Hawaiian Health and the Coconut

Jul 7, 2009 | By: Christie Wilcox

Controversy, Featured, Food

Upon moving to Hawaii, it’s hard not to be instantly swept up in the culture and nature of the world around you. It’s as if even the air is different here – and, in some ways, it probably is. The islands are rich with pleasant flowers, and the consistent trade winds blowing in mix the fragrant smell of plumerias, gingers, and the sea with a whole variety of other wonderful scents. The mood is relaxed and cheerful, and the people just seem healthier and happier.

Coconut!  Thanks flickr use bionicteaching

Coconut! Thanks flickr use bionicteaching

Well, maybe they are healthier. Hawaii has some of the lowest rates of heart disease, childhood obesity, cancer, and even deaths by Alzheimer’s in the US. While part of this might be due to good health care coverage and availability (Hawaii has the second lowest rate of uninsured individuals in the US), it might also have a lot to do with the food.

The Coconut, as Food

If there’s one thing that Hawaiians know how to do well, it is eat. Traditionally, Hawaiians welcome others to their home by saying “Kahea ai. Ai a ma’ona,” which roughly translates to “Come in and eat all you want.”  Often, coconuts will be waiting for you.

Called Niu, the coconut was raised from an ordinary food item to a sacred tree. It is shown in mythical art and verbal lore as a magical tree, an image of Ku, the ancestor of the Hawaiian people and the link to their original home. Of course, it had its culinary uses, too. Most common in Hawaiian cuisine is coconut pudding, called haupia, which is a staple at every luau.

While the trunks and leaves were used for tools and shelters, it was the nut alone that provides the coconut’s nutritious benefits. In botanical terms, the coconut is truly a nut.  On the outside is the husk, called the mesocarp, which must be removed to gain access to the inner fruit. The precious interior is further protected by the endocarp, or the hard surface known as the shell. Lining the inside of this protective shell is the white, fleshy endosperm or “meat” of the coconut.

Coconuts, though, unlike most other nuts, have a hollow interior filled with a liquid often referred to as coconut water.  This water is not the coconut milk often used in cooking – that is created by grating the meat and mixing it with water. Thus coconut milk, used mainly in Asian cuisine, is nutritionally comparable to coconut meat not coconut water.

Coconuts grow on big trees, thanks to flickr user Swami Stream

Coconuts grow on big trees, thanks to flickr user Swami Stream

Green, immature coconuts can contain up to one liter of coconut water, which is much sweeter and cleaner tasting than coconut milk. In either case, the liquid is high in electrolytes, and is thus very good for preventing dehydration or diarrhea. It has long since been a popular drink where coconuts are found, and is sold fresh, canned, or bottled. The water contains very few calories but because it contains potassium and other electrolytes it’s even marketed as a sports drink. Coconut water can even be used as an intravenous fluid if desperate, when medical saline is unavailable.

The main part of the coconut used nutritionally is the meat. Mature coconut meat is about 50% water, 35% fats and oil, 10% carbohydrates and 3.5% protein. Compared to other nuts, the meat is actually fairly low in fat, although it is mostly comprised of short-chain saturated fats instead of the unsaturated fats found in nuts like almonds and peanuts. Ninety percent of the fat in coconuts is saturated, exceeding lard and butter for saturated fat content. However, there is some debate as to whether the saturated fats found in the coconut are unhealthy.

The Coconut, as Medicine

The major component of the fats in coconut meat is Lauric Acid, a rare medium-chain fatty acid that, as far as our diets go, is primarily found in human breast milk. Despite the general nutritious distaste for saturated fats, studies have shown that coconut oil (which is made from pressing the fatty acids out of the meat) might actually help reduce abdominal fat and obesity. And despite LDL cholesterol concerns, studies have found that increased lauric acid dietary intake is linked to reduced heart problems. Studies have even found that virgin coconut oil has antioxidant properties.

Research has been mounting which suggests health benefits of lauric acid and other coconut fatty acid derivatives. Lauric acid has also been investigated for its antibiotic properties. In study after study after study, lauric acid has been shown to kill a variety of bacteria and fungi. For this reason, as well as its general moisturizing properties, coconut oil may be a good treatment for many skin conditions, from acne to dermatitis. But even beyond antimicrobial properties, gaining research seems to support lauric acid as a possible treatment for chronic diseases. Lauric acid and similar fatty acids have been found to inhibit cancer cell growth.

