Coconuts have been all the rage for a few years now. Many natural beauty brands have incorporated coconut oil in everything from makeup remover and hair conditioner to body lotion, while home remedy experts recommend applying coconut water topically, to tone the skin, prevent acne, eliminate surface impurities and minimise pores.
But, more than possessing beautifying properties, coconut oil and water are also extremely healthy for you, says Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist at Body With Soul. Coconut oil, for instance, contains short-term medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs), which is a “healthy” form of saturated fat – that is, not the kind you’d find in cheese or red meat. Compared to trans fats, which are found in processed foods and can increase one’s risk of heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers, MCFA fats have disease-fighting properties. Plus, they are easily assimilated into our system and metabolised more effectively.
Coconut water is extremely hydrating, and provides good amounts of simple sugars – mainly glucose, but also fructose and sucrose – as well as potassium, sodium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and a few other nutrients.
UNREFINED VERSUS REFINED COCONUT OIL
Unrefined coconut oil is derived from the meat of fresh, raw coconuts. The meat is usually quick-dried at a very low temperature, and the oil is then mechanically expressed (also known as cold-pressed). Sometimes, the oil is also extracted from the milk, via a process called wet milling or wet extraction. Pure, unrefined coconut oil does not undergo any further processing after these initial steps. It also retains its distinct “coconut” flavour and odour.
Refined coconut oil, on the other hand, is obtained from copra, which is dried coconut meat. As copra is unsanitary – it contains impurities acquired through the drying process – it has to be bleached first. It is then deodorised using very high heat, to increase palatability. The resulting oil is fairly tasteless and smells nothing like coconut, but worse, it no longer contains its trademark healthy, disease-fighting compounds.
Refined coconut oil should be avoided at all cost, says Susie. Refined coconut oil is heavily processed. It usually contains chemicals, like solvents, or sodium hydroxide to increase the product’s shelf life. The oil may also be hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, which means that it will contain unhealthy, disease-promoting trans fats. Some packaged snacks are cooked in refined coconut oil – you’ll want to stay away from these foods, too.
When buying coconut oil for cooking, Susie advises you to choose the unrefined variety, since it is minimally processed. Always buy the best quality you can afford, and make sure that it is organic. Unrefined coconut oil is usually labelled “raw”, “virgin” or “extra virgin”. And be sure to store your coconut oil according to the instructions on the label. It does not usually require refrigeration; simply store it in a cool, dry place and away from direct sunlight or heat sources.
COCONUT WATER: BUYING TIPS
Coconut water is the clear, sweet liquid found inside young green coconuts. If you want the best quality coconut water, just buy a whole coconut, punch a hole through the top and stick a staw in.
For convenience, you can also buy coconut water from the supermarket, but be sure to choose the raw, organic, unpasteurised variety. It should be minimally processed if you are to fully reap its health benefits. Read the label carefully to ensure that you’re not consuming coconut water that contains added sugar, preservatives, flavours or colours. You also should avoid coconut water that has been flash pasteurised with heat. The heat helps kill any bacteria in the coconut water and so extends its shelf life, but in the process, also destroys a lot of nutrients and enzymes. You can tell if the product has been heat pasteurised if it’s sitting on a supermarket shelf instead of in the chilled section. If it doesn’t expire for another few months or years, you know it’s been treated with heat or contains preservatives.
TOP HEALTH BENEFITS OF COCONUT OIL & COCONUT WATER
1. Coconut oil is anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal: The fatty acids in coconut oil – caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acid – have been found to deactivate or destroy bacteria, enveloped viruses, fungi, and yeast in the body, says Susie. Pure coconut oil has a high percentage of lauric acid, and the only other place in nature where you can find high concentrations of lauric acid is in the saturated fat of human breast milk.
2. Coconut oil promotes weight loss and controls food cravings: Unlike the saturated fats in red meat and dairy products which are stored immediately by the body, the fatty acids in coconut oil go straight to the liver during digestion. The liver then processes these fatty acids, converting them to energy or forming ketone bodies. Ketone bodies have an appetite-killing effect, which means fewer hunger pangs and cravings. When you don’t have much of an appetite or any cravings, you’re likely to take in less calories overall.
Coconut oil is also thermogenic, so when you consume it, it is directly used up to generate energy. It also boosts your metabolism, helping your body burn stored fat at a faster rate.
3. Coconut oil helps protect the heart: The oil is rich in antioxidants like flavonoids and polyphenols, which reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body – problems that can affect the arteries and increase your risk of a heart attack.
Polyphenols are also thought to help the blood vessels relax and reduce the build-up of plaque in the arteries. This in turn reduces blood pressure. Finally, the lauric acid in coconut oil is said to increase the heart-healthy “good” cholesterol in the body.
4. Coconut water replenishes electrolytes: Electrolytes are essential minerals and mineral salts that regulate muscle and nerve function. The main electrolytes in the body include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, phosphate and bicarbonate.
Excessive perspiration can lead to an imbalance of these electrolytes, but coconut water can help bring everything back into balance and replace lost fluids. It has a high level of potassium – more than a banana – as well as some sodium, magnesium and calcium. Little wonder then, that many athletes favour coconut water over sports drinks after a strenuous workout. In addition to being hydrating and refreshing, the electrolytes in the beverage are believed to prevent muscle cramps.
5. Coconut water is a wonderful energy booster: When you need a healthy pick-me-up, forget the caffeine- and calorie-laden Frappuccino and grab a glass of pure, green coconut water instead. A 100ml serving has between 4g and 6g of sugars for a quick energy hit. This is a lot less than regular soft drinks or sports drinks.
Plus, at just 22 calories and with zero fat per 100ml serving, you need not worry about it adding excess kilos to your frame (of course, as with most beverages, moderation is important!).