KITCHEN SHRINK: Going crazy for coconuts

Everyone knows what a coconut looks like — a hairy brown sphere that needs a sledgehammer to crack open exposing firm white "meat" and watery milk; they smell it on beaches as many sunscreens are infused with its sweet essence; they eat it in traditional Thai dishes, cakes or cookies; or drink it in pina coladas. But does anybody know the truth about this often maligned and misunderstood seed? So would the real coconut please stand up (fall down or roll over)!

Origin of the species

Botanists are uncommitted about the coconut's origin since the fruit scatters the seeds thousands of miles. As the coconut can stay afloat for months and still germinate, it's believed that it originated anywhere between the Eastern Indian and Western Pacific Oceans in the vicinity of New Guinea. From there it may have been distributed to Africa, and was thought to have made its debut in the Caribbean from Africa by coconut-toting Europeans.

Killer coconuts

Various reports have blamed 150 deaths a year worldwide from falling coconuts, but these seem exaggerated. Sure, injuries including fractured skulls and concussions have been reported in exotic parts from falling coconuts, but few fatal ones. Since the trees are typically 25 meters high, and the coconut averages 3 kilograms, the falling seed would have a tremendous velocity with a force around 1,000 kilograms. Standing advice – don't climb, loiter near, lounge or walk under a coconut tree.

Milk it for all its worth

The coconut not only has several food uses, but industrial and decorative ones as well:

  • Palm sugar from the sap and nectar of coconut trees makes a caramel-flavored replacement for brown sugar or molasses in cooking and baking
  • Copra is the dried "meat" used shredded in baked goods and confections; raw copra can be grated and squeezed to form coconut "milk"
  • Coconut oil surpasses olive oil production, and was the most popular vegetable oil four decades ago until soy slid ahead
  • Coir fiber from the husks makes potting mixes, rope, matting, fuel and automotive parts
  • Shells are used in decorate bowls, furniture and other home decor
  • Water in the immature coconuts makes a refreshing, immune-boosting drink

Seed for all seasons

The coconut was once branded an "unhealthy" food because of its high saturated fat content. Here's the skinny on its fat:

According to Bruce Fife in "Coconut Cures," lauric acid which comprises about half the fatty acids in coconut oil, has been linked to raising HDL (good cholesterol) and actually improving the cholesterol ratio, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

Not just the oil, but the meat, milk and water have been praised as an amazing functional food and medicine, performing such feats as dissolving kidney stones, improving thyroid function, killing disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi, and hiking energy levels and increasing metabolism. The coconut also provides tremendous fiber and boosts the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.

Dr. Carolyn Mein, Rancho Santa Fe-based chiropractic physician and coconut advocate recommends Tropical Traditions Virgin Coconut Oil for cooking since it has a high flash point and doesn't burn, as a substitute for butter drizzled on steamed veggies and seafood, and for the health of skin and hair.

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