Health Benefits of Coconuts

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 30, 2024
9 min read

A coconut is the fruit of the coconut tree. The coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, usually smooth and green in color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is a husk with fibers called the mesocarp. The inner layer, called the endocarp, is hard and brown with three spots or "eyes" on the shell. In the U.S., only the endocarp is sold in grocery stores. It takes 11-12 months for a coconut to fully mature into an endocarp.

From a botanical perspective, the coconut is considered to be a drupe, which is a fruit with a fleshy outer part surrounding a hard covering (pit or stone) with a seed inside. Another fruit that's a drupe is a peach. 

Coconut meat is the edible white flesh lining the inside of the coconut endocarp. It's also called the kernel or copra. Coconut meat can be used to create coconut oil, coconut cream, coconut milk, and dried coconut. Of course, you can eat it fresh, too.

Research suggests that coconut meat provides nutritious fats and various other potential health benefits.

Coconut tree

The scientific name for the coconut tree is Cocos Nucifera.Cocos Nucifera is the only type of palm tree that produces coconuts. It likely originated in India and Southeast Asia, with the fruit carried on ocean currents or by explorers to other locations. Today, coconuts grow in warm climates across the globe, such as the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and parts of Africa, South America, and the U.S. The tree can handle high winds and grows well in sandy or mangrove soils, which most other plants can't tolerate.

Botanically speaking, the coconut palm is not a tree since it has no bark, branches, or secondary growth. It's considered to be a woody perennial plant with its trunk as the stem. 

Still, the coconut palm is often referred to as the "tree of life," since every part of it can be used for something, whether it's drinking the juice of the coconut, eating the "meat," making mats with the branches, or using the wood from the trunk to build a hut.

Is the coconut a nut?

Despite its name, the coconut is not really a nut since true nuts, like acorns, only release seeds when they decay or are digested by an animal. A coconut can grow from an intact shell, even one floated from a long distance.

There are more than 400 varieties of Cocos Nucifera in the world but they fall into two main groups: tall and dwarf.

Tall coconut

More than 95% of coconut palms fall into this group. They can grow up to 98 feet (30 meters) and don't bear fruit until they are 5-7 years old. Their lifespans are 60-80 years, though some live to to be 100. Common varieties include the Jamaican tall (also called the Atlantic tall), West African tall, Panama tall (also called Pacific tall), and East Coast tall.

Dwarf coconut

"Dwarf" doesn't mean these trees are short, though they may seem so compared with the tall variety. The terms refers to the fact that they produce smaller fruit and at an earlier age. Dwarfs can get as tall as 30-60 feet and start producing fruit at 3 years. However, they tend to live only 60 years. Common varieties include the Malayan yellow dwarf, Fiji dwarf, Brazilian green dwarf, Ghana yellow dwarf, and Equatorial Guinea green dwarf.

There are also hybrid coconuts, a cross between tall and dwarf varieties. These bear fruit after 3-4 years (like the dwarf) but are also resistant to diseases (like the tall). They generally yield more coconuts too, making them popular for commercial plantations. Common varieties include the Maypan, the VHC1, and the PB 121.

Green coconut

The green coconut is the immature version of the coconut. It has a high water content, and meat that is soft and jellylike and often referred to as coconut jelly. In tropical countries, these green coconuts are often sold on the street to people looking for fresh coconut water. Green coconuts are harvested at around 7 months into the maturation process, while brown coconuts are harvested at 11-12 months. As the coconut matures, it turns brown and most of the water is absorbed into the meat.

Coconut contains protein and fiber, as well as many essential minerals like:

  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Magnesium

1 cup of fresh, shredded coconut contains the following nutrients:

  • 283 calories
  • 2.66 grams of protein
  • 26.8 grams of fat
  • 12.2 grams of carbohydrates
  • 7.2 grams of fiber
  • 4.98 grams of sugar
  • 2.64 grams of vitamin C

While coconut is relatively low in sugar, it has a high fat content; 89% of the fat in one serving is saturated fat. But much of the fats are medium-chain fatty acids, which metabolize differently from long-chain fatty acids, like those found in beef and other animal fats. Medium-chain fatty acids have been associated with improvements in brain function and cholesterol levels.

However, it's not clear if these benefits also extend to coconut oil. Ninety-two percent of the fat content in coconut oil is saturated fat and only a small percentage of that are true medium-chain triglycerides (medium-chain fatty acids made from coconut oil). The American Heart Association (AHA) and other groups warn against using coconut oil as your day-to-day cooking oil because of the high saturated fat content. One teaspoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat and the daily total recommended by the AHA is 13 grams based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Plus, the oil has been shown to raise both "good" and "bad" cholesterol levels.

Coconut aminos

Coconut aminos sauce is made from the fermented sap (i.e., the flower nectar) of the coconut tree. The final product looks like soy sauce and can be used in the same way. It doesn't have a coconut taste. If you want a flavoring sauce that's gluten-free and soy-free, coconut aminos is a good alternative to soy sauce. It also has much less sodium and a somewhat sweeter taste than soy.

Historically, people have used coconut as part of traditional medicine. The fruit is said to, among other things:

  • Counteract some poisons
  • Ease inflammation
  • Kill bacteria
  • Treat diarrhea
  • Treat kidney diseases
  • Reduce pain
  • Treat menstrual issues

Researchers have found that coconut husk-fiber extracts reduced pain and inflammation in mice. They also found that coconut water showed antidiabetic effects in animal studies and reduced blood pressure in hypertensive rats. But it's not clear if these benefits carry over to humans. 

