From classic uses like making creamy curry to Pinterest moms slathering the oil on every bump and bruise, you can't look any place on the Internet or in the grocery store without finding something made with coconut. Though we're not quite as obsessed with it as August Engelhardt (who died due to eating only coconuts) was, it seems like we're on a similar path.
While this sharp increase in coconut product consumption could potentially benefit farmers from the main producing countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, there's a real struggle to keep up with demand. Aging trees, small-scale farms, and a lack of technology is causing Asian and Pacific agricultural organizations to scramble for investments that will allow them to help farmers meet the rising need for coconut products.
Just to see exactly where these billions of dollars worth of coconut products were ending up, a visit to the local Whole Foods was needed. After perusing the aisles, it was clear that America is in the apex of coconut obsession. Here are some of the interesting items we found:
1) Oil Coconut oil seems to have kicked off this crazy coconut fad and has gained the (not always accurate) reputation of a miracle maker. It's endlessly touted as a good cooking oil, treatment for almost any illness, and an amazing addition to body care regimens. Its popularity is reflected in the large display (and individual travel packets) of coconut oil varieties available.
Despite all this, it's not often you'll see coconut oil as an ingredient in Cooking Light recipes. Our dietitian, Sidney Fry, has an explanation for this:
"We love a good quality coconut oil and feel strongly that there's a time a place for it. The reason we don't regularly call for it in our recipes is that it's high in saturated fat – 12g total – which maxes out most of our recipe guidelines (that's 5 more grams of sat fat than butter!). We don't make exceptions for it just because it's plant-based. All recipes have to come in under a total saturated fat limit."
She continues, "We most often reach for lower-in-sat fat plant oils, such as olive and canola, which also have different flavor profiles. Unrefined coconut oil has a fairly strong coconut flavor--keep this in mind when you add it to certain dishes like baked goods. They'll end up with tropical coconut undertones – not a bad thing necessarily, just something to remember. The refined version is flavorless but loses many of the touted benefits of the unrefined version. It's also highly processed. At Cooking Light, we keep coconut oils around for special occasion, and will continue to stick with proven heart-healthy oils like canola and olive until further research has been made about the actual benefits of coconut."[gallery ids="37235,37236" type="square" columns="2"]
2) Butter Tucked in with the coconut oil is the coconut butter, a rich and creamy product with a peanut butter-like texture. Unlike coconut oil, the butter actually contains the meat of the coconut so it's more solid and white. It's a common ingredient in the Paleo Diet and uses for it include replacing other nut butters in baking, spreading on toast, melting and drizzling on desserts, or just eating it straight.
3) Dairy Alternatives (Milk, Creamer, Yogurt, Ice Cream) Dairy alternatives are on the rise just as much as coconuts, so why not combine the two? Beyond the more traditional canned coconut milk, which is available in Whole Foods as well, you'll find thinner drinkable coconut milk, creamer for your coffee, yogurt in various flavors, and an entire shelf of coconut milk ice cream in the freezers.
While it may be a good option for vegans and those with lactose intolerance, the low protein content and high amount of fat actually makes it a poor nutritional replacement for cow's milk. See a side-by-side nutritional comparison of the two milks.
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4) Flour Coconut flour is a gluten-free flour made from de-fatted dried and ground coconut meat. While the high fiber content is nutritionally beneficial, it can sometimes make it a pain to bake with. The fiber increases the absorbency, making it a poor 1-to-1 replacement for wheat flour. Instead, incorporate a smaller portion of it (switch it out for 1/4 of the flour) and slightly increase the liquid content. An easy recipe to introduce yourself to coconut flour is Toasted Coconut Strawberry Pancakes.
5) Sugar Actually made from the sap of the coconut flower rather than the coconut itself, coconut sugar is still a fairly recent addition to the sometimes overwhelming coconut market. In comparison to granulated sugar it has a darker color, deeper flavor, and some versions come with added flavors. Nutritionally, it's very similar to granulated and can be substituted 1-for-1 in baking or other cooking.
6) Chips Perfect for snacking or sprinkling atop yogurt, coconut chips took up a surprisingly large part of the chip aisle. Previously reviewed by us, the chips are a healthy and tasty option for those looking to make better snacking choices.
7) Vinegar A staple in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, coconut vinegar is made from either coconut water or the sap of the coconut tree. Slightly milder and sweeter than apple cider vinegar, coconut vinegar is a great fruity addition to salad dressings, marinades, and more.
8) Juice This product was a little confusing before reading the ingredients list. It's not actually "coconut juice" but instead a blend of fruit juices and coconut milk. The result is a sweet and slightly creamy drink that is much thinner than coconut milk.
9) Water Spurred into popularity by a celebrity health fad, coconut water now has a large established section in the water aisle of Whole Foods and at least a small section in most grocery stores. Known for being a natural alternative to sports drinks, the hydrating water has electrolytes, sodium, and magnesium to help post-work out recovery. Some brands have been found to have less benefits than listed on the cartons, so be sure to buy from a trusted source.