Coconuts are not, in fact, nuts. They’re “drupes.” Biologically and evolutionarily, they’re more closely related to peaches, plums, and cherries–fruits with fleshy exteriors and seed-housing central cavities–than they are to, say, walnuts, almonds, or pecans.
Although its name is of Spanish origin (“coco” being the 16th-century incarnation of their word for “head”), the two prevailing theories about the origin of the coconut point toward the Indo-Pacific (such as Malenesia) or Northwestern South America (such as modern day Columbia), where, at one point, there were no Spanish around to name them.
Coconuts, and the trees they grow on, have some of the world’s highest salinity tolerances, which means that they flourish in soils that have high salt concentrations, which is how they’ve managed to be so proliferous in coastline locales. This makes tracing the precise origins of the coconut incredibly difficult for scientists, as the native people who once inhabited these regions were some of the first in human history to really set out and explore the world beyond their home, often by sea. Coconut specimens predating much trans-Atlantic travel have been found, mysteriously, as far north as Norway.
While a lot of crops’ trans-oceanic, cross-cultural voyages can be pretty easily traced to some well-documented historic movements of people, typically centered around European colonialism, the coconut’s early and wide dispersion makes it difficult to asses its starting point. It’s also not like there’s one culture that uses the coconut more than others. It plays a pretty major role in several cultural cuisines the world over.
The coconut had a big part in ethnic cuisines of countries such of Brazil, The Caribbean, Hawaii, India, and Thailand. Many of these uses of the coconut are still prevalent in modern (even Americanized) versions of these ancient foods. But apart from the continued tradition of its inclusion in the traditional cuisine of a number of cultures, and somewhat modern, though familiar and domestic, uses in foods like the Macaroon or Piña Colada, the coconut has gained, in the last ten or so years, some monstrous notoriety as a healthy food and cosmetic supplement.
More than ten years ago, it was commonly thought among most people and the fad dieticians who informed them, that in order to be a healthy and trim person, and eliminate fat from the body, it was required to curb one’s consumption of fatty foods. In recent years, though, it’s become clear that opting for “healthy fats” (i.e. monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, Omega 3, etc.), instead of eliminating them completely, is the one of the fundamental keys to success in weight loss as well as overall health. The coconut (along with avocados, flax seed, and salmon) is one of these foods. This transition in public opinion toward high-fat foods is what, likely, has led to the coconut’s meteoric rise to popularity in recent years.
The coconut byproduct that some of us are most likely to have at some point come into contact with is the flesh (or “meat”) of the coconut. The unique, starchy, semi-sweet flavor that most associate with coconuts is, actually, more or less exclusive to its flesh. In coconuts both mature and underripe, it’s the white part that takes up the majority of the inside of the fruit, and contains most of its nutritional content. Whether it comes in the form of shredded coconut or coconut flour, both of which are longtime staples of baked goods, the flesh of a coconut is high in dietary fiber, healthy omega-3 saturated fats, and has an extremely low glycemic index.
By pressing and heating the flesh of the coconut, a thick, creamy, “healthy fat”-rich substance known as “coconut milk” is produced. Traditionally used in sauces in several of the aforementioned ethnic cuisines, it’s also a fairly analogous substitute for cream in coffee and baked goods, and it’s starting to catch on as a viable non-dairy milk alternative.
The fat in coconut milk, once isolated, can both act as an apt substitute for a whole gamut of common vegetable oils in cooking, as well as a for myriad bodily moisturizers. As a cooking oil, it stays stable and chemically unaltered at extreme temperatures, and gives food a light creamy flavor. As a moisturizer, it acts similarly to a lot of synthetic creams and lotions, except totally without all the unnatural chemical additives.
One of the wildly popular new (to most Americans, that is) ways people are consuming coconut today is in the form of coconut water. Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is a sweet-tasting, high-potassium, low calorie liquid found at the center of underripe green coconuts. As a coconut matures, the carbohydrates and minerals suspended in this liquid will go toward the formation of its outer crust, but as long as it’s still green, those tasty simple carbs and electrolyte minerals are all yours for the drinking! You can now find coconut water in most grocery and health food stores, typically in tetra pak-type containers.
Regardless of how it’s consumed, coconut is thought to have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antiparasitic properties.
As we learn, every day, of the many benefits of incorporating the coconut into our diets, it’s become increasingly clear that one of those benefits of consuming healthy saturated fats may be improved focus and overall cognitive ability. So maybe the Spanish weren’t that far off when they named after their word for “head.”