Scientists also found that coconut extracts, particularly from the husk, showed antimicrobial properties and were effective against various bacteria, fungi, and viruses in lab tests. Coconut endocarp and virgin coconut oil also have high antioxidant activity, which is good for resisting harmful molecules in the body.

Here are some proven health benefits of the fruit:

Improves your endurance. Coconut meat contains large amounts of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are easier for the human body to digest than animal fats. These fats have been demonstrated to boost the endurance of trained athletes.

Gives you better oral health. The antimicrobial properties of coconut meat can be useful in preventing infections related to root canals and other teeth issues. Although eating the meat is not a substitute for proper dental hygiene, it can help kill some of the unwanted bacteria found in your mouth and protect your gums and teeth from infection or cavities.

Helps you lose weight. Regularly eating coconut meat might help with weight loss. The MCFAs widely found in the meat are associated with fat burning.

Replacement for IV fluids. Coconut water was used like this for a patient in the remote Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, as well for some patients during World War II and in developing countries with no ill effects. But it's not an ideal fluid for rehydration as its sodium content is low.

Here are just some of the uses of the coconut tree and fruit:

Coconut water (from the fruit)

  • A refreshing drink 
  • Coconut wine or vinegar (when fermented)

Coconut meat (copra) 

  • Coconut oil (which can used for cooking or moisturizing the skin and hair)
  • Coconut milk
  • Coconut sap (nectar of the flowers)
  • Coconut aminos sauce
  • Palm wine
  • Coconut candy
  • Coconut sugar

Coir (fiber from the coconut husk) 

  • Floor mats
  • Mattress stuffing
  • Brushes
  • Ropes and swings
  • Caulking for boats and nets
  • Potting compost

Coconut shell and husk 

  • Fuel
  • Buffing floors
  • Mosquito repellant when burned

Coconut Leaves 

  • Brooms
  • Mats and baskets
  • Cooking skewers
  • Kindling arrows
  • Roof thatch

Coconut trunk 

  • Furniture
  • Building houses
  • Canoes
  • Drums

Coconut roots 

  • Dye
  • Mouthwash
  • As a toothbrush (frayed end)

The versatility of the coconut tree makes it an important agricultural crop in tropical countries whether in West Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, or Hawaii.

How to use coconut meat

Coconut meat can be eaten as is or turned into coconut milk by simmering grated coconut with milk or water, and straining it. This milk can be used in desserts, soups, or other dishes. Thai curries always start with a base of coconut milk. Many Caribbean, West African, and Polynesian dishes feature this milk, too. 

You can make coconut cream by leaving coconut milk in the fridge overnight or in the freezer for 30 minutes. The part that rises to the top is the cream. It's used in cocktails like the piña colada or boiled for coconut oil.

How to make coconut oil

  • Get some brown coconuts. To make 6 ounces of oil, you need about 7 coconuts.
  • Poke holes in the eyes to drain out the water.
  • Crack them open with a machete or hammer.
  • Grate the coconut meat by hand and add water to it. Or save time by cutting up the meat, adding some water, and blending it in a food processor or blender until smooth. 
  • Squeeze the mixture through cheesecloth or a mesh strainer to make coconut milk.
  • Put the milk in the freezer for 30 minutes so the cream rises to the top.
  • Remove the cream from the milk.
  • Boil the cream over a medium heat until just before it turns brown, stirring often. This takes about 20-25 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and allow it to cool.
  • Pour it through a strainer to take out any curds that have settled at the bottom and it's ready to use.

Note: This oil will keep longer if stored in the fridge.

Uses of coconut shell

  • Bowls, utensils
  • Body of some musical instruments
  • Making sound effects (like a horse's hoofbeats)
  • Shirt buttons
  • Candle holders
  • Bird feeders
  • Plant pots

First, pierce the softest eye to drain out the water. Now, you're going to open it. There are four different ways to do this:

  1. Strike the coconut against a hard surface like a kitchen counter. 
  2. Wrap a towel around the coconut and hit it along its "equator" (a thin line around the middle of the fruit) with a meat mallet or hammer.
  3. Use a machete or other heavy knife to score a line across the middle of the coconut. Keep striking the line and rotating it repeatedly.
  4. Bake the coconut for 15-20 minutes in an oven preheated to 400 F. The shell should start to crack. Remove and let it cool. Use a mallet or blunt side of a knife to finish taking the shell off.

How to get coconut meat out

Here are two tricks:

Freeze it. Simply put the coconut halves in the freezer overnight. Then take them out, hit them with the dull side of a cleaver, and the flesh should come right out.

Heat it. Place one coconut half (or both) in a pan with some water (water level should be lower than the coconut) and boil on high for 5 minutes. Lift out with tongs and let it cool. Loosen the white meat from the shell with a sharp knife. 

Once the coconut is out of its shell, use a vegetable peeler to remove any of the brown skin from the flesh.


If you're looking to avoid or cut back on saturated fats, rather than using coconut meat as a snack, choose something that's high in healthy fats, like nuts, seeds, or avocados.

You can replace coconut oil with olive oil or vegetable oil, though the flavor will be different.

No wonder they call the coconut tree the "tree of life." Every part of it can be used in some way, whether for food, drink, medicine, making a house, or decorating it. While coconuts have nutrition, they also have a lot of saturated fat, so eat them in moderation.

Is a coconut a fruit or a vegetable?

It's a fruit. Its botanical classification is a one-seeded drupe, which is a fruit with a hard stony covering around a seed. It's in the same family as other stoned fruit like peaches.

What is the liquid inside a coconut called?

Coconut water.