Today's column brings a question from a reader. I must admit, this made me consult my reference books! The reader wondered if coconuts were really "nuts" or if they were considered a fruit. The reason she was wondering was because she is allergic to nuts and wanted to know if coconut was something she should avoid too.
This is a tricky question because the word coconut itself contains the word "nut." This would imply that the coconut is therefore a nut, since it is called that. If you used the definitions for fruit, nut or seed loosely, the coconut could fit into all three of those categories. However, botanically speaking, the coconut is a fibrous one-seeded drupe! A drupe is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed. Other examples of drupes would be peaches or olives.
Drupes have three layers: the hard outer layer is called the exocarp, the middle fleshy layer is called the mesocarp and the hard woody layer that surrounds the seed is called the endocarp. Because we live in Minnesota and don't readily see trees with coconuts in them, most of us think that the coconut grows on the tree with the hard brown shell that we usually see. But, an untouched coconut has three layers, two of which we don't normally see- the outermost layer is a smooth greenish color and the middle layer is a fibrous husk which surrounds the hard woody layer, that we are used to seeing.
So, if the coconut is not technically a nut, then would someone with an allergy to nuts have to avoid coconut too? Even though the prevalence of allergies to coconut in the U.S. is low, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began identifying coconut as a "tree nut" in October 2006. Because of this, coconut must be disclosed on the label as an ingredient. If you have problems with allergies or have been diagnosed with a nut allergy, the best resource for further information about this would be your physician or an allergy specialist.
Most of us are familiar with and probably have a favorite dessert that contains the fleshy white meat of the coconut - macaroons come to mind! This fleshy part of the coconut is fairly high in calories and fat. A 1 oz. serving of sweetened, shredded coconut contains about 140 calories and 10 grams of fat. Coconut milk is obtained by extracting the juice by pressing the grated coconut's white kernel. It too, is quite high in fat- a 1/2 cup serving contains 225 calories and 24 grams of fat. Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water has been in the news lately as a popular "health" drink because of its antioxidant properties. A 1/2 cup serving of coconut water contains just 25 calories and no fat.
Thank you reader, for an interesting topic for this column! I learned some things too! If anyone else has a topic or question that they would like to see addressed in this column, please let me know. I'm always open for new topics!
(Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.)