Coconut Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Coconut annotated

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Coconuts (Coco nucifera) are the seed and fruit of the palm tree family. They are found in tropical regions where they are harvested for their white flesh, oil, and juices.

In the United States, fresh whole coconut is considered an exotic food and is mostly consumed by health enthusiasts. With its rise in popularity, however, it is getting easier to find whole coconuts or coconut pieces in local markets. Shredded coconut is commonly found in grocery stores.

Coconut can be a delicious and nutritious addition to your diet when consumed in moderation. Despite being high in saturated fat, coconuts provide manganese and fiber.

Coconut Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for one piece (45g) of fresh coconut meat measuring 2" x 2" x 1/2". 

  • Calories: 160
  • Fat: 15g
  • Sodium: 9mg
  • Carbohydrates: 6.8g
  • Fiber: 4g
  • Sugars: 2.8g
  • Protein: 1.5g

Carbs

One piece of fresh, unsweetened coconut meat has just 6.8 carbs, most of which is insoluble fiber—an indigestible form of dietary carbohydrate. Insoluble fiber provides bulk to stool, and can help prevent constipation and the development of hemorrhoids.

There is a small amount of naturally-occurring sugar in coconut, but just 2.8 grams per serving. The glycemic load of a single serving of fresh coconut meat is estimated to be about 6.

Fats

There are 15 grams of fat in a single serving of coconut meat. Most of the fat (13.4g) is saturated fat. There is also a small amount of monounsaturated fat (0.64g) and a smaller amount of polyunsaturated fat (0.16g).

Coconut is one of the highest plant-based sources of saturated fat. Saturated fat is the type mainly derived from meat protein. It is associated with hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and heart disease.

There has been substantial discussion in health and research settings about the relative risks and benefits of the different types of fat in coconut and coconut oil. Coconut provides medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs are considered by some to be healthier than long-chain fatty acids (found in meat and dairy sources). Regardless, the fat in coconut provides 9 calories per gram, just like all fat. So it is smart to consume it in moderation.

Protein

Coconut meat is not a rich source of protein, but it provides about 1.5 grams per piece.

Vitamins and Minerals

A single serving of coconut meat provides 34% of the daily value for manganese, a mineral that helps your body maintain a healthy brain, nervous system, and immune function.

You'll also benefit from other minerals in coconut including copper (10%), selenium (6%), iron (6%) and small amounts of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

Coconut is not a significant source of vitamins, but there are small amounts of folate, vitamin C, and thiamin. 

Health Benefits

Coconuts have gained popularity for their purported disease-fighting properties, but many of the claims are either unsupported by research or simply inflated by food manufacturers.

Coconut meat has not been studied as widely as coconut oil, which is derived from coconut meat. Keep in mind that while you may gain certain coconut oil benefits when you consume coconut meat. But the meat yields far less oil than a comparable serving of the oil.

Improved Cholesterol

Some proponents of coconut oil believe that it is far better for your health than consuming other forms of saturated fat. Coconut oil is often promoted for its beneficial effects on cholesterol levels.

The fat in coconut comes primarily from lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid. This type of fat breaks down faster and does not accumulate in the bloodstream as much as the long-chain fatty acids found in meat and dairy products. Instead, medium chain saturated fatty acids are directly absorbed from the intestine and sent straight to the liver to be rapidly used for energy production. They do not participate in the biosynthesis and transport of cholesterol.

For this reason, some believe that coconut can decrease "bad" LDL cholesterol. But studies have shown that coconut oil can raise your LDL cholesterol. One published study found that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol less than butter, but significantly more than unsaturated plant oils.

However, there is some potentially positive evidence regarding coconut oil and HDL levels. HDL cholesterol is considered to be a "good" cholesterol. Some studies have found that consuming coconut oil can boost HDL levels. Researchers suggest that the HDL increase may be due to the high levels of both lauric acid and myristic acid.

Decreased Infections

Research published in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Food Science suggests that the fatty acids in coconut contain powerful antioxidants that help boost immune function and reduce systemic inflammation in the body. Study authors note that these antioxidants may help protect the body from infections.

Weight Loss

Many fans of coconut and coconut oil claim that it can help you to slim down. A 2018 review of studies supported certain weight-loss related claims, suggesting that the medium chain triglycerides in coconut and coconut oil could enhance fat burning, increased energy expenditure, and even suppress appetite, but only if included as part of a low-fat diet.

Another analysis of studies published in 2015 compared consumption of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as those found in coconut oil with long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) for the purposes of weight loss. Study authors concluded that replacement of LCTs with MCTs in the diet could potentially induce modest reductions in body weight and composition. Study authors noted, however, that further research is required by independent research groups using large, well-designed studies to confirm these findings and to determine the dosage needed for the management of a healthy body weight and composition.

Heart Disease

There are numerous controversial claims that coconut can prevent heart disease. Many of these claims are based on the fact that people from tropical areas where coconuts are widely consumed traditionally had a lower risk for heart disease.

According to epidemiological research published in 1981, Tokelauans, for whom coconut represents 60% of the daily diet, had no evidence of heart disease or hypercholesterolemia despite the high intake of lauric and myristic acid. But researchers also point out that these people also ate diets rich in fish and plant foods.

