Contrary to its name, a coconut is not a nut but a drupe, a type of fruit with an outer skin that surrounds the shell. But that hasn't stopped people from being nuts, or crazy about consuming coconuts in the last few years. Coconut water, coconut milk, coconut oil, and other coconut-based products are now ubiquitous and can be found everywhere from the health food co-op to the convenience store. But will the coconut craze last, or will it burn out like other health food trends once something more exotic comes along?
Dr. Deborah Wiancek is a naturopathic physician and owner of the Riverwalk Natural Health Clinic and Pharmacy in Edwards. Wiancek said coconuts carried a bad reputation for number of decades because they contain fat, linking them to heart disease.
"In the '60s and '70s, people were saying that (coconut oil) was bad for the heart,"
Wiancek said. "There was bad publicity on coconut oil, but all that stuff is actually wrong. Research shows that it can prevent heart disease and does not raise cholesterol levels."
Coconuts are a medium-chain fatty acid, which typically absorb in the body quite rapidly and are easily digested. Coconuts also naturally contain electrolytes, which means they're high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chromium. Wiancek said the electrolytes found in coconuts could boost one's metabolism, burning fat and increasing muscle mass. Unlike other popular products that contain electrolytes such as Gatorade and Vitamin Water, coconut water is not loaded with sugar and other artificial sweeteners.
"Anytime you put sugar in your drinks you're going to have blood sugar spikes," Wiancek said. "Sugar causes inflammation, it causes heart disease. You don't want to be consuming Gatorade (and drinks like it) during your workout, it's going to set you up for disasters."
Hydration for the highly active
Owner of Healthy Habits in Avon, Thomas Crisofulli said it's hard to keep coconut water in stock due to the high demand. Crisofulli has noticed that in addition to its popularity with the health-conscious, many athletes now drink coconut water as their main way to stay hydrated.
"There is one gentleman that I order 10 cases at a time for," Crisofulli said. "(He) exercises 24/7: hiking, biking and working out. He's noticed the difference big time with the hydration and the energy it gives him."
The professional athletes Wiancek treats in her practice have also seen changes since they've started drinking coconut water.
"They tell me it makes a huge difference in their performance," Wiancek said. "They stay hydrated, it's easy to digest, and they notice that they have better muscle mass."
Switching to a healthier substitute
Coconut-based baking has also become more common in recent years. Eagle-Vail resident Kirsten Bertuglia cooks with coconut oil because it has a higher smoke point than other oils. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil breaks down. Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 375 degrees. Bertuglia likes coconut's versatility and often uses it as a substitute for butter and other oils.
"(Coconut oil) is a 'good for you' fat," Bertuglia said. "It's easily absorbed in the body and doesn't slow you down."
With so many exposing coconuts' bountiful health benefits, it's a wonder that the coconut wave hasn't hit sooner. Wiancek said coconuts and coconut-based products have always been a staple in Asia, Central America, and South America, but the only place in the U.S. where coconuts grow naturally is Hawaii. Now coconuts are becoming easier to transport, and many are seeking to sip something sweet that won't harm their body.
"People are always looking for healthier drinks," Wiancek said. "Everyone needs to be getting away from soda pop and other sugary drinks. (Coconut water) is a healthy alternative."
If the craze continues, perhaps one day coconut-based products won't be the alternative; they'll be the norm.