All About Coconuts – History, Nutrition, Uses and more…
Such a tall impressive tree with a large fruit and an abundance of health benefits must have been refreshed and nourished people since olden times.
Many historic records show varying accounts of the origin of the coconut. The word coconut was first mentioned in an English print in 1555 coined by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who saw what resembled a coco (monkey face) in the fruit of the tall trees found in the tropical islands they visited.
These were probably looking at the three distinct round holes at surface of the large hard fruit.
Coconuts are believed to have originated in South Asia particularly in the Ganges Delta In India though there are studies which point towards South America where fossil evidence prove that coconuts also grew there in prehistoric times.
Fossils in New Zealand also prove that the palm thrived along this country’s coast 15 million years ago. The oldest fossils however were discovered in Kerala, South India and Khulna, Bangladesh.
Other documented accounts debate on the exact origin but one thing agreed upon by most coconut history experts is that these sturdy fruits have traveled across the world either through human intervention with seafaring explorers bringing the large fruits back to their countries from the island they visited.
The proliferation of trees especially along sandy coastlines could most likely also be due to the light, fibrous husk of the mature fruit that allows it to float and survive immersion in salt water thus allowing them to drift along ocean currents and grow where they are eventually deposited.
In modern days, coconuts are known by botanists as Cocos nucifera. These impressively tall fruit-bearing palms are extensively grown and utilized in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Polynesian islands. These trees are also found in South America, India, Hawaii and Florida.
Known in Sansrit as kalpa vriksha or “tree which gives all that is necessary for living” because virtually all parts of the plant have valuable uses. Even across Asia, especially in the Philippines where coconut is one of the most harvested agricultural products, it is regarded by the farmers, manufacturers and consumers as the “tree of life” indicating the consistency of its value across different nations.
From the roots to the leaves, the coconut tree has been used as a wood source, fuel, fiber and raw material for a multitude of products from handicrafts, décor, gardening medium, ropes, nets and much more.
For most people though, its infinite culinary uses of the coconut water, milk meat, sugar and oil that have propelled it to its present day importance as an agricultural product.
Nutritional Information of Coconut
To list the nutritional information on coconuts in just a single piece of paper would require an extra long sheet and much more effort as compared to other plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables.
This is due to the fact that there are multiple parts of the tree that provide different types and amounts of nutrition. In one tree alone, you can make an entire menu of delicious and nutritious food and drink.
Sometimes listing all the coconuts’ nutrients and their attributed health benefits together leads one to think that this delicious and versatile food is too good to be true. That’s why marketers sometimes just focus on one of a few of the most important features of the item. But in the case of coconut, it still is a challenging task to list the most significant health benefits per edible plant part
Cocowater can be drunk alone or made into a smoothie. It is virtually fat free and high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Cocomilk is blended with drinks but is also used in savory and sweet dishes. The heart of palm makes a great tasting and refreshing salad while the toddy, inflorescence or drippings collected from the cut young flower clusters can be drunk or made into a variety of fermented alcoholic beverages or vinegar, These drippings can also made into coconut nectar and sugar which are low glycemic sweeteners that are suitable for diabetics but are natural and non-chemical.
Coconut milk has high levels of several vitamins, minerals and electrolytes particularly potassium, calcium and chloride. Its saturated fat is made up of short- and medium-chain fatty acids the body absorbs to convert into energy.
Lauric acid is half the medium-chain fatty acids that have virus, bacteria, microbial and fungal properties. These all work hand in hand to boost the immune system. Other nutrients help improve heart health, blood pressure and blood sugar.
Observed properly, coconut oil can be used to control weight problems by helping the digestive season along with increasing the body’s metabolism. The combination of good fats present in coconut oil has properties and helps kill off bad bacteria, fungi and parasites. It also helps in absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and helps treats ailments from abscesses and asthma to weakness and wounds.
According to Coconut manufacturers and exporters, Philippine varieties are among the best for consumption as a food product, specifically cocowater and meat, as well as production into other products such as coconut oil and sugar.
