Ingredient focus... coconut milk
Consumed in moderation, this ingredient can benefit your health and fight infection...
Coconut (Cocos nucifera) belongs to the Palm family (Arecaceae). Grown in abundance in Malaysia, Polynesia and southern Asia, Spanish explorers named the cocos - meaning 'grinning face', because of the three little eyes on the base which they thought resembled a monkey.
Classed as a fruit and frequently confused for being a nut, the coconut is actually a one-seeded drupe. In Sanskrit, the coconut palm is known as kalpa vriksha - 'tree which gives all that is necessary for living' because nearly all parts can be used, the water, milk, flesh, sugar and oil. Even the husks and leaves are used as materials in furnishings and decoration. Palm trees produce coconuts up to 13 times a year and although it takes a year for the coconuts to mature, a fully blossomed tree can produce between 60-180 coconuts in a single harvest.
...Watch your head!
Rumour has it 150 people worldwide die each year from falling coconuts!
Creamed coconut and coconut milk are made in a way surprisingly akin to their dairy counterparts. Coconut flesh (the white part) is grated and soaked in hot water. The coconut cream rises to the top and can be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract a white liquid that is coconut milk. By repeating this process, the coconut milk becomes thinner. The thicker version is used for desserts and rich sauces. Thin coconut milk is used for cooking curries and soups. In the UK, fresh coconut milk is unavailable and coconut milk is bought in cans.
A note on coconut water...
Coconut milk is different to coconut water. The latter has received a great deal of attention for it's perceived health benefits, and is an important treatment for acute diarrhoea in the developing world. Research suggests the clear liquid has the same electrolyte balance found in isotonic drinks, proving useful for rehydration or after long periods of intensive exercise.
Coconuts are highly nutritious and rich in fibre, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and minerals including iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Unlike cow's milk, coconut milk is lactose free so can be used as a milk substitute by those with lactose intolerance. It is a popular choice with vegans and makes a great base for smoothies, milkshakes or as a dairy alternative in baking.
Coconuts are one of those foods that oscillate between the 'good' food and 'bad' food camps. Coconut milk, especially the lower fat variety, can be used in moderation (1-2 times per week). However, The British Heart Foundation recommend avoiding the use of coconut oil for cooking.
Coconuts contain significant amounts of fat, but unlike other nuts, they provide fat that is mostly in the form of medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) in particular, one called lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted in the body into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin, an antiviral and antibacterial that destroys a wide variety of disease causing organisms. It is therefore now thought that consumption of coconut milk may help protect the body from infections and viruses.
MCFAs are rapidly metabolised into energy in the liver. It is thought that unlike other saturated fats, MCFAs are used up more quickly by the body and are less likely to be stored as fat. This does not exempt them from contributing to heart disease - they are still a fat - but they have a different effect than saturated fats.
The link between excessive consumption of dietary saturated fats and coronary heart disease (CHD) is well established. Because of coconut milk's high content of saturated fatty acids, it is still seen as a food that should be consumed in moderation.