed that grows primarily in tropical coastal areas. Not only that, they've been known to float vast distances to take root on islands far and wide. Thought to have originated in the islands of the South Pacific, it then spread quickly to southern India and beyond.
The first written record of the coconut comes from ancient Sanskrit texts. However, the folks back then called it kalparvriksha, which translates into "tree which gives everything you need." See, swiss army knife! A recent study of coconut DNA (who is paying for this sort of thing?) has found two distinct types of coconuts on our little blue ball. One is indigenous to the Pacific basin between Asia and America. At the same time, the other is native to the Indo-Atlantic basin between Asia and the Caribbean by way of West Africa. This indicates that Asia was most likely the first place our superfood of the month was cultivated.
In the account of Sinbad's 5th voyage, the sailor is delighted to learn of a new harvesting method that the natives used. First, they would pick up small stones and hurl them into the trees at the primates that were up in the boughs of the palm tree. Then, out of revenge, the peeved primates would hurl coconuts down upon the villagers, thus taking out all of the efforts of the harvest. The coconut became so quickly known that even Marco Polo, of spice trade fame, was familiar with the nut when he first encountered one.
The modern name for the coconut is generally credited to Portuguese sailors of the 16th century. They saw the three dark spots on the seed and called it a "coco" or head since the three dots looked like a face. Funny how a name sticks, huh?
Why You Should Be Eating Coconut... Maybe
Coconuts are not low-fat food. As a matter of fact, they are one of the most potent sources of highly saturated fats on the market. In some cases, they boast saturated fats more concentrated than that of butter and red meat! This makes the coconut a fine example of how fledgling nutrition science really is. Before me, on my desk, I have tomes from decades past up until today. Those of the past warn of anyone with cardiovascular risk to steer clear of ANY coconut or coconut oil.
We talked about the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s in last month's superfood post. Modern studies of the coconut have proven that most of the fats stored in the flesh of the seed are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). The body converts these for a quick burst of energy rather than being stored away as fat. That means that the body uses it very similarly to carbohydrates. The catch is that there is a minimal insulin response with MCTs, unlike when we ingest carbohydrates.
Around half of all of the fat contained in the coconut is called lauric acid. Our bodies take this type of fat and turn it into an antibacterial and antiviral compound known as monolaurin. This bolsters the body's ability to stave off infection and viruses. Sounds too good to be true, huh? Well, lauric acid also has a habit of raising our bad cholesterol. However, it boosts our good cholesterol to even higher levels. However, the fact remains that you should eat coconut in moderation since it raises overall blood cholesterol even if it does modestly reduce your markers for overall heart disease.
Can Support Weight Loss
In addition to the MCTs in coconut meat promoting prolonged satiety, coconuts are also chock full of fiber. This aids in preventing overeating. Of course, this lends itself well to weight loss. For example, supplementing a healthy diet with just a cup and half of coconut was found to cause significant weight loss when compared with a healthy diet supplemented with the same amount of peanuts.
Up Your Bathroom Game
Since these bad boys are high in fiber, they will help beef up your bowel movements. Most of the fiber found in coconuts is insoluble fiber. This type of fiber cannot be broken down by the human-machine, thus taking with it any undesirables on the way to your porcelain throne. Coconuts are also a solid prebiotic. This means they feed the good gut bacteria that help keep you well. Being high in fat, coconuts can also help your body absorb many fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, & K.
In summary, the coconut has many more upsides than it does downsides. I mean, a food so widely spread and widely consumed can't be wrong. That being said, the highly controversial saturated fats that coconuts carry still need to be mentioned. Coconut meat is a calorie-dense food and should be eaten in moderation. Think more dried coconut flakes and less a fat slice of coconut cake. Thanks to modern fitness movements, you can find coconuts in all types of healthy snacks.
Go on, get yourself a lovely bunch of coconuts!