In the Philippines where coconut is one of the most important agricultural products, it is very serious business growing the best variety for exportation. The Philippine Coconut Authority identified two outstanding coconut dwarf varieties that have met strict international standards for young coconut production: the galas green and Tacunan green dwarf. Both have passed with flying colors the requirements for the circumference of the fruit, the weight of the meat, water content, meat thickness and firmness.
Physically, galas greens have a uniform spherical shape, predominantly average-sized with a thick husk and a well-balanced crown. The trees have a stout stem with tapering base, slow upward growth, and with either green or yellow peduncle.
To the ordinary consumer though, a coconut is a coconut and the important thing is being able to buy and consume it for its refreshing quality and health benefits. To the non-coconut producing country, consumers will just make the most of what is available whether it’s a whole fruit, or processed and packaged in bottles or cartons.
While some produce like apples and oranges have clearly different varieties several of which are available for consumers to select from, coconuts varieties usually are just limited to a few per area you source from. The varieties grown by countries are oftentimes have common names derived from their origin.
Tall coconut tree varieties include the Malayan, Renner and Samoan tall which grow up to an impressive 70 foot height with a characteristic bole or a swollen base at the trunk. Though it may seem labor intensive and even risky to cultivate and collect fruit from such tall trees, the height also serves as a security measure against pilferage in the vast plantations in developing countries where they grow.
The “dwart” coconut, on the other hand have crowns (leaf canopies) that sometimes grow so close to the ground that the harvester doesn’t even have to climb anything and simply reach down (not up) to collect the fruit. Fruits from this tree variety, which are also used in tropical ornamental gardens) are smaller but in more productive bunches.
The Papua yellow, Samoan and Fiji dwarf and Cameroon red, the Malayan yellow and Nias Green grow, mature and yield fruit much faster.
Hybrid coconut result both from natural means (cross pollination) as well as through man-made engineering. These are developed by coconut horticulturists who combine ideal tree and traits of different varieties to yield much sturdier trees and more nutritious fruits with better water and meat quality.
Macapuno or coconut sport is considered a mutant variety with a curiously thick gelatinous meat with little or no water. Popular in the Philippines, it is usually sweetened and sold in jars in a sticky syrup for use in native sweets and desserts.
Coconut Derivatives and Other Products
Perhaps no other plant can claim the multitude of uses as the coconut tree. It has even regarded as “the tree of life” in different countries and cultures. From the roots to the leaves of this tall impressive tree, coconuts have so many food and nonfood applications that it’s a challenge to even start listing them down.
The leaves are woven into toys by young children and made into purses and pouches used to cook fish, rice and sweet delicacies. Empty shells are used as a material for handicrafts, home and home decor.
The wood from the trunk is an economical wood substitute while the roots are used in the manufacture of dyes, beverages and medicine.
And these don’t even touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of its uses as an amazingly nutritious, delicious and functional food both in its natural raw form and processed products made from it.
Apart from the fruit in its various stages of maturity, other edible parts include the heart of palm and the inflorescence or the drippings of the cut immature flower. But its most widely consumed form in the world is the water from the immature coconut fruit. Cocowater is a refreshing and sweet liquid naturally present in the centre of a young coconut containing essential electrolytes sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium and phosphorus in just the right quantities to serve as a great naturally hydrating sports drink.
The white flesh inside a young fruit is a soft gelatinous meat ideally mixed with the water to make a refreshing drink. If the fruit is collected in its full maturity, the meat thickens and hardens which can then be grated and sqeezed to make coconut milk. Coconut milk is used to make coconut cream both of which can be used in many sweet and savory dishes. The grated meat can be dried into dessicated coconut or flakes.
Popular processed products from coconut include coconut oil and cocosugar which are now widely used by raw food advocates for their good fat content and low glycemic index. The oil is derived from coconut oil while cocosugar is made from the inflorescence of the flower. This has led to its mass production and export to many parts of the world.
Coconut Sport or Macapuno
Coconut sport (known as macapuno in the Philippines where it is primarily produced) is the fruit of a very special, unique and rare variety of naturally occurring coconut tree that in physical appearance looks exactly like any other common tree but the different is in the contents of the fruit.
