CoconutPity the poor beleaguered coconut. For decades, these enormous seeds (they’re not actually nuts, despite the name) had been castigated for their 90% saturated fat content, prompting health experts to tag them as artery cloggers. Thankfully, coconut is now receiving long-overdue vindication and accolades.

“Science is starting to show that not all saturated fats act the same way in the body,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD,author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet. “Coconut oil is comprised primarily of medium-chain saturated fatty acids, and while the jury is still out, some researchers believe these have a more neutral effect on heart health when compared to longer-chain saturated fats found in red meat and butter.” She notes that medium-chain fats are metabolized more easily into energy in the liver due to their shorter carbon chain length and therefore are less likely to be health troublemakers.

Though other lifestyle factors are likely also at play, this may be one reason Polynesia and Sri Lanka denizens who consume prodigious amounts of coconut products typically have low rates of heart disease.

There’s a dearth of studies showing coconut hampers heart health. What’s more, lauric acid, the predominant form of mediumchain saturated fat in coconut oil, appears to have strong antibacterial properties.

Coconut now has many proponents. The oil has become a staple in health food stores and a tsunami of “coconut miracle” books and websites tout it as the ultimate panacea. But buyer beware: Many of the claims surrounding coconut, Bazilian says, including an ability to boost metabolism and shed body fat, are unsubstantiated and exaggerated.

“Coconut is not nearly the dietary devil it was once assumed to be, but it’s no cureall,” she says, adding that “many coconut products are still high in Black-Beancalories, so it’s important not to gorge on them despite some nutritional benefits.”

Rich, subtly sweet, and assertive, coconut’s flavor can make any dish taste exotic. In the kitchen, coconut can star in any number of dishes: baked goods, smoothies, curries, and granola, among others. With so many enticing coconut products now available on store shelves, its versatility knows no bounds.

Coconut meat is simply the flesh of a coconut. Get it by cracking open a coconut or find it packaged in the refrigerator section of some Indian and Asian markets. A 1-cup serving provides 7 grams of dietary fiber to help keep you feeling full. Use the meat in salsas, puréed soups, smoothies, and yogurt.

Readily available, shredded coconut is produced by drying fresh coconut meat. Prebagged shredded coconut is often sweetened, so look for unsweetened shaved or shredded versions instead. With 5 grams of hunger-quelling fiber in a mere ounce, use it to dress up salads, granola, trail mix, chutneys, and baked goods.

Coconut water is the clear, slightly tangy liquid gleaned from young green coconuts. With endorsements from a growing list of Hollywood A-listers, it’s all the rage right now. Unlike coconut milk, it has no fat calories and is packed with potassium, making it an ideal postworkout drink or aid in reducing blood pressure.

“Offering low-calorie flavorful hydration and no added sweeteners, it won’t hurt your waistline as can heavily sweetened soda and other drinks,” says Bazilian.

Drink it straight up or add to smoothies, cold soups, and cocktails or use it as the cooking water for whole grains such as rice and quinoa.

WHAT TO TRY: Zico Coconut Water

Lactose-free coconut milk is often made by pouring boiling water over grated coconut, cooling it, and then squeezing the liquid from the pulp. Not just for curries, coconut milk is wonderful in cereals, smoothies, sauces, and coffee and can be used in lieu of cow’s milk in baking. It’s now available in cans as well as in vitamin D- and calcium-enriched brands in cartons in the dairy cooler, the latter having a mouthfeel more like cow’s milk and other nondairy alternatives. Light versions are available.

WHAT TO TRY: Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk (canned), So Delicious Unsweetened Coconut Milk (carton)

Coconut oil, which is extracted by pressing dried coconut meat, has a long shelf life and contains beneficial antioxidants (particularly virgin varieties). Its high smoke point makes it an excellent allpurpose cooking and baking oil. It’s also good over popcorn.

“Refined coconut oil has a more neutral taste and higher smoke point than unrefined or virgin coconut oil, which has a medium smoke point similar to extra-virgin olive oil,” notes Bazilian.