Lauric acid may slow HIV down

Lauric acid may slow HIV down

But the most staggering, and of course controversial, effect of lauric acid seems to be its ability to slow or stop the progression of viruses. Lauric acid and its similar saturated fatty acids have been shown to interfere with virus maturation in different viruses, and has even been shown to slow the spread of HIV viruses by preventing viral budding. Unfortunately, very few clinical studies have yet to be done utilizing coconut, and so how effective or useful dietary supplementation of coconut meat or oil is on such diseases is unknown.

Even considering the possible downsides of saturated fats, there is still room for them in our diets, so even ignoring the possible benefits of lauric acid, coconut meat isn’t unhealthy. Coconut meat contains far less sugar than other fruit choices, and is fairly high in protein witha bout 9% fiber by volumn, making it actually quite good for you. And on top of that, coconut meat is uniquely high in vitamins and minerals, including many Vitamin Bs (like Thiamine and Niacin, which promote good mood), Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc.

Aloha, and Enjoy

Of course, the sun, scenery and wonderful weather might also have something to do with the mood of Hawaii. While it might not just be the coconut which makes Hawaiians so healthy and happy, it certainly is a nutritious way to spruce up your meals with a little tropical flavor. Curries and other Asian recipes often use coconut milk as a base. But if you’re going for raw coconut meat, the most important thing to consider is freshness.

As a liquid-filled nut that often has to be transported from the tropics, it can go bad quickly. The best way to make sure it’s fresh is to examine it closely, ensuring there is no mold or cracks. You want one with a little weight for its size, and be sure to shake it to hear the water sloshing within. Cracking it on your own, of course, it a bit of an art form – I’ve heard that a screwdriver to the “eyes” (three, small spots which become holes where the seed germinates out of) or power drills do the trick well if you want to save the water. Otherwise, a machete or a hammer can go a long way! Other than that, Aloha, and enjoy!

  • Sheree Burke

    Christi:
    Interesting article! It seems we used to see alot of promotion of a coconut supplement, I think it was almost like a “paste”……I don’t hear much about it lately….Any thoughts on this? After reading your article, I was thinking I should perhaps think about looking for this coconut supplement product. Thanks,
    Sheree B.

  • Sheree Burke

    Christi:
    Interesting article! It seems we used to see alot of promotion of a coconut supplement, I think it was almost like a “paste”……I don’t hear much about it lately….Any thoughts on this? After reading your article, I was thinking I should perhaps think about looking for this coconut supplement product. Thanks,
    Sheree B.

  • http://nutritionwonderland.com Christie

    Sheree –
    At the moment, unfortunately, there’s not much research that shows whether adding coconut directly to a person’s has much of an effect, or how much to add if it does, though I doubt it would hurt. You can get coconut oil at many health food stores or online, and use it too cook with or as a supplement similar to fish oil, if you wished. It’s quite tasty :)

  • http://nutritionwonderland.com Christie

    Sheree –
    At the moment, unfortunately, there’s not much research that shows whether adding coconut directly to a person’s has much of an effect, or how much to add if it does, though I doubt it would hurt. You can get coconut oil at many health food stores or online, and use it too cook with or as a supplement similar to fish oil, if you wished. It’s quite tasty :)

  • Sue Wilcox

    A very interesting article altho stating that Hawaiians are healthy when you see so many grossly overweight ones seems weird. Also they love to eat Spam which must be one of the most evil foods on the planet next to sugar. Maybe you were thinking of the Phillipine Islands where the locals really are super healthy.