The soft white gelatinous meat has a nutty taste that is usually devoid of any coconut is cooked in a sugar syrup.
Due to its rarity, with only a few trees out of thousands turning out to yield coconut sport, its price is several times more expensive than the regular fruit. However, its uses are much more specific in dessert and candy production.
The novelty and rarity of coconut sport has led it to be marketed as a niche product partly to justify its higher price. A few companies are also endeavoring to grow seedlings and trees to yield this fruit so as to increase guaranteed production.
Finding pure macapuno even in the Philippines is a challenge in the midst of many manufacturers who unscrupulously sell products and claim that their products ranging from bottled stringed macapuno, candies, ice cream and pastries are pure without extenders. Though the final quality of the sweetened gelatinous delicacy may be somewhat similar even if macapuno is mixed with much cheaper coconut meat, the macapuno purist can surely make the distinction.
The texture of pure macapuno is firm but not hard with a distinct nutty taste. Adding regular coconut meat either makes the product too firm or too soft depending on what was used to extend it.
Health wise, coconut sport has similar nutrients as mature coconut meat. However, its consumption is primarily for its unique flavor and texture. Its processing in a sweet syrup makes it a high-glycemic and high calorie food which diabetics and dieters may want to refrain from. However, the sweetness and creaminess also make its consumptions somewhat self regulating, a couple tablespoonfuls topped on slice of cake or a scoop of ice cream goes a long way.
Healthier versions include using brown sugar or cocosugar which lowers the glycemic index though it colors the final product a bit on the brown side as compared to the white color of regular sweetened variety.
The other broad classification of the coconut tree is the dwarf coconut. Compared to the its tall relatives which grow up to 70 feet tall, dwarfs are much smaller sometimes with their leaf canopy just above the grown with the long fronds reaching the ground.
As their name suggests, dwarf coconut trees are have more slender trunks that produce smaller fruit. But the dwarfism may just end at that. In terms of fruiting capacity, dwarfs usually produce more fruit, albeit smaller than talls.
The Papua yellow, Samoan and Fiji dwarf and Cameroon red, the Malayan yellow and Nias green are but a few of the many dwarf varieties grown both for their fruit as well as for ornamental plants use. The color appended to the variety name pertains to the color of the immature fruit.
Though it may seem that dwarfs are the most practical to cultivate for fruit harvest due to the much lesser manpower required in harvesting, issues of pilferage in developing countries have to factor in the selection of trees. Due to the enormous size of some coconut plantations (sometime reaching hundreds or thousands of hectares), trees are not guarded and so are open to poachers.
Due to the shorter height, dwarfs trees mature and produce fruit more quickly. This makes it a practical option for a tropical home garden. The beautiful appearance of the tree and easy maintenance make it a popular ornamental plant in resorts as well. The fruit of tall varieties have to be collected as they can pose a threat to people walking under the trees or lying on hammocks suspended from them. The coconut fruit, rich in nutrients and refreshing water is an immense bonus!
Dwarf coconuts mostly self-pollinate resulting in lesser varieties compared to tall. However, horticulturists also crossbreed tall and dwarf varieties to in efforts to come up with a better tree and fruit. The Niu Leka or the Fiji dwarf thicker trunk than other dwarfs and has certain tall tree characteristics. The Malayan dwarf on the other hand is regarded for its resistance to plant disease.
For the coconut consumer, the best fruit would come from any tree as long as it contains sweet refreshing and nutritious water and soft delicious meat. The Fiji dwarf yields very sweet coconut water with an unusual orange husk and is popular in Sri Lanka and India where they are sold in the streets in the shell as a refreshment.
Completing the triumvirate of coconut trees is the hybrid coconut. Not to be mistaken for a GMO or genetically modified organism which a lot of groups will frown upon on, hybrid coconuts are the result of both natural and intended engineering through cross pollination.
Several factors motivate the intentional hybridization of coconuts. These include development of disease and pest resistant trees, improved fruit yield and accelerated growth. The Mayjam for example is a successful combination of the Jamaican tall and Malayan dwarf’s desirable characteristics resulting in a fast growing tree with a plentiful harvest. The Maypan dwarf from the Malayan Dwarf and Panama or Pacific tall start to produce fruit as early as three years into its growth which, for the coconut farmer, means a faster return of investment.
