Everyone seems to have gone coco NUTs in recent years. It has infiltrated cosmetics, skin care, packaged foods, super market aisles, health bars, chocolate and smoothies.
How did this odd hairy nut become so popular? Even it's scientific name is a bit of a mockery...Cocos Nucifera as originally named by the early Spanish explorers. Cocos meaning monkey face and Nucifera meaning nut bearing.
It exploded into the scene about a decade ago and it's hard to imagine that it was a real struggle to find coconut water on Australian supermarket shelves pre-2004.
However, from Brazil to Asia, Africa to Polynesia; cracking open a coconut and sipping it with a straw has long been part of the culture. It's documented uses as a food and medicine dates back 3900 years. The healing benefits of coconut was documented by Ayurvedic medicine in Sanskrit as early as 1500BC. Coconuts are known as the tree of life, surviving cyclones and tsunamis and sustaining Indigenous peoples for generations. It has always been a respected, sustainable resource in many cultures from which the harvest influenced every aspect of the lives of tropical communities, but most importantly its fruit, the coconut flesh, water, milk and oil.
In part it's a case of modern science catching up with tradition. The health benefits of coconut water and oil are now widely recognised, proven and accepted thanks to 'modern' research. Scientific studies conclude that coconut is highly nutritious and rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Coconut water is a natural isotonic that provides electrolytes calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium and potassium in their natural form. It's cholesterol free and virtually fat free. It also boasts zinc, selenium, iodine, sulfur and manganese. Coconut oil's healing, anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties has resulted in its extensive use as a key ingredient in natural cosmetics and beauty creams.
Interestingly, the coconut was used in World War I by Uncle Sam. Gas mask factories used the carbon from charred coconut shells to manufacture gas absorbents. The government even encouraged people in the US to use coconuts in many recipes so that the shells could be shipped to Europe for gas mask production.
During WWII the water of the young green coconut was successfully used as a substitute for a saline drip saving the lives of many allied soldiers. After the war, in England coconut oil was sold as “margarine” and in the USA as “coconut butter”.
The reputation of the coconut plunged in the 1950s when the American edible oil industries started heavily promoting their polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Some medical studies reported that eating saturated fats causes high triglyceride levels. The research claimed all saturated fats raise cholesterol levels and should be eliminated from diets; including butter and coconut oil. These studies were based on hydrogenated coconut oils, a highly processed form of oil that's completely different to Virgin Coconut Oil. Hydrogenated is a process that transforms all fats into man-made, dangerous, carcinogenic trans fatty acids.
With help from the edible oil industry, the United States Government soon adopted new dietary guidelines stating that:
"All saturated fats cause heart disease and should be replaced with polyunsaturated fats."
The once heralded coconut oil was shunned due to its saturated fat content. Of course we now know that the opponents of saturated fat ceased to differentiate between the three different types of saturated fat. All saturated fats were simply generalised under one category, ignoring the fact that some saturated fat is in fact necessary for human health.
Modern research has shown that not all saturated fats are alike and coconut oil is unique in its structural make-up due to its medium chain fatty acids – the closest to those found in human breast milk that nature provides. They are the reason why coconut oil is used extensively in baby formula and also in sports drinks and energy bars, where it is usually described as MCT (medium chain tryglycerides). This disguises the fact that some form of coconut oil has been used. Medium chain fatty acids are more easily digested as they are processed directly in the liver and immediately converted into energy.
Many, supposedly ’healthy’ vegetable oils are hydrogenated. Other so called ’healthy’ polyunsaturated oils form toxic free radicals when heated. Virgin coconut oil is very stable and it is highly resistant to free radical generation when heated, even at high temperatures which makes it exceptionally safe to cook with.
The coconut rose to popularity again in 2004, when a handful of entrepreneurs formed Vita Coco and introduced coconut water as a packaged drink to the US. Celebrities such as Demi Moore, Madonna and Matthew McConaughey invested in the company in 2007 and that ignited a global trend. Coca-cola and PepsiCo also caught on to the trend and own their own respective coconut brands, Zico and O.N.E respectively. These three brands combined have gone from zero sales in 2004 to almost $400 million in the US alone.
And where the water of an unripe green coconut was once regarded as waste, it’s global demand is now expected to reach around 350 million litres by 2020. This is a far cry from where it was in the 1950s.
The demand for coconuts from Brazil has already exceeded the country’s supply capacity. Procurement strategies have now shifted to the Asia Pacific. In the Philippines, coconut water export doubled from 5.7 million litres worth $5.6 million to 10.2 million litres worth US $11.2 million during first half of 2012. Ultimately though, the high margins mostly come at the expense of the coconut farmer. Reassuringly, more companies are now shifting toward ethical “organic” and “fairtrade”.
It is important to note that whilst big brands market their coconut water as a 100% pure natural juice, how coconut water is extracted and packaged is critical. A commonly used method by some brands is heat pasteurising, which actually burns out the natural taste and nutrients of the coconut. If you're buying it in a carton or bottle it's highly likely that your coconut water will have been pasteurised and may also contain less nutrients and minerals then the claims written on the package.
To receive the full benefits of coconut water the best thing you can do is crack upon a fresh coconut and consume immediately. Be sure to use the flesh as it is not only delicious but packed with nutrients and fibre. On a hot day there are few things more satisfying than sipping the juice from a fresh whole coconut and scooping out its flesh.
Time to invest in a good coconut opener.