Said to be one of the healthiest foods on earth, the coconut certainly seems to have many benefits.  The coconut (Cocos nucifera) belongs to the Palm family and is grown in abundance in Malaysia, Polynesia and southern Asia. Early Spanish explorers named them cocos meaning “monkey face” because the three indentations (eyes) on the hairy nut resembles the head and face of a monkey. Nucifera means “nut-bearing. They are classed as a fruit but frequently confused for being a nut, the coconut is actually a one-seeded drupe. On many islands coconut is a staple in the diet and provides the majority of the food eaten. In Sanskrit, the coconut palm is known as kalpa vriksha which means a tree which gives all that is necessary for living. Nearly all parts can be used, the water, milk, flesh, sugar and oil. Even the husks and leaves are used as materials in furnishings and decoration. Palm trees produce coconuts up to 13 times a year and although it takes a year for the coconuts to mature, a fully blossomed tree can produce between 60-180 coconuts in a single harvest. Nearly one third of the world’s population depends on coconut to some degree for their food and their economy and among these cultures the coconut has a long and respected history. For thousands of years coconut products have held a respected and valuable place in local folk medicine. Wherever the coconut palm grows the people have learned of its importance as a effective medicine.

Modern medical science is now confirming the use of coconut in treating many conditions. Published studies in medical journals show that coconut, in one form or another, may provide a wide range of health benefits and has been used to treat a wide variety of health problems.

While coconut possesses many health benefits due to its fibre and nutritional content, it’s the oil that makes it a truly remarkable food and medicine. This oil is of special interest because it possesses healing properties far beyond that of any other dietary oil and is extensively used in traditional medicine among Asian and Pacific populations. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, having antiviral and antibacterial effects, so can be used to ease skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis when applied directly.

Coconut oil was once believed to be unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content, it is now known that the fat in coconut oil is a unique and different from most all other fats and possesses many health giving properties. What makes coconut oil different from other fats is in the fat molecule. Coconuts contain significant amounts of fat, but unlike other nuts, the fat that they provide is mostly in the form of medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) in particular, one called lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted in the body into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin, an antiviral and antibacterial that destroys a wide variety of disease causing organisms. It is therefore now thought that consumption of coconut milk may help protect the body from infections and viruses.

MCFAs are rapidly metabolised into energy in the liver. It is thought that unlike other saturated fats, MCFAs are used up more quickly by the body and are less likely to be stored as fat. This does not exempt them from contributing to heart disease are they are still fats, but they have a different effect than saturated fats. The link between excessive consumption of dietary saturated fats and coronary heart disease is well established. Therefore as coconut milk provides high content of saturated fatty acids, it is still seen as a food that should be consumed in moderation.

Coconuts are highly nutritious and rich in fibre, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and minerals including iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. It is classified as a “functional food” because it provides many health benefits beyond its nutritional content. Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose free so can be used as a milk substitute by those with lactose intolerance. It is a popular choice with vegans and makes a great base for smoothies, milkshakes or as a dairy alternative in baking.

Creamed coconut and coconut milk are made in a similar way to their dairy counterparts. Coconut flesh (the white part) is grated and soaked in hot water, the. coconut cream rises to the top and can be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract a white liquid that is coconut milk. By repeating this process, the coconut milk becomes thinner. The thicker version is used for desserts and rich sauces. Thin coconut milk is used for cooking curries and soups.

Coconut milk is different to coconut water and has received a great deal of attention for it’s perceived health benefits, and is an important treatment for acute diarrhoea in the developing world. Research suggests the clear liquid has the same electrolyte balance found in isotonic drinks, proving useful for rehydration or after long periods of intensive exercise.