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Coconut: Is This Year's Superfood Worth the Hype?

01/09/2014 14:20 BST | Updated 01/11/2014 09:59 GMT

Coconut water, oil, sugar, flesh, milk and yoghurt - coconut is filling up our supermarket shelves in many guises - but what nutritional benefits can it bring to our diet?

You'd be hard pushed to venture into a supermarket or health food shop without being 'sold' this year's much heralded 'superfood' - the coconut. If the latest claims are to be believed it can cure everything from heart disease to Alzheimer's. Far from 'sitting on the fence', at Vavista we are passionate about only delivering you 'simplified, real science' you can trust, so until further conclusive studies have been analysed we are cautious about the inflated claims of this tropical ingredient. So when deciding whether to include coconut in your shopping basket or not...... here's our guide for your consideration:

Coconut water

The juice found in the middle of a cracked coconut is now marketed as a highly hydrating fluid. It has less sugar than fruit juices and more minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium. These properties are great as a post-workout drink if you've only been doing moderate exercise, but there isn't enough protein or carbohydrate if you're undergoing vigorous exercise of over 1 hour.

Ultimately, coconut water contains calories - do you need these? If you're drinking purely for hydration, water is always the better choice. You can get the minerals from a well-balanced diet so I wouldn't drink this religiously, but if you enjoy it, have one occasionally.

Coconut oil

This is becoming more and more popular and can be bought from supermarkets now. It can be used for roasting and baking. It has a similar nutritional profile to butter in that it has a high saturated fat content which is currently being discovered to be less harmful to health than initially thought, particularly the type of saturated fats which are found in coconut oil: Lauric acid and Myristic acid. Coconut oil also contains some poly- and mono-unsaturated fats which bring additional health benefits. It is still an energy-dense food so should be used in moderation.

Coconut sugar

This can be used instead of sugar in baking. It has a lower GI than standard granulated sugar, however a similar kcal content per gram. It may be a healthier alternative to traditional granulated sugar, however it is still an energy-dense food-type which should only be used on special occasions.

Coconut yoghurt

This is a fairly new dairy-free alternative, great for those who are lactose-intolerant and who fancy a change from the soya varieties! It is much higher in fat than both natural dairy yoghurt and soya yoghurts, but also much lower in carbohydrates; research is now beginning to find that a diet higher in fat than carbohydrate can aid weight loss efforts (Kekwick A, Pawan GL. Calorie intake in relation to body-weight changes in the obese. Lancet 1956;271:155-61.) Steer clear of the flavoured varieties, as with all yoghurt types in fact, as they're packed with lots of sugar. A 150g serving can provide you with a good, filling 200kcal snack which should keep you feeling full due to the high fat %.

Fresh coconut as a snack

Fresh coconut flesh is delicious, full of vitamins and minerals and goes really well in a smoothie. Enjoy as a snack but go easy on your portion sizes - a typical snack pack (100g) of fresh coconut pieces contains 271kcal compared to just 50kcal in a 100g fresh fruit pot. Just a few pieces should be enough to get you through to the next meal.

Coconut milk (dairy substitute - usually mixed with rice milk)

There are two types of coconut milk widely available - one is about 8% coconut cream mixed with water, sugar and preservatives, the other is mixed with rice milk without the need for sugar and requires less preservatives. Both have a similar kcal content to soya milk (about 1/2 that of semi-skimmed milk) but a much lower protein content than both soya and semi-skimmed milk. Obviously I would suggest going for the no added sugar option; ensure that if opting for coconut milk you choose one with added calcium and vitamin D which cannot be naturally found in this product.

Dr Sally's down-to-earth articles on all the latest food, diet & health trends and claims can be found on Vavista.com