But nowadays, store shelves from New York to London are packed with coconut products.
There’s coconut water, oil, sugar, milk and yogurt – and the list of foods containing coconut as an ingredient goes on and on.
But is coconut just the latest health trend – or does it actually benefit a person’s diet?
Coconut has gone from being a tropical luxury – to a food item readily available on grocery store shelves.
WHAT IS A COCONUT ANYWAY?
Coconut is technically a type of fruit, but it is classified as a nut due to its high fat (particularly saturated fat) content in the flesh.
Saturated fat is the type of fat that increases both good and bad cholesterol – and leads to an increased risk of heart disease.
ARE THERE ANY HEALTH BENEFITS TO COCONUTS?
There has been a lot of hype recently about the fact that the saturated fat found in coconuts – called medium-chained triglycerides – is healthier.
But, this hasn’t been proven in humans yet – only animals.
Coconut water – the juice found in the middle of a cracked coconut – is now marketed as a highly hydrating fluid.
It has less sugar than fruit juices and more minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium.
These properties are great as a post-workout drink if you’ve only been doing moderate exercise.
Yet, there isn’t enough protein or carbohydrate if you’re undergoing vigorous exercise of over one hour.
However, you can achieve the same results by eating a balanced diet and having banana and a glass of milk after a workout – which costs far less than a bottle of coconut water.
BUT HOW ABOUT COCONUTS AS A DAIRY SUPPLEMENT?
Coconut milk is frequently used as a dairy supplement.
There are two types of coconut milk widely available.
One is about 8 per cent coconut cream mixed with water, sugar and preservatives; the other is mixed with rice milk without the need for sugar and requires less preservatives.
Both have a similar calorie content to soya milk – about half that of semi-skimmed milk.
But, they also have a much lower protein content than both soya and semi-skimmed milk.
Ensure that if opting for coconut milk you choose one with added calcium and vitamin D which cannot be naturally found in this product.
You can also now buy coconut yogurt, which is great for those who are lactose-intolerant and who fancy a change from the soya varieties.
It is much higher in fat than both natural dairy yogurt and soya yogurts, but also much lower in carbohydrates
HOW ABOUT COCONUT AS A BAKING SUPPLEMENT?
Coconut sugar can be used instead of traditional sugar in baking.
It has a lower glycemic index than standard granulated sugar, however a similar calorie content per gram.
It may be a healthier alternative to traditional granulated sugar, however it is still an energy-dense food-type which should only be used on special occasions.
Similarly, coconut oil is becoming more and more popular for roasting and baking.
However, coconut sugar can be used instead of traditional sugar in baking, for it has a lower glycemic index. Coconut oil, meanwhile, is similar to butter, but also has some poly- and mono-unsaturated fats that bring additional health benefits
It has a similar nutritional profile to butter in that it has a high saturated fat content which is currently being discovered to be less harmful to health than initially thought – particularly the type of saturated fats which are found in coconut oil: Lauric acid and Myristic acid.
Coconut oil also contains some poly- and mono-unsaturated fats which bring additional health benefits.
It is still an energy-dense food, so should be used in moderation.
CAN COCONUT AID IN WEIGHT LOSS?
Fresh coconut flesh is delicious, full of vitamins and minerals and goes really well in a smoothie.
Enjoy as a snack but go easy on your portion sizes.
Some studies have found that trialing a coconut oil supplement has encouraged weight loss, however 1 tbsp coconut oil provides 115 calories and 13g saturated fat.
That’s double the calorie and saturated fat that you’d find in the same sized lump of cheese.
So, I’d advise that you stick to a monounsaturated fat to cook with, such as rapeseed oil –which has a high smoke point (therefore less harmful free radicals).
The dietitian concluded that coconut oil shouldn’t be used by those trying to lose weight, since it could lower their bad cholesterol but also lead to an increase in caloric intake
Rapeseed oil has been proven to increase your good cholesterol and reduce your bad cholesterol.
New studies may find that it’s healthier for animals or that some people lose weight, but adding 115 calories to your foods and drinks is going to increase your calorie intake.
So I’d say it’s not worth the risk and it’s more likely to cause weight gain.
In short, it’s an unproven fad as of yet.