Coconut Basics: Why’s It So Common In Paleo?
Coconut is a darling ingredient of Paleo / primal and real food cooking and for good reason: it’s loaded with healthy fats and is shelf stable. Its creamy texture is great for dairy-free cooking. I’m going to explain these in more depth, then break it down by coconut variant…sort of like an encyclopedia of coconut goodness.
Coconut Basics: All About the Fat
Let’s tackle the fat component of coconut first. Coconut oil’s a combination of three types of fat: saturated (92%), monounsaturated (6%) and polyunsaturated (2%). WHOA…hold up just a second..isn’t that a LOT of saturated fat?
Yes, coconut oil is mostly saturated fat which kind of makes it the animal fat of the plant world, and seasoned paleo eaters know that saturated fats aren’t bad in the context of a diet that’s not high in carbohydrates (for more on that topic, click here). If you’re a newbie to paleo, you may be surprised at all the sat fats showing up in recipes…ghee, coconut oil, duck fat. Even lard. Remember, paleo’s not a low fat diet, and human beings need fat to function properly. So…coconut oil, rich in sat fat, is good!
Why not just eat lots of mono- (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) like other plant oils then? Aren’t those healthier? Keep in mind *why* plant oils are liquid at room temperature in the first place. They contain one or more double bonds in their carbon-hydrogen tails, making the tails bend and preventing them from packing closely together. [Saturated fats contain no double bonds in their carbon-hydrogen tails, making them straight and easy to pack together, like Pick Up Sticks.] Back to the bendy tails…they make fats less stable and more prone to oxidation which is not a good thing.
Ever notice why some oils, like flaxseed, are sold in dark brown bottles and are supposed to be refrigerated? It’s because it, like other PUFA-rich oils, is prone to oxidative breakdown and will go rancid quickly at room temperature.
So, coconut oil (along with other dense saturated fat sources) is 1) more stable at room temperature, 2) more resistant to oxidation and 3) more stable at moderate temperature cooking than some other plant oils.
Coconut Basics: Creamy Dreamy Goodness
Because of coconut’s high fat content, it adds a great unctuous character to different dishes. Of course, there are classics like curries but virtually any way you’d use dairy, you can substitute coconut milk instead. In a pinch, you can try stirring in coconut cream or even coconut butter instead of coconut milk to add some extra creaminess.
For coconut milk, the fat content will vary by brand and I’d recommend staying away from those which contain emulsifiers (read more in my article here). If you want “lite” coconut milk, it’s less expensive to buy full-fat (canned) and water it down yourself.
Coconut Basics: Products
Coconut Aminos: This is used commonly in Paleo cooking as a replacement for soy sauce. It’s made from the sap of coconut trees that’s been combined with salt. (where to find coconut aminos)
Coconut Butter (also called Coconut Manna or Coconut Cream Concentrate™): When dried coconut meat is ground down into a very fine pulp (much more finely than coconut flour), the result is coconut butter (click here to learn how to make your own). It can be used in place of nut butters and used in a variety of ways (my favorites of which is to eat it off a spoon or on a piece of high-quality dark chocolate). When you buy coconut butter, it’s probably going to be solidified in the jar and have separated out into two layers: the upper layer (translucent) is oil and the lower layer (opaque) is the meat. Warm it up in a pot of hot water and stir to combine.
Coconut Cream: This is the fraction from coconut milk that separates out when a can of coconut milk without emulsifiers is allowed to sit still for a while. The cream component rises to the top and separates from the water. It’s different from coconut butter because it’s been strained and contains no fiber. Hint: makes a killer whipped cream substitute when whipped until airy! Some brands advertise cans of coconut cream: they just contain less water than coconut milk.
Coconut Flakes: The dried meat from the coconut. These can be used to make coconut milk or coconut butter at home. Looking for a crunchy snack? Gently toast some coconut flakes on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet at 350°F (175°C) for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and cinnamon. YUM. (where to find coconut flakes)
Coconut Flour: This is the dried coconut meat that’s been ground up and as such, still has the fiber intact. It’s used in gluten-free baking and as a thickener, but it can be a bit finicky. If you’ve ever tried to substitute coconut flour for white flour or almond flour in a recipe, you’ve probably been met with a dry, chewy mess. Why? The fiber in coconut flour makes it ultra-absorbent like a super-powered sponge. In general, use the following ratio when adapting recipes for coconut flour: 1 cup white flour = 1/4 cup coconut flour. (where to find coconut flour)
Coconut Milk: When coconut meat is blended with water and strained, the result is coconut milk. Its fat content varies by brand with cheaper cans often containing less coconut cream and more water. Choose a brand without emulsifiers (like guar gum, carrageenan, methyl cellulose, and corn starch) that’s sold in BPA-free cans (like these) or tetra-pak cartons (like these). I don’t recommend coconut milk sold in cartons (except for the one I just listed) because they tend to contain preservatives.
Coconut Nectar & Crystals (also called Coconut Sugar): Don’t be fooled. Even though it’s derived from coconuts, it’s no better than any other sweetener out there from a health perspective. Use judiciously, if at all.
Coconut Oil: This is the pure fat from the meat of the coconut and comes in several different varieties based on which processing method was used to extract it. Decoding a bottle can be a lot like deciphering what’s written on an egg carton…lots of terms, some of which are pretty confusing. Here’s a quick list:
- Virgin…coconut oil obtained from raw coconut meat that hasn’t been heated. Note: the standards for what denotes virgin from extra virgin don’t actually exist.
- Extra Virgin…this term really means nothing between coconut oils (though it does for olive oil). A term used to market and appeal to consumers as “higher quality”.
- Refined…usually treated with deodorizers, bleaches and other chemicals. It usually smells / tastes less like coconut. Very low quality refined oils are sometimes even hydrogenated (eek…trans-fats!!) to increase shelf life even further.
- Unrefined…not treated with deodorizers, bleaches and other chemicals. Most virgin and extra virgin coconut oils fall into this category. They tend to have a stronger coconut flavor.
- Expeller-pressed…coconut oil obtained from the manual pressing of the coconut meat, not by using chemicals.
- Centrifuged…the liquified meat is spun down in a centrifuge to fractionate the oils away from the water. Therefore, the oil was exposed to less heat during processing.
- Organic…the coconuts were grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides, etc. This term doesn’t tell you how the oil was harvested, however.
My choice: virgin (unrefined) coconut oil (where to find it)
Coconut Vinegar: Vinegar made from fermenting coconut sap. (where to find coconut vinegar)
Coconut Water: The liquid drained out of a fresh, young coconut. Contains carbohydrates and electrolytes. (where to find coconut water)
Do you still have questions about coconut? Let me know in the comments below!