Many scientists now believe that the cardioprotective properties of coconut consumption have been exaggerated. In fact, a large review of studies found little evidence supporting the fact that consuming coconut or coconut oil (instead of unsaturated oil) reduced the risk for heart disease.

More recent claims that coconut meat, coconut milk, or coconut oil can boost mental function in people with Alzheimer's disease remains largely unsupported.

Reduced Cell Damage

Coconut and coconut oil are known to provide antioxidants These antioxidants may help reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of metabolic and aging-related diseases by eliminating free radicals that cause cell damage. 

Allergies

Coconut allergy is rare but can occur, particularly in people with a known allergy to walnuts or other tree nuts. If an allergy were to occur, it would most likely be in the form of contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction caused when coconut or coconut oil comes into contact with skin. Coconut-derived compounds such as diethanolamine, cocamide sulfate, and cocamide DEA are sometimes found in cosmetics.

Less commonly, people may experience a food allergy after eating coconut. Symptoms can include nausea, stomach pain, swelling of the lips, runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, and an itchy or burning mouth sensation.

Anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly all-body reaction, is exceptionally rare when eating coconut, according to a 2017 study from Texas College Hospital. Even so, coconuts are classified as nuts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and must be disclosed as a possible allergen on food product labels.

Adverse Effects

There are no known drug interactions to coconut or coconut oil. 

Varieties

People often wonder if coconut is a fruit, a vegetable, or a nut. In fact, coconut is a one-seeded drupe. A drupe is a fruit that has a hard covering on the seed, like a peach or cherry. Walnuts, almonds, and pecans are also drupes, but we commonly refer to them nuts.

It can take a lot of work to extract coconut meat from the whole fruit so many people purchase coconut either freshly shredded or dried and shredded. The liquids inside are available as coconut milk or coconut water.

A one-ounce serving of dried shredded coconut has slightly more calories than a serving of fresh coconut. But many brands of shredded coconut add some sugar during processing. A half-cup (100 grams) of shredded, sweetened coconut provides 500 calories, nearly 48 grams of carbohydrate, 43 grams of sugar, 35 grams of fat, and 2.8 grams of protein.

The nutritional value of other coconut foods and beverages can vary substantially.

  • A one-cup serving of coconut milk has 75 calories, 0.5 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbohydrate, 0 grams of fiber, 6 grams of sugar, 5 grams of fat.
  • Coconut water from a full coconut has 37 calories and just under 0.4 grams of protein, 8.7 grams of protein, and 0 grams of fat.
  • A one-tablespoon serving of coconut oil has 121 calories with 11 grams of saturated fat.
  • One tablespoon of coconut cream (canned and sweetened) has 68 calories, 3 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbohydrate (mostly sugar), and 0.2 grams of protein.

When It’s Best

Coconuts grow year-round in tropical and subtropical regions. However, if you plant a coconut tree, it can take 12 to 13 years for the tree to bear fruit.

You may see both brown and green coconuts at the store. They are the same variety, but differ in age. Green coconuts are younger and have less meat. Brown coconuts are fully mature and have less juice.

To choose the best coconut at the store, find one that feels heavy for its size. Shake the coconut and listen for liquid inside. Avoid coconuts with cracks.

Storage and Food Safety

A whole coconut can be stored at room temperature for up to four months. Once cracked open, refrigerate coconut meat for up to a week. You can also freeze it for up to three months. Coconut milk should also be refrigerated and consumed within three days.

If you buy a package of shredded coconut, keep it in an airtight container. It should stay fresh for four to six months stored at room temperature. Shredded fresh coconut should be treated like a fresh whole coconut that has been cracked open. It has a much shorter shelf life.

How to Prepare

A shell of a whole coconut is extremely hard. While some people will tell you to smash it against a concrete floor to crack the shell, you are likely to lose many of the juices inside. Instead, try shelling a coconut with five simple tools: a hammer or mallet, a long metal skewer, a butter knife, a vegetable peeler, and some kitchen towels.

To break down a whole coconut:

  1. Poke the skewer through the softest of the three eyes of the coconut, working it around to create a 1/2-inch hole.
  2. Drain the coconut water into a bowl. There should be around 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup. If the juice does not taste fresh, throw the coconut away.
  3. Holding the coconut with a towel, firmly tap the shell with the hammer, turning as needed, until the shell starts to crack in half.
  4. When it is cracked all the way around, split the shell and lay the coconut cut side down on a kitchen towel. 
  5. Tap the shell firmly to loosen the flesh.
  6. Carefully pry the flesh from the shell with a butter knife.
  7. Once the flesh is release, remove the thin brown skin with a vegetable peeler. You can grate, shred, or juice the flesh as needed.

Use toasted coconut flakes as a topping for desserts and side dishes, or add it to a trail mix or your favorite granola recipe. You can also incorporate it into baked goods.

It is easy to toast coconut. Start by preheating your oven to 325c F. Spread coconut flakes thinly on a baking sheet and put them in the oven for around five or 10 minutes until they're golden brown. Keep an eye on them because they toast quickly. It helps to stir them once or twice so that they brown evenly.

Recipes

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