Coconut meat, milk: healthy or not?

Thai and Far Eastern cooking is becoming more and more popular in western countries, leading to an increased interest in cooking with coconut products.

At first glance, it would seem that coconut products are healthy seeing that the Far East, in comparison to western populations, has a lower incidence of heart disease.

In this article, DietDoc takes a look at the nutritive composition of coconut meat and milk in order to find out if these food products contain healthy or harmful nutrients.

Nutrient composition
The three most commonly used coconut products, besides coconut oil, are: dried or desiccated coconut that is used in baking and as a side-dish in curries; raw coconut meat or flesh that is obtained from fresh coconuts and is used in many recipes; coconut milk that is also obtained from fresh coconuts and forms the basis of many a Thai dish.

The nutritive composition of these three coconut products is as follows:

Nutrient Coconut meat, dried or desiccated, per 100 g Coconut meat, raw, per 100 g Coconut milk, raw, per 100 g
Moisture % 3,0 47,0 67,6
Energy (kcal and kJ) 660 and 2762 354 and 1480 230 and 962
Protein (g) 6,9 3,3 2,3
Total fat (g) 64,5 33,5 23,8
Saturated fat (g) 57,2 29,7 21,1
Monounsaturated fat (g) 2,8 1,4 1,0
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 0,7 0,4 0,3
Cholesterol (mg) 0 0 0
Carbohydrate (g) 7,2 6,2 5,5
Dietary fibre (g) 16,5 9,0 0

(Values obtained from the SA Food Composition Tables, Ed. 3 (1991) p. 75)

Negative attributes
If we look at the nutritive composition shown in the table above, it is evident that these three coconut products have very high total and saturated fat contents.

Foods rich in total fat and saturated fat have been identified as potential risk factors in the development of a variety of diseases of lifestyle, such as heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and diabetes.

Coconut meat that has been dried or desiccated is very concentrated and has a low moisture content, which is why it has the highest total fat and saturated fat content.

Fresh, raw coconut meat contains more moisture that 'dilutes' the nutrient content. Therefore, it has a lower total fat and saturated fat content, but these values are still very high.

The same applies to fresh coconut milk that has the highest moisture content (nearly 68%) and thus has the lowest total fat and saturated fat content of these three products.

In all three products the saturated fat fraction makes up about 88,7% of the total fat content - the mono- and polyunsaturated fat contents of these coconut products are negligible.

Dietary advice would, therefore, be to use these coconut products in moderation.

Positive attributes
The three coconut products also have positive nutritive attributes. They are rich in plant protein, especially the dried coconut meat, and they do not contain any cholesterol.

It should, however, be kept in mind that plant products generally don't contain cholesterol, so this is not a unique characteristic of coconut products.

Probably the most positive attribute of dried and fresh coconut meat is the high dietary fibre content. Theoretically, this positive feature could counteract the negative attributes of the high total fat and saturated fat contents. But coconut milk does not contain any dietary fibre.

Tricky questions
'"So," you might be saying, "if coconut products are so high in potentially harmful fats and saturated fats, why don't people living in Thailand and other parts of the Far East suffer from as much heart disease as western people?"

The answer to this question is complex.

People living in the Far East and Thailand may well eat quite a lot of these potentially harmful coconut products, but they also eat a totally different diet to western populations.

In some ways, diets in the Far East and Thailand are still relatively unsophisticated and do not include many fast foods or animal products. These diets are based on fruit, vegetables, starches like rice, plenty of fish, very little meat, and products derived from plants.

If practically the only source of saturated fat in the Far Eastern diet is coconut milk and meat, these people will be ingesting much less total fat and saturated fat than westerners.

In addition, people in the Far East use red palm oil for cooking, which is rich in protective nutrients such as beta-carotene and monounsaturated fats.

Finally, these people also do a great deal of hard physical work, which is one of the most important factors in preventing all the diseases of lifestyle.

In contrast, the western diet already contains far too much total and saturated fat (fast foods, cakes, pastries, snack food, animal products), so adding another source of saturated fat in the form of coconut meat and milk to such a diet will not have health benefits. Note that there is no harm in eating coconut meat and milk as part of a varied diet and you will not develop heart disease from having the odd meal in a Thai restaurant, but in terms of western food intake, you will not obtain any health benefits from eating coconut products.

By all means enjoy Thai cooking, but don't think that this will protect you against heart disease.

To obtain the benefits that people in the Far East enjoy, you need to eat more fruit and vegetables, legumes and pulses, sour milk, fish, and red palm oil, and to become physically active. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

(References: MRC Food Composition Tables, 3rd Edition (1991). Langenhoven et al (1996), p. 95; asksam/healthydiet/fruitandvegq/).

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