    There is a lot of research available on the benefits of coconut in one’s diet and for the skin. Here are some of my favorite books on the subject:
    Virgin Coconut Oil – how it has changed people’s lives and can change yours by Brian and Marianita Jader Shilhavy
    This is by the people who run Tropical Traditions which sells the oil I buy and lots of related made with coconut products and the farm websites for buying chicken fed on coconut. They have lots of good experience and results from their online forums to pass on. Its $10 direct from them.
    The Coconut Oil Miracle by Bruce Fife
    This is from the man who runs the biggest online info place for Coconut Oil. He’s written a bunch of recipe books and is starting on some medical books so you can find him on Amazon.
    Eat Fat Lose Fat by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon
    This is from the ladies behind the Weston A Price Foundation and all its nutrition and dietary advice. It debunks the whole vegetable oil thing and explains why eating saturated fats, especially coconut is the way to go.
    If you love their ideas there is a massive cookbook: Nourishing Traditions which they’ve written and which I constantly refer to. It is full of info as well as recipes – all the sort of foods our grandmothers would have understood.

  • Sue Wilcox

    A very interesting article altho stating that Hawaiians are healthy when you see so many grossly overweight ones seems weird. Also they love to eat Spam which must be one of the most evil foods on the planet next to sugar. Maybe you were thinking of the Phillipine Islands where the locals really are super healthy.

    There is a lot of research available on the benefits of coconut in one’s diet and for the skin. Here are some of my favorite books on the subject:
    Virgin Coconut Oil – how it has changed people’s lives and can change yours by Brian and Marianita Jader Shilhavy
    This is by the people who run Tropical Traditions which sells the oil I buy and lots of related made with coconut products and the farm websites for buying chicken fed on coconut. They have lots of good experience and results from their online forums to pass on. Its $10 direct from them.
    The Coconut Oil Miracle by Bruce Fife
    This is from the man who runs the biggest online info place for Coconut Oil. He’s written a bunch of recipe books and is starting on some medical books so you can find him on Amazon.
    Eat Fat Lose Fat by Mary Enig and Sally Fallon
    This is from the ladies behind the Weston A Price Foundation and all its nutrition and dietary advice. It debunks the whole vegetable oil thing and explains why eating saturated fats, especially coconut is the way to go.
    If you love their ideas there is a massive cookbook: Nourishing Traditions which they’ve written and which I constantly refer to. It is full of info as well as recipes – all the sort of foods our grandmothers would have understood.

  • http://nutritionwonderland.com Christie

    The health comments are based on statistics taken from every state – see the link.

    Hawaiian islanders do have a rep for being large, but that is mostly the men who eat 4,000 calories a day, not the regular, everyday people. The average Hawaiian guy is actually quite a hunk – muscular, cut surfer for an image. Weight was a thing of status for native Hawaiians – only the rich could afford to be that big. The regular diet of a native Hawaiian, however, was and is quite healthy, including a lot of fruits, fish and coconut :) .

  • http://nutritionwonderland.com Christie

    The health comments are based on statistics taken from every state – see the link.

    Hawaiian islanders do have a rep for being large, but that is mostly the men who eat 4,000 calories a day, not the regular, everyday people. The average Hawaiian guy is actually quite a hunk – muscular, cut surfer for an image. Weight was a thing of status for native Hawaiians – only the rich could afford to be that big. The regular diet of a native Hawaiian, however, was and is quite healthy, including a lot of fruits, fish and coconut :) .

  • Bruce Wilcox

    “Most modern Hawaiians do not follow a traditional lifestyle and, as a consequence, do not live a long time. Health data for the last 15 years show Hawaiian obesity has increased from 37 percent to 50.1 percent. Among Hawaii’s racial groups, Hawaiians have the highest rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, accidents and suicides. Efforts are underway to reverse this trend.” according to: http://www.alternative-hawaii.com/hacul/food.htm

    and

    “Obesity is a growing public health problem affecting Hawaii. Prevalence rates have rapidlyincreased over the last ten years, with an estimated 17.6 percent of the State population now falling into the category of obese. Moreover, for certain populations in Hawaii (e.g. NativeHawaiians at 35 percent), the prevalence and severity of obesity is much greater.” from http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:uc24KyRhs7QJ:www.publicpolicycenter.hawaii.edu/images/PDF/Obesity%2520White%2520Paper.pdf+hawaiian+obesity&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    which maybe only says they ain’t any healthier than the rest of us or it may say once upon a time they had a healthy diet, but they have mostly given that up.