In India, Chandra Sankara and Kera Sankara were created to produce more than the average harvest per year. The fruits of these hybrids are primarily used for the production of cooking oil. Apart from the greater number of fruits, the oil content of the copra (the hardened mature flesh in the shell) is much greater than other varieties.
Apart from intentional hybridization, where tall and dwarf coconuts grow together, cross pollination inevitably occurs resulting in natural hybrids.
Coconut trees are also hybridized to create aesthetically looking trees for landscaping ornamental purposes. The United Arab Emirates in the Middle East grows mostly non-native dwarf hybrid trees originally from Florida.
Though coconut sport, or macapuno, is naturally and randomly occurring in the Philippines where it is mostly produced, science and technology are applied in culturing seedlings and growing trees that are sure to yield it. This ensures a more consistent supply of this delectable coconut variety. The flesh is thicker with little or no water compared to common varieties. It is usually processed with sugar and used for desserts and sweets.
Like any other plant product whether fruit or vegetable, there’s conventionally grown and then there’s organically grown. And between these two lies a world of differences. Even in the world of organic farmers and manufacturers, there continues a debate among those large producers that have themselves certified by agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and European Ecocert and farmers than simply grow their produce without any synthetic fertilizers or use chemical pesticides.
However, the organic community stresses that certification is important because it covers more than just planting techniques and goes deeper, involving soil quality tests for any residues left from previous farmers as well as assessing and environmental contaminants that can affect the crop. A farmer who by all ways and means that plants organically may not realize that a factory or conventional farm may be leaching chemical contaminants to his/her land. This is what certification agencies review and give recommendations before giving their approving seal which is usually renewed on a regular basis.
The same goes for organic coconuts and its natural and processed derivatives. Certified farms and plantations grow trees which yield organic fruit and from this cocowater, meat, milk, cream, oil and sugar. For items that involve further processing, other raw materials must be organic as well and meet acceptable organic standards of manufacture.
Some countries that import coconut products whether entire fruits or finished products require organic certifications prior to doing business. Growers then have to take the necessary steps to meet the strict requirements of organic farming to get the much coveted certification.
Once certified however, it opens the doors for growers to export their fruit and other products all over the world and command a higher price. Other organic coconut products exported include coconut flakes, shredded coconut and cococream, flour and even beauty products.
Broadly classified into tall, dwarf and hybrid, coconuts have a number of commercial and traditional cultivars, groups of plants that are selected for their desirable characteristics for commercial propagation whether for food production (like crops) and other uses (like cut flowers and ornamental plants). Like in coconuts, most have arisen in cultivation but some are special selections from the wild.
To the consumer just keen on reaping the health benefits of this superfood, the type of coconut and the tree it comes from is usually inconsequential but it is certainly important for the cultivator who wants to make the most from his/her plantation.
Selection of a variety to grow for mass production is influenced my factors such as plant resistance to disease and pests, climate and economics. In tall varieties, the Panama tall was shown to be susceptible to disease. Others have drought resistant traits such as the West Coast tall grown in India. The Hainan tall from China, on the other hand are more adaptable to cold climates. The nut size, shape and weight and thickness of the mature meat are also important factors in selection. For beverage production, certain varieties (tall, dwarf and hybrid) product sweet cocowater.
Several Philippine plantations grown trees for this purpose for domestic consumption and export.
Coconut varieties are usually named from their country of origin with the color of the immature fruit (green or golden) appended to it. Examples include the West Afrtican and Tampakan tall. Malayan, Rennel and Samoan talls grow in the are Asia Pacific.
Talls are the most common type of coconut trees. Due to their naturally ability to cross pollinate, genetic material is commonly shared among trees resulting in variations which affect the output. The two types of talls include the niu kafa which predominantly grows wild, and the domesticated niu vai.
On fertile soil, tall coconut trees can produce up to 75 fruits per year if properlyt taken care of. The growing global popularity of the fruit has resulted in increased efforts to improve cultivation and breeding to yield sturdier more productive fruit.