Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Coconut is Good for Your Health has been touted as a “lazy man’s crop.” According to an old legend, coconut is God’s gift to the lazy man. “He sleeps in the shade of the tree, is awakened when a nut falls, drinks the milk, and eat some of the meat. He then feeds the rest of the meaning to the chickens and cattle, which produce eggs and milk and meat, respectively. The leaves provide thatch for the roof and walls of his coconut hut, and are also woven into hats, baskets, and mats.”
Coconut, whose name came from the Spanish word “coco” (which means “monkey face” as the three eyes on the hairy nut resemble the head of a monkey), is planted in 3.563 million hectares all over the country. In 2011, it generated annual revenues of US$1.49 billion.
While most Filipinos know of coconut’s economic importance, not too many are aware of the health benefits coconut gives. Let’s start with coconut milk, which is made from water and grated coconut meat. Coconut milk is said to be high in saturated fat but mostly in the form of medium-chain fatty acids, which are not metabolized the same as the long-chain fatty acids found in animal products.
As such, the fats found in coconut milk are not bad for your health, according to a 2006 article published in “The Ceylon Medical Journal.” As a matter of fact, people with diets high in coconut milk have lower cholesterol levels and lower rates of heart disease.
Jill Corleone, in an article which www.livestrong.com published, however, cautioned: “While there is some promising research about the benefits of coconut milk for your heart, the evidence is preliminary and more research is needed before formal recommendations for its use can be made.”
So, what about the fats from coconut oil? Pina LoGiudice, Siobhan Bleakney, and Peter Bongiorno, co-medical directors of the New York-based Inner Source Health, wrote: “Conventional thought used to consider fats like coconut oil to be unhealthy and contribute to heart disease. We now know that this isn’t true. In fact, coconut oil is actually a heart-healthy food that can keep your body running smoother in a few different ways.”
Copra or dried coconut meat is the main product of coconuts. But there’s more to coconut than just copra. “It is not enough that we plant the most number of trees or produce the highest number of nuts,” pointed out Dr. Patricio S. Faylon, the executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD). “It is getting the highest value and benefits from this crop that matters most. The best way to do this is to transform the nuts and other coconut parts into high-value products.”
One of those high-value coconut products is coconut sap sugar, which is derived from coconut sap or toddy, which contains 12-18 percent sugar in its natural form with important vitamins and amino acids.
“Its health benefits have been recognized by highly discriminating and health-conscious market,” states the recently-released book, Compendium of Commercially-Viable Coconut Technologies. “Demand for the product is continuously increasing and is expected to further increase due to the number of health-conscious individuals within and outside the country.”
Coconut sap sugar is even safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics. Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar drops too low. Because keeping their blood sugar at normal levels requires quite a balancing act, people with diabetes are particularly prone to hypoglycemia.
Compared with refined cane sugar, coconut sugar has a glycemic index (GI) of 35. This is much lower than the 54 GI, which nutritionists consider a safe level for people who have to watch out for their glucose level. GI is a measure of the rate at which carbohydrates as glucose enter the bloodstream.
Another healthy product from coconut is virgin coconut oil (VCO). The oil does not undergo refining, bleaching, or deodorizing and can be obtained with or without the use of heat. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the late Dr. Condrado S. Dayrit, he was able to establish that VCO works like a drug “that regulates the body’s functions and defense mechanism. It restores the normal balance of tissues or cells that have become dysfunctional.”
In the United States, VCO has increasingly become popular in natural food circles and with vegans. It was described in a New York Times article as having a “haunting, nutty, vanilla flavour” that also has a touch of sweetness that works well with baked goods, pastries, and sautés.
What will you do with the residue after getting the oil from coconut meat? Don’t throw it away because it can be made into coconut flour. “Coconut flour is screened food-grade product obtained after drying, expelling and/or extracting most of the oil and milk from coconut meat,” it explains. “The meat is either pared or unpared.”
Here’s the good thing about coconut flour: “(It) is naturally low in digestible carbohydrate and has no gluten. It has fewer carbohydrates than soya flour while high in fiber and a good source of protein. It is four times higher in fiber than oat bran, two times higher in fiber than wheat bran, and three times higher in fiber than ground flaxseed. It also contains very little sodium, small amounts of calcium, and vitamins B1 and C.”
Aside from VCO, another coconut product that is making waves in the United States is coconut water. “Drinking what they call coco water, and what we call buko juice, is a growing trend in the US,” President Benigno Aquino III told the press when he returned from a working visit to the US a few years back. “Because of its nutrients, because it is natural and environment friendly, it is becoming the new natural sports drink in America and is now a hundred-million-dollar industry.”
The PCAARRD book knows why: “The coconut water has lots of healthy nutrients and uses. It is among the purest of all waters. It has no cholesterol but contains more electrolytes than any fruit or vegetable juice, or sports drink currently available in the market. It contains trace amounts of copper, phosphorus, and sulfur, which help correct electrolyte imbalances.
“Coconut water contains enough vitamin C to meet the daily requirements of the body. Further, it keeps the body cool thus, helps maintains the human body’s natural fluid levels while carrying vital nutrients and oxygen to cells. It improves calcium and magnesium absorption which supports the development of strong bones and teeth. It also improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose.”
In his book, How to Live Longer, Dr. Willie T. Ong writes: “Coconut water is good for kidney stones and cleansing the digestive tract. It’s low in carbohydrates, low in sugar and serves as an isotonic beverage, which means it’s good for replenishing your body.”
American nutritionist Jonny Bowden, the author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, considers coconut water to be a “perfectly good option” for people who want to stay hydrated. “It’s high in heart-healthy potassium, with most brands providing about 700 milligrams in an 11-ounce serving – that’s lots more than you get in a banana,” he wrote. “It also has only about 60 calories per 11-ounce serving.”
Another technology featured in the PCAARRD book is the production of coconut sap vinegar. Of vinegar health benefits, it says: “Naturally-fermented coconut vinegar contains vitamins and minerals such as beta carotene, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium. It is also high in natural probiotic flora, which are believed to be helpful in digestive process.”
“The amazing thing about the coconut palm is that it provides almost all the necessities of life: food, drink, oil, medicine, fiber, timber, thatch, mats, fuel, and domestic utensils, as well as serving important environmental services such as soil erosion control in coastal regions, wind protection and shade for other crops.” That was what Craig Elevitch, author of various books on tropical agriculture, has said.
What he failed to mention, however, are the stunning health benefits derived from coconuts!