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Q: Every time I turn around I see another food product made from coconut. Why are there so many products based on coconut on the market?
—Robin D., Newark, N.J.
A: Coconut, the seed and fruit of the coconut palm, is a nutritious and versatile food that has been a staple in the diets of many Pacific island populations for thousands of years. It is a good source of fiber, easily absorbed fats called medium chain triglycerides, and minerals such as potassium and manganese.
Coconut is used in many modern food products because its nutritional profile makes it a helpful addition for people following a wide range of diets, including vegan, gluten-free, Paleo, and ketogenic. What’s more, its many parts can be used in different ways to substitute for common allergenic foods—especially milk, flour, and soy sauce. Here’s a rundown of some of the best coconut-based foods to try incorporating into your diet.
Unsweetened Shredded Coconut
The meat from fresh whole coconut that has been dried and cut into fine pieces is both a snack food and baking item. One readily available brand is Let’s Do Organic. It’s easy to use: Just sprinkle it over a bowl of berries or pineapple pieces, or use it in baking recipes or as a dessert topping.
Coconut Milk/Cream and Coconut Milk Products
Coconut milk and coconut cream are excellent nondairy alternatives to add to coffee or tea; to mix in soups, stews, curries, and smoothies; and to use in baking. Coconut cream is the first pressed liquid from fresh coconut meat that has been grated, blended, and strained. Coconut milk is a diluted version of coconut cream, with more water added. Most brands of canned coconut milk include the thickening agent guar gum. For a brand made purely from organic coconut and purified water, try Native Forest Simple Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk.
If you avoid milk products but would like to eat yogurt or ice cream, try coconut milk yogurt or coconut milk frozen desserts. So Delicious is one brand that offers both of these convenience foods in a wide range of flavors, including some that are sugar-free.
Extracted from the flesh or meat of coconut, this heat-stable oil is good for stir-frying or sautéing, or to add by the spoonful to your coffee. It is also a wonderful dairy-free substitute for butter when making baked goods. Look for organic, virgin coconut oil from companies such as Nutiva and NOW Foods.
Coconut Nectar and Coconut Sugar
Coconut nectar, a nutrient-rich sap from coconut blossoms, is a liquid sweetener that can replace honey or agave syrup in recipes. Unrefined coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, is made from evaporated coconut nectar, and can be used as a replacement for the same amount of sugar in recipes. Both coconut nectar and coconut sugar do not taste like coconut. Instead, they have a slight caramel-like taste. Organic varieties of raw coconut nectar and unrefined coconut sugar are available from Coconut Secret and Big Tree Farms.
The clear liquid inside coconuts, coconut water, sometimes called coconut juice, contains easily digested carbohydrates in the form of sugar, plus it’s a good source of potassium. Coconut water may be better at replacing lost fluids after exercise than water, but it does not serve as a complete sports drink in extreme heat or after strenuous exercise because it is low in sodium. For a no-added-sugar sports drink made with coconut water, try NOOMA Organic Electrolyte Drink, which was developed by two brothers who used to play hockey. It contains added sodium from pink Himalayan salt, and is sweetened with organic stevia leaf extract.
Made from coconut tree sap with no yeast or other fermentation catalyst, Coconut Secret Coconut Aminos is a soy-free and wheat-free alternative to soy sauce. It contains 73 percent less sodium than even reduced-sodium versions of soy sauce, and it can replace soy sauce or tamari in any recipe. For quick, flavorful meal preparation, also try coconut aminos-based salad dressings, such as Primal Kitchen Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette and Marinade, and Garlic and Teriyaki Sauces made by Coconut Secret.
This crunchy snack food made from toasted coconut slices is rich in heart-healthy lauric acid. It’s lower in carbohydrates than regular chips and has as much fiber and less sugar than a medium apple. Stay away from flavors that have added sugars, and stick to those with simple ingredients, such as Dang Lightly Salted (Unsweetened) Coconut Chips, which are made with just coconut and sea salt.
This flour, made of fiber from the coconut meat after most of the oil has been extracted, can be a big help for people who follow specialty diets. Not only is coconut flour naturally gluten-free and vegan, it’s also grain-free and low-carb, and it produces baked goods that are light, fluffy, and moist.
Coconut flour has more fiber than any other flour, so baking with it needs to be
one very differently than baking with regular flour. A small amount of coconut flour is combined with several eggs to make baked goods such as cakes and muffins. If you haven’t baked with this flour before, it’s best to follow recipes designed specifically for coconut flour until you become accustomed to it. Organic coconut flour is available from companies including Arrowhead Mills, Let’s Do Organic, Bob’s Red Mill, and Nutiva.