Applied topically, coconut oil is also a great skin moisturizer.

WHAT TO TRY: Navitas Naturals Organic Coconut Oil

Creamy with a touch of tropical sweetness, spreadable coconut butter is wonderful on toast, crackers, baked goods, or anywhere you would use its dairy equivalent. Also try it in smoothies, sauces, and dressings. Look for products that contain only coconut.

They provide a bonus of about 2 grams of fiber per tablespoon.

WHAT TO TRY: Nutiva Coconut Manna

Harvesters climb to the top of coconut palm trees to collect the sap from palm blossoms, which is then boiled into thick syrup, dried, and finally pulverized to produce a granular sweetener with caramel notes. It’s an excellent lower-glycemic alternative to heavily refined white sugar. Often called palm sugar, coconut sugar is one of the most sustainable sweetener options, as palms produce significantly more sugar per acre than does sugar cane.

WHAT TO TRY: Navitas Natural Organic Palm Sugar

Made by grinding dried coconut meat, subtly sweet coconut flour is gluten free and provides an impressive 5 grams of fiber in 2 tablespoons.

“The high fiber content as well as the presence of some fat can increase the satiating power of recipes it’s added to and may slow the rise in blood glucose afterwards,” says Bazilian.

You can replace up to 20% of the flour called for in a baked good, pancake, or other recipe with coconut flour, says Matt Cox, marketing director for Bob’s Red Mill. “But make sure to add an equivalent amount of additional liquid to the recipe to prevent the batter from getting too thick, as the high fiber content makes it very absorbent.”

WHAT TO TRY: Bob’s Red Mill Organic Coconut Flour

Coconut Tilapia With Coconut Herb Chutney

This simple coconut chutney brings bright tropical flavor to neutral-tasting tilapia. You can also use other white-fleshed fish such as catfish and cod.

Serves 4

1⁄2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
3⁄4 cup fresh cilantro
1⁄3 cup fresh mint
1⁄3 cup chopped almonds
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped
1⁄2 cup light coconut milk
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Juice of 1⁄2 lime
Four 5-ounce tilapia fillets
1 large egg white
Salt and pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup coconut flour
1 tablespoon coconut or other oil

Using a food processor, pulse coconut, cilantro, mint, almonds, jalapeño, coconut milk, and salt until well combined. Stir in lime juice and set aside.

Rinse tilapia and pat dry with a paper towel. Brush both sides with egg white and season with salt and pepper. Spread coconut flour on a plate and coat both sides of fish in flour.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat and cook tilapia for 3 minutes per side, or until opaque throughout. Serve with chutney.

TD&N Nutrient Analysis: Calories: 397; Total Fat: 18 g; Saturated Fat: 12 g; Polyunsaturated Fat: 2 g; Monounsaturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 71 mg; Sodium: 325 mg; Carbohydrates: 23 g; Fiber: 13 g; Protein: 37 g

Coconut-Avocado Smoothie

Avocado lends this fanciful smoothie a creamy richness and plenty of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Add additional liquid if you find it too thick for your liking.

1 cup coconut water
1 cup coconut milk or other milk of choice
1⁄2 cup water or coconut water
Juice of 1⁄2 lime
Pulp of 1 medium ripe avocado
1⁄4 cup fresh basil
1 tablespoon honey
Dash of salt
1 teaspoon lime zest

Pour coconut water into the compartments of an ice cube tray and freeze.

Pour coconut milk into a blender followed by water or coconut water, lime juice, avocado, basil, honey, and salt. Drop in coconut water ice cubes and blend on low for 20 seconds. Increase speed to high and continue blending until ice is fully incorporated, about 20 to 30 seconds.

Serve garnished with lime zest.

TD&N Nutrient Analysis (based on 4 servings): Calories: 248; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Polyunsaturated Fat: 1 g; Monounsaturated Fat: 6 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 76 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Fiber: 5 g; Protein: 3 g