We've gone nuts for coconut products

  • Article by: JUDY HEVRDEJS , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2013 - 2:40 PM

The popularity of the coconut adds confusion at the supermarket.

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Photo: Bill Hogan • Chicago Tribune,

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Judging by the number of coconut products in supermarkets these days — beyond the flaked coconut your granny used in macaroons and ambrosia — we’ve gone a bit nuts for this fruit.

That’s right: The hairy brown ovoid is not a true nut but the stone of a drupe, which makes it related to peaches and plums.

Just check supermarket refrigerator cases, where cartons of coconut milks, creamers and spreads share space with cultured coconut products (think yogurts and kefirs). Or shelves, where cans of coconut milk, jars of coconut oil and coconut spray-oils nudge bags of shredded and flaked coconut. Or in freezers, where coconut milk desserts sit next to ice creams.

And depending on your coconut crush, there’s coconut tequila, vodka and beer, plus plain and flavored coconut waters based on the thin opaque juice found inside the fruit.

Of course, cooks in Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean have long used coconut milk (made by simmering coconut meat with water, then straining) and coconut oil (pressed from the meat) to enrich dishes much as cooks elsewhere might use cream or butter. Some newer products are coconut creatures of a different sort. Canned coconut milk used in a Thai curry, for example, is not the same as coconut milks found in grocery refrigerated cases.

Which means it’s important to know what you’re buying (check ingredient and nutrition labels carefully), then don’t assume coconut products will work like similar dairy products in cooking.

Milk by any name …

Consider refrigerated cartons of coconut milk. “The coconut milk in the can is the one that tastes so delicious,” says registered dietitian Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re not going to get that deep coconutty flavor, taste and texture with refrigerated coconut milks.”

A look at the ingredient label of refrigerated coconut milk will tell you why. “It is not the same natural coconut milk that you extract from the meat of the coconut, which is super high in fat, super high in calories — 550 calories for 1 cup — and it’s very thick,” Giancoli says. The coconut milk in the dairy section? It’s been watered down to have fewer calories and less fat.

Still, Giancoli says, the refrigerated milks work for smoothies and in cereals, and in “mashed sweet potatoes it would be divine.” And when she uses canned coconut milk in vegetable, meat and many traditional Asian dishes, she opts for the lower-calorie version.

A bit of oil

She’s a fan of coconut oil, spreading it on such fish as salmon or whitefish, so “as it cooks, it makes fish even moister.”

Solid at room temperature, coconut oil has a high smoking point that makes it good for frying and sautéing. “With coconut oil, you’re adding a really nice coconut flavor to your food,” adds the Los Angeles-based nutrition and health writer.

Those cultured coconut milk products similar to yogurts will add a “hint of coconut” layered with fruit into a parfait, she says. But don’t expect their nutrition to equal dairy products.

“Coconut, itself, is all fat with very, very little protein. So you’re not going to be getting naturally occurring carbohydrates or naturally occurring protein, or maybe a tiny, tiny bit of protein,” Giancoli says. Coconut milk and yogurt won’t supply the protein that regular or soy milk does.

“You also want to keep in mind that many of them have added sugars,” she says. Even versions labeled “plain” may have added sugar. “So you want to look for the unsweetened.”

An alternative ingredient

Special diets, food allergies and a search for healthier fats have helped fuel interest in many of the coconut products in supermarkets these days. But it’s important to know what nutrition you’re getting and what you’re not.

“When you’re using these coconut products as substitutes for dairy products, you’re not going to get the same nutritional profile,” especially in the amounts of protein and calcium, says Giancoli.

“Some of these coconut milks only have 10 percent of the daily value for calcium, whereas a glass of dairy milk is going to have 30 percent,” Giancoli says. “Choose a coconut milk or yogurt or whatever it is that has an excellent source of calcium — that is 20 percent or more.”

And keep tabs on added sugars, checking the ingredient labels on products like creamers and frozen desserts. “The frozen desserts, they have a lot of calories per half-cup. Treat them as you would regular ice cream,” she says. “It’s not a license to go overboard on your frozen desserts.”

As for fat realities, when you eat coconut oil or a dairy-based butter or olive oil, “you’re basically getting the same amount of fat. And that means you’re getting a lot of calories,” she says. On the saturated fats in coconut itself and in coconut oil, “the jury’s really still out on whether it has any kind of definite health benefit,” she says.

“There are always foods that develop this health halo around them. And people tend to think that because it does have that health halo, that there are no calories or not any particular consequence from consuming loads and loads of that food,” Giancoli says. “We’re always looking for that one food that is going to let us eat to our heart’s content and not have any consequences. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.”

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