Aug. 16, 2009 -- The word coconut probably brings to mind images of tropical beaches and palm trees. But for hundreds of years the coconut has been a dietary staple for cultures all over the globe.
The coconut has been much maligned in the past for its fat content, but as new information has come out regarding the health benefits of coconuts, products from this functional food have started invading shelves across America.
The coconut is a member of the palm tree family. It's not a fruit, though it can be found in the produce section -- and, despite its name, a coconut is not a tree nut.
Because of that, coconut products are safe for those with tree nut allergies.
The coconut also provides different products at different stages of its gestation.
Young baby coconuts look like green water balloons and are filled with water. Coconut water, unlike coconut milk, contains no fat and more potassium than a banana.
The health benefits of coconut water have been attracting the most attention.
"With the coconut water, we actually have a mix of electrolytes," says Ashley Koff, a registered dietician. "I like to call coconut water 'nature's Gatorade.'"
The electrolytes, with help from the potassium, help the body absorb water better.
"It actually goes straight into our blood stream," Koff says, "so it's extremely hydrating."
Mature coconuts are the kind most consumers are familiar with. They have a hard, hairy shell. They contain milk and oil -- and all the fat and protein that have turned people off for years.
"For a long time, when we were hearing about saturated fat, coconut oil was off limits," says Koff. "But interestingly, the type of fat in here is medium chain fatty acids. And that is a type of fatty acid that goes right through our digestive system, so it's actually beneficial for us there."
Because coconut oil has such a higher burn point, higher than olive oil, it is great for cooking.
Though coconuts can be a healthier option, Koff warns, "We do have to be conscious of things like sugar and fat content."
Coconut water, though it does have sugar, has significantly less sugar than most fruit juices. An 11 oz. container of coconut water contains 15 grams of sugar, but Koff says that's about as much as in 4 oz. of apple juice.
Coconut products are all over the shelves at the grocery store these days. You can buy raw coconut, coconut water, oil, even yogurt and ice cream.
Coconut milk can be a good alternative for people with dairy allergies.
When buying a raw coconut, check how soft the shell is and give it a good shake. You should hear liquid inside.