Coconut is an important crop in many countries, notably the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, where substances from it have long been used in folk medicine and where the tree is often called the “tree of life.” Nearly every part of the tree and its fruit is used by humans, including the following:
Coconut meat. This is the thick white lining inside the coconut. A 1-ounce raw piece has 100 calories, 9 grams of fat, and nearly 3 grams of fiber. It naturally contains only a little sugar, but lots of sugar may be added to packaged dried coconut (shredded or flaked). You can sprinkle grated or shredded coconut into Asian-style dishes.
Coconut water. This thin liquid from inside young green coconuts is now the hottest of all coconut products. It has a mild sweet/salty flavor and is virtually fat-free and low in calories; some products contain added sugar. It is touted as a “natural” sports drink because of its electrolytes, especially its high potassium level. But it has less sodium than standard sports drinks, so it may not be as good a fluid replacer.
Keep in mind that you don’t need any special sports drink unless you work out intensely for more than an hour, and even then plain old water is usually fine. As for all the other health claims— that coconut water can control diabetes, fight viruses, speed metabolism, treat kidney stones, and so on—don’t believe them.
Coconut milk. Made from grated and squeezed coconut meat, the milk is very high in calories (445 per cup, canned) and fat (48 grams per cup, canned, almost all saturated). Like coconut oil, the milk does not seem to have a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol, as was seen in an eight-week study from Sri Lanka in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2013. It is not for drinking straight up or for cereal, but can be used in cooking, especially for curries and other Asian dishes. “Light” coconut milk has half the fat and calories (still a lot). Lower-calorie coconut milk products are marketed as alternatives to regular milk and as frozen desserts.
Coconut sugar. This is not made from the coconut itself, but from the nectar of the flowering buds of the coconut tree. Despite the claims, it is really just another form of sugar, with negligible extra nutrients and no health benefits. Less sweet and more expensive than regular sugar, it has a slight caramel taste.
Coconut flour. Produced from dried coconut meat, this flour is a good way to add coconut flavor and fiber to baked goods. It has a few more calories than whole-wheat flour and more fat (4 grams per ounce) but also lots of extra fiber (10 grams per ounce). When added to bread and cake recipes, it can blunt the effect on blood sugar somewhat, presumably because of its fiber.