The hardy coconut has come out of its shell.
Over the past few years, companies have discovered a multitude of uses for the versatile plant, incorporating its milk, meat, water and even sugar into everything from tea to ice cream. Coconut water, with its reputation as an all-natural energy drink, is the most visible success story.
But coconuts have been showing up lately in unexpected places. The Republic of Tea has come out with a coconut cocoa tea that blends the signature ingredients with roasted carob, chicory and dates. In the freezer aisle, Coconut Bliss has introduced four new flavors that feature coconut sugar, in addition to the company's dozen-plus flavors of ice cream made with coconut milk. Made from crystallizing the juice inside coconut palm flowers, coconut sugar, though pricey, has quickly gained a following for its unique taste. It's also low on the Glycemic Index, and seen as an eco-friendly alternative since growing and processing the raw materials don't require additional resources.
“It has this really rich, caramel-y flavor,” said Kiley Gwynn, spokeswoman for Coconut Bliss.
Coconut milk, which in its undiluted form is packed with calories and saturated fat, has gotten a healthy makeover. Brands like So Delicious and Silk now offer slimmed-down coconut milk with a fraction of the original fat and calories as part of their lineup of dairy alternatives.
“It's coconut milk that they've really diluted down to lower the calories,” said Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “It's a good way to save some calories if you really like coconut milk, or if you're lactose intolerant and you don't like soy or rice milk.”
This is a far cry from 30 years ago, when studies linking saturated fat to heart disease gave a failing health grade to coconuts and coconut oil, which was widely used by manufacturers of processed foods. A cup of Silk or Soy Delicious coconut milk still contains 25% of the daily recommended amount of saturated fat, but new research is starting to question whether even this is harmful. Much of the saturated fat found in coconuts is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids, which are more quickly metabolized than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fat. A study by McGill University in Canada found that consuming MCFAs actually raised the metabolisms of test subjects, in some cases leading to weight loss.
Coconut fans in the science community, like Bruce Fife of the non-profit Coconut Research Center, believe these so-called “good fats” contain all sorts of healing properties. Others caution that saturated fat is still saturated fat.
“It may not be as unhealthy as we once thought it was, but it still needs to be consumed in moderation,” said Giancoli.