    • newjumpswing

      aloha,
      Please research the Hawaii Diet by Dr T Shintani. When Capt Cooke came to the islands he reported people of healthy stature and weight. The native Hawaiian people of today are no different from other native peoples who have had their culture including their diet all but destroyed by both colonialism and modern advertising. On a plant based diet, coconut oil/meat has been found to be of benefit but when you add coconut oil to a diet high in processed foods, chemicals and more calories than needed then its a disaster.
      http://www.newjumpswing.com

  • Bruce Wilcox

    “Most modern Hawaiians do not follow a traditional lifestyle and, as a consequence, do not live a long time. Health data for the last 15 years show Hawaiian obesity has increased from 37 percent to 50.1 percent. Among Hawaii’s racial groups, Hawaiians have the highest rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, accidents and suicides. Efforts are underway to reverse this trend.” according to: http://www.alternative-hawaii.com/hacul/food.htm

    and

    “Obesity is a growing public health problem affecting Hawaii. Prevalence rates have rapidlyincreased over the last ten years, with an estimated 17.6 percent of the State population now falling into the category of obese. Moreover, for certain populations in Hawaii (e.g. NativeHawaiians at 35 percent), the prevalence and severity of obesity is much greater.” from http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:uc24KyRhs7QJ:www.publicpolicycenter.hawaii.edu/images/PDF/Obesity%2520White%2520Paper.pdf+hawaiian+obesity&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us\

    which maybe only says they ain’t any healthier than the rest of us or it may say once upon a time they had a healthy diet, but they have mostly given that up.

  • http://www.antioxidants-for-health-and-longevity.com stan mrak

    Coconut water also makes a terrific starter for making the healthiest type of kefir on earth. The Body Ecology company make a special product just for this purpose.

    Also, canned coconut water has to be pastuerized, which destroys some of the raw nutrients, so fresh coconuts are better, if you can find them.

  • http://www.antioxidants-for-health-and-longevity.com stan mrak

    Coconut water also makes a terrific starter for making the healthiest type of kefir on earth. The Body Ecology company make a special product just for this purpose.

    Also, canned coconut water has to be pastuerized, which destroys some of the raw nutrients, so fresh coconuts are better, if you can find them.

  • http://www.FreePortland.webs.com Rae

    Hawaiians are probably gaining weight because our food industry and currency based way of life has infiltrated them. Pollution is building up in their soft tissue much more now as they are succumbing to “civilized” society so much more.

    …and the island twice the size of Texas made of plastic in the Pacific that washes up on their beaches can’t be helping either…

    Fresh coconut is the way to go…. hard to get in many places. The ones in the grocery stores that have been flown in are usually too far into the decaying process to eat. We eat an enormous amount of moldy/decaying food and don’t even realize it.

    thanks for all the great info on this website!!!!!!!

  • http://www.FreePortland.webs.com Rae

    Hawaiians are probably gaining weight because our food industry and currency based way of life has infiltrated them. Pollution is building up in their soft tissue much more now as they are succumbing to “civilized” society so much more.

    …and the island twice the size of Texas made of plastic in the Pacific that washes up on their beaches can’t be helping either…

    Fresh coconut is the way to go…. hard to get in many places. The ones in the grocery stores that have been flown in are usually too far into the decaying process to eat. We eat an enormous amount of moldy/decaying food and don’t even realize it.

    thanks for all the great info on this website!!!!!!!

  • jadin youngs

    I want to go to Hawii .

  • Carol

    This topic is fascinating; Polynesia actually has a high rate of diabetes. Harvard published an April 2016 article, reviewing a 1980-2014 Lancet diabetes study, that states “In Polynesia and Micronesia, where prevalence is highest,
    more than one in five adults have diabetes. In Nauru and American Samoa,
    the number is nearly one in every three men and women.” It’s likely that the Polynesians have been replacing their
    ancestral diets with a more “SAD” diet packed with sugar and
    ‘low-fat’& ‘fat-free’ products. The Harvard article continues: “Diabetes was
    lowest in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands.” These Western European countries eat lots of full-fat dairy (the fat-free yogurt craze is a strictly American phenomenon). Corroborating this: a Swedish study cited in the AHA’s March 2016 journal Circulation found diary fat to be protective against diabetes! Dr David Katz, defender of the old government “low-fat” paradigm, has even admitted that fat in general is highly satiating, may displace sugar/ carbs out of the diet, and may help with weight control. These are my thoughts exactly.

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