Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Coconut

I grew up in the 1970s and, for some reason, coconut seemed very prevalent. During the summer, beach breezes hung heavy with the exotic scent of Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil (what was an SPF?). No barbecue would be complete without an Ambrosia Salad - an "almost homemade" mashup of canned pineapple, mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows - sweet, sticky and heavily sprinkled with shaved coconut. Plus, coconuts were used for everything on "Gilligan's Island." Coconuts were exotic, sexy, delicious and utilitarian. Clearly, a gift from the Tiki Gods.

But even with all of us putting the lime in the coconut nothing has shaken the industry for this tropical treat like the recent health-driven craze for the stuff. Demand for coconut is driving the market to heights that would have been unbelievable only a decade ago. Everyone seems to be coocoo for coconut.

A Brief History of Coconuts

Although coconut palms can be found around the world, their DNA can be traced to two distinct populations, one that traces back to the coasts of India, and another group that descended from palms in Southeast Asia, also known as "Pacific" coconuts. These two kinds of coconuts have migrated all over the world.

Coconuts' ability to float has allowed the plant to "sail" to many shores where it has readily established itself across most of the tropical countries of the world. The seeds drop from the tree, get drawn out by the tide, wash ashore and germinate along the coast. A coconut can float in salt water for over two months, giving it enough time to travel far from its original tree.

Sailors often brought coconuts along on their voyages as a source of food, water, fuel and oil. As they traveled along developing trade routes, they left breadcrumb trails of coconut plants in their wakes. As trade routes strengthened, coconut entered the flow of spices, sugarcane and other exotic goods that were trafficked from tropical climates to Europe and eventually the New World.

In recent years, however, the demand for coconut has skyrocketed astronomically. Added to the extensive list of uses for them (more on that below), coconut has come to be seen as a panacea for everything from post-workout hydration to dry skin and crow's feet - a drinking fountain and one of youth, too. 

As recently as ten years ago, the future of the coconut industry was bleak. Coconut farmers weren't even replanting their crops because they saw no future in it. Then coconut products, driven by supposed health benefits, set fire to demand. According to the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, an inter-governmental agency that works to promote the coconut industry, exports of coconut water from the Philippines jumped from just 647,000 liters in 2008 to 1.8 million liters in 2010. It then soared to 61 million liters in 2015.

Now farmers face a shortage as trees become too old to remain productive and there is a shortage of new growth trees to fill the gap. On average, a coconut tree's lifespan is up to 100 years, but peak production happens between ages 10 and 30. It takes a tree up to five years to bear fruit. So, farmers are left with a choice. Rely on a less productive but still fruiting tree or replant and wait out the tree's first unfruitful years.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global demand is growing at 10 percent a year. Yet, regional Asia-Pacific production of coconut is only growing at a rate of about 1.3 percent per year. Prices for coconut products are climbing and large corporations are creating a number of initiatives to increase production and maximize efficiency. But will the coconut craze continue long enough to cash in on these efforts?

Factual Nibbles

  • Coconuts were originally named by Portuguese wayfarers who thought they resembled the pumpkin-like head of the mythical ghost monster, "Coco."
  • On January 9, 1878, the Spanish brig Providencia wrecked off the shores of Florida, scattering its cargo of 20,000 coconuts along the coast and establishing the groves that gave Palm Beach County its name.
  • The Zulu coconut is the most prized throw tossed to revelers during the Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans. While the coconuts have been a tradition for nearly a century, the modern versions are brightly painted and shaved, drained and emptied of their meat to make them lighter and less likely to injure parade watchers.
  • 150 people worldwide die each year from falling coconuts.

Coconut Cultivation

The coconut tree, Cocos nucifera, is a member of the palm family. It is a tropical plant that thrives in humid conditions with consistent irrigation. The largest exporters of coconuts are the Philippines, which grows 59 percent of the global market. Other top growers include India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand and Malaysia.

Coconut palms are categorized as "tall" and "dwarf." The tall trees can grow up to one hundred feet while the dwarves top out at about twenty to sixty feet high. Only five percent of coconuts are dwarf. They produce earlier but die sooner than tall palms. Dwarves have short fronds so they can be planted more densely. Compared to tall coconut trees, dwarf varieties cannot adapt as well to different soil conditions, and are more susceptible to diseases. The two types are sometimes crossed, the resulting hybrids are commonly named after the location where they are established.

Technologies such as plant cloning and automated picking by robots or drones are being explored to accelerate production.

Environmental Impact of Coconut Production 

Monoculture

Like many tree-based farms, including everything from Christmas pines to peach orchards, monoculture is a problem for coconut groves. Growing just one thing over many acres is not the way nature works best. Blight can easily leapfrog across a coconut grove when it doesn't have to navigate around other plants that might not be as susceptible. Without crop diversification, farmers are highly susceptible to fluctuations in weather. Because of their tropical environment, coconut palms are particularly vulnerable to the dramatic weather events, such as hurricanes and typhoons, that threaten such areas seasonally.

Chemical Inputs

Pesticides are sometimes used in the fields to control sudden infestations and to protect crops. Coconuts destined for the market are frequently dipped in an anti-fungal solution to prolong their shelf life. The tough outer layers of the shell, however, act as a physical barrier preventing topically applied solutions from penetrating fully. Systemic inputs, those that are taken up by the root system of the plant, may still be in evidence in the edible portions of the coconut. To avoid exposure to chemical inputs, look for coconuts and coconut products that are labeled "organic."

