It's hard to think of a food item that has had a more dramatic image makeover than the humble coconut.
Long the province of delectable pies, cakes and pina coladas, the furry globes turned sinister back in the 1990s. That's when the Center for Science in the Public Interest singled out coconut oil in movie theater popcorn as practically poisonous because of its artery-clogging saturated fat content.
We were told to read labels and avoid all foods with coconut oil for fear our circulatory systems grinding to a sudden, fatal halt.
Then Bruce Fife, a doctor of naturopathic medicine, wrote The Coconut Oil Miracle, which defended coconut oil as a misunderstood super food, good for treating everything from cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, to yeast infections, obesity and fatigue.
That led some other researchers to take another look at plant-based saturated fats, including coconut oil. They found that they may actually be heart-healthy by raising HDL, the so-called good blood cholesterol.
That was all some people needed to hear, never mind that it also raises LDL, the bad cholesterol, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Now, coconut oil and scores of other coconut products are found in just about every health food store and supermarket.
People are willing to pay premium prices to drink the water, bake with the flour and flavor their food with coconut oil, milk, cream and sugar. Some people even consume coconut oil by the teaspoonful for its purported health benefits.
Rollin' Oats, a natural foods market in Tampa and St. Petersburg, reports an uptick in sales as coconut finds its way back to the health-conscious shopper's pantry. "Coconut-based products are 10 times the sales of what they were a year ago, not including coconut water, which is very popular," said Rollin' Oats chief operating officer Mike Asher, in an email.
Among the biggest sellers are coconut vinegar, coconut milk, coconut oil, butter, flour, sugar, water, juice, the young fruit itself, coconut flakes, coconut yogurt, kefir and frozen desserts. Coconut oil remains the most hotly debated because of unanswered questions about its saturated fat content and the implications on heart health.
Most nutrition experts advise caution. If you like coconut, enjoy it in moderation, taking into consideration factors like your weight and cardiovascular health. If you don't much care for it, wait for more research before you treat it as medicine.
"It will be a long time before this one is settled," said Nadine Pazder, a registered dietitian with Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. "Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, which does raise HDL, but it also raises LDL, the bad cholesterol. The question is, does raising the HDL cancel out raising the LDL? We just don't know. The definitive research hasn't been done yet."
The National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association still promote a diet low in saturated fat for the prevention of heart disease. Coconut oil is a highly saturated fat and, if it's hydrogenated, it slips into the category of trans fat, which is also bad for your heart.
Plus, like all oils, it's high in calories — about 120 calories per tablespoon.
"I don't consider coconut oil a health food," said Nagi Kumar, a registered dietitian and director of cancer chemoprevention at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, as well as a professor at USF Health. Some of the studies touting the benefits of coconut oil looked at people in India and Asia, where coconut milk and oil are widely used in cooking. They have lower rates of heart disease than the United States, true. But Kumar notes that in those countries the diet is also high in fish and vegetables, low in animal fat, and the people are much more physically active. Coconut milk and oil are used in small quantities in those countries, usually as a flavoring agent.
"If you like it, keep quantities small. If you don't already use it in your diet, don't introduce it," said Kumar, who is of Indian descent and prefers to cook with almond or cashew milk. She uses only small amounts of coconut oil. "To flavor dishes, I just use a teaspoon or so. The best choices for cardiovascular health and cancer prevention are extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil."
But the news about coconut oil isn't all bad. Some hospital patients may find a small amount of prescribed coconut oil on their meal trays. "It's an easier fat to digest that can be stirred into oatmeal or pudding when people have problems with their digestive system," Pazder said.
Coconut water, which is fat-free, gets high marks for its naturally occurring sodium and potassium. "It's refreshing and a good choice for recreational athletes who want to rehydrate," said Kumar, who recommends it instead of sports beverages to replenish electrolytes after a game or workout.
"Coconut water has enzymes that are easily digested, so it can be given to people who are dehydrated from vomiting or diarrhea," she said. "In India, when you get sick, people bring you a coconut so you can drink the water. It's considered medicinal in that sense."
Coconut flour has enjoyed a recent bump in popularity as more people adopt a gluten-free diet. St. Petersburg personal chef Emily Golden Drews says it's a good alternative to wheat flour, but the liquid in your recipe will have to be increased because of coconut flour's high fiber content.
"I was surprised at how much liquid it absorbs," said Drews, who doubles the liquid when subbing coconut flour for wheat flour in a recipe. She likes to use coconut flour for coating chicken before frying, usually in coconut oil, a favorite dish among her clients.
"It has a very high smoke point, so I like using coconut oil for frying. If you're new to the products, you might notice a coconut flavor, but it doesn't stand out to me."
Coconut flour does contain saturated fat (about 15 grams of fat per 100 grams of flour, roughly ¾ cup), but in its favor are its fiber and the fact that you can use less.
If you decide to try coconut products, pick organic options whenever possible, nutritionists advise. Opt for coconut water derived from young or tender coconuts, without added sugar.
Look for virgin coconut oil and avoid oil that is hydrogenated or overly processed. If you're trying to control calories and want to use "light" coconut milk, Kumar recommends making your own by watering down the full-fat version.
"The one you buy in the grocery store is just diluted with water. I prefer to dilute my own using our higher quality water" than manufacturers may use, she said.
And for a cheaper alternative to coconut water after a workout, take Pazder's advice. "Just drink a bottle of water and eat a banana,'' she said. "You get the same effect.''
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]