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Cuckoo for Coconut Products
By Karen Appold

Some shoppers can’t get enough of these food items, but they’re not as nutritious as they believe.

What two things do water, milk, butter, margarine, oil, ice cream, and yogurt all have in common?

They all come in coconut varieties, and they’re flying off grocery store shelves.

But why all the hoopla?

When restaurants started removing trans fats, alternative oils began gaining popularity, including coconut oil. In fact, coconut food products have been capturing the attention of consumers since mid-2000.

What’s more, "The influence of celebrities who are touting coconut products is tremendous," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, a food and nutrition consultant for Toby Amidor Nutrition in Scarsdale, N.Y., and a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com. "Consumers are looking for 'superfoods'—and the newest one is coconut anything."

The fact that the vegetarian and raw food diet is gaining momentum is yet another contributing factor, since coconut is a staple in the raw diet, says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, nutrition policy consultant at the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Coconut Water’s All the Rage
One popular coconut product in particular is coconut water. It’s being promoted as the natural alternative to sports drinks such as Gatorade. "It’s a smart marketing tactic because a natural product is being marketed against a manmade sugary product," Amidor says.

Specifically, coconut water is being advertised as a beverage containing five electrolytes that are essential for hydration. However, when you compare the sodium and potassium content of sports drinks to coconut water, they differ significantly. An 8-oz bottle of a sports drink contains 95 mg of sodium while the same amount of coconut water has between 40 and 250 mg of sodium, depending on the brand. In addition, an 8-oz sports drink includes 40 mg of potassium vs. 600 to 700 mg of potassium in 8 oz of coconut water.

"In moderation, coconut water is safe," Amidor says. "But too much coconut water over time can be potentially dangerous and possibly lead to potassium toxicity, specifically in those who have renal disease."

Coconut Milk vs. Dairy Milk
Just as the ingredients in coconut water differ from those in sport drinks, the same holds true for coconut milk when compared with dairy milk. One cup of original coconut milk contains 80 kcal (30 kcal from fat), 1 g of protein, and 10% of the Daily Value for calcium (100 mg). In comparison, 1 cup of 1% dairy milk has about 100 kcal (20 to 30 kcal from fat); 8 g of protein; and 30% to 35% of the Daily Value for calcium (300 mg).

However, parents who favor coconut milk vs. cow’s milk for their children should think twice. Cow’s milk contains various vitamins and minerals that are essential for a child's growth and development. "The composition of coconut milk isn’t a close enough substitute for [cow’s milk]," Amidor says. "The effects of a child ingesting too much coconut milk or getting toxicity from nutrients contained in coconut milk is unknown."

Giancoli warns, "If children who drink coconut milk aren't adding other foods and beverages that make up for the lack of protein, calcium, and other nutrients found in dairy milk, they’re risking possible nutrient deficiencies.”

Other Product Considerations
As for coconut oil, the USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest avoiding saturated fats, including tropical oils like coconut. However, some argue that the medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil, such as lauric, palmitic, and myristic acids, have a positive effect on HDL and total cholesterol levels, Amidor says, although these fatty acids also have been shown to increase LDL levels.

As for treats, Giancoli says manufacturers often take a food perceived as glitzy and create a cookie or ice cream with it and then market it as a healthier dessert. "But the only way to really know if that's true is to read the ingredients and nutrition label," she says.

Proceed With Caution
Giancoli advises clients to be wary of anything touted as a new miracle food. "Every plant food has its benefits, but it needs to be considered within the context of the whole diet," she says.

"It’s certainly not necessary to avoid coconut products,” Amidor adds. “My philosophy is everything in moderation."

— Karen Appold is a freelance medical writer in Royersford, Pa.