Shipping

Because coconut palms grow only in tropical regions, they are an imported product for most consumers, adding food miles as they travel. In addition to the natural resources used to grow and process coconut items, it's important to consider how far these products have had to travel to get to your local market. 

Workers' Rights

Currently, around 95 percent of coconut trees are harvested by smallholder farmers. In the Philippines alone, there are 3.5 million smallholder coconut farmers, meaning "the livelihoods of one in every five Filipinos are directly or indirectly dependent on the coconut sector," says Romulo Arancon, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community. Few regulations are in place for workers who labor in the groves. The work is dangerous, requiring workers to shimmy up the tall palms to harvest the crop. Angie Crone, who manages Fair Trade USA's coconut program notes, "Around 40-60 percent of the 3.5 million coconut farmers in the Philippines are living in poverty, on less than a dollar a day."

Trade programs, implemented by organizations such as Fair Trade USA, offer growers support for their communities, disaster relief and resources to diversify their farms.

Coconut Characteristics

When mature, coconut palms produce a drupe (not a nut) that is valued for its many uses, from culinary to cosmetics. Coconut drupes have multiple layers. The exocarp is the outermost layer that is often removed before shipping. So, if you buy your coconuts in the grocery, you will rarely see this layer. The rough, hairy layer that we more frequently see is the mesocarp. Underneath that is a hard shell called the endocarp. Coconuts have three "eyes," indentations on one end, that are pores for germination. The edible parts of the coconut are the water and the endosperm, the white meat that is evident when the coconut is split open.

Coconuts are harvested immature for their milk or water. They are gathered when they are mature for their meat and the fibrous coir that covers them. Dried coconut that is destined for oil extraction is called "copra."

Coconut Nutrition and Effects on the Body

The debate over the health benefits of coconut and coconut items centers mostly around the food's fat content. On one side of the dispute are those that argue that coconut, particularly coconut oil, is made of saturated fats (you can tell because it is sold at room temperature). It has a higher saturated fat content, at 82 percent, than the amount in beef drippings (50 percent), or butter (63 percent). The other camp considers coconut to be a "superfood." They argue that what sets coconut apart from other fats are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are a type of fatty acids. They get absorbed differently, so the body can use them immediately.

Coconut is high in fiber, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and in minerals, including copper, iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.

What to Do with Coconut and How to Cook It 

The coconut plant has a wide range of uses. The fiber from the plant can be spun into rope, and is often used as stuffing in mattresses and car seats. The hard shell can be turned into charcoal. The fronds can be woven into baskets and used to thatch rooves. Coconut oil is used in body care products, detergents and home cleaning products. It is also used in oil pulling, the practice of swishing oil in one's mouth to draw toxins out of the body.

In the kitchen, coconut is valued for its use as an oil, and can be turned into milk and flour. Though coconut water is touted as being electrolyte rich, it lacks the necessary sodium that is key to post-sports rehydration. So, drinkers might enjoy it for its flavor but can count on tap water to quench their thirst just as effectively.

For those seeking dietary alternatives, coconut clears a lot of hurdles. For vegans, it provides a plant-based source of fat and take the place of many animal-based products. It can be used to make ice cream, puddings, sauces and dips creamy without dairy-based cream. Likewise, it is enjoyed by lactose intolerant eaters who count on coconut as a lactose free milk and more. Coconut flour is gluten-free so eaters who want to avoid that protein often use it in baked goods and breads.

Selecting a Fresh Coconut

Choose a coconut that is heavy for its size. Give it a shake. Coconuts lose their water as they age, so the more "slosh" you feel, the fresher your specimen. Examine the husk. It should be free of any mold. Pay attention to the area around the three "eyes" as that is where decay often sets in first. Push on the eyes. One will be softer than the other two and that's ok, but none should feel mushy or too spongy. Finally, give it a whiff and avoid coconuts that smell musty or "off." 

Opening a Coconut

Whack it firmly with your machete. Or...poke through the softest eye with an ice pick or clean screwdriver. Turn the coconut over a bowl and let the water drain out. Put the drained coconut on a cookie sheet and place in an oven preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the coconut, which should have cracked by now. If it hasn't, tap it with a hammer and it should break open easily. Use a knife to pry the meat away from the shell. Whittle off any brown membrane that is clinging to the meat. You can shave or grate the meat and keep it covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to four days or freeze in sealed containers for up to six months. One coconut yields about three to four cups of prepared meat.

Storing Coconuts and Coconut Products

Fresh coconuts can be stored at room temperature for up to four months. Once opened, it spoils rather quickly. Drink the water within twenty-four hours and eat the meat within four days. The meat can also be frozen for up to six months.

Canned coconut milk that has been opened can be frozen for up to a month. Re-emulsify in a blender or with an immersion blender before using.

Recipe: Homemade Coconut Milk

One of the ways to minimize the food miles of coconut products is to remove the water from it, by turning it into powder or flakes, before shipping.  This vastly reduces its volume and weight so it requires much less natural resources to haul coconut across the map. Some manufacturers of coconut water operate in this way, reconstituting the produce closer to the point of sale. And you can be part of this kind of solution as well by making your own coconut milk at home. You will avoid any sweeteners or additives in your milk and, by starting with desiccated coconut, have reduced the food miles of your milk as well. Use as a substitute for dairy milk for drinking or in recipes.

Ingredients:

8 ounces unsweetened flaked coconut

1 quart hot, but not boiling, water

Method:

Combine the coconut and water in a blender. Allow to steep for several minutes. Blend on high for two minutes. Strain through a nut bag or double layer of cheesecloth into a medium bowl. Allow to cool then cover and refrigerate for up to four days.