Coconut Uses and Benefits from Food to Building Materials

Davao City - Although not a native of the Philippines, coconut is considered as God’s gift to Filipinos.  One historian wrote: “A man sleeps in the shade of the tree.  He is awakened when a nut falls, drinks the water, and eats some of the meat.  He then feeds the rest of the meat to the chickens, which produce eggs, milk, and meat. The leaves provide thatch for the roof and walls of his coconut hut, and are also woven into hats, baskets, and mats.”

 No wonder, coconuts are referred to as “man’s most useful tree,” “king of the tropical flora,” “tree of abundance,” “tree of heaven,” and “tree of life.”  Known in the science world as Cocos nucifera, it is the most important of cultivated palms and the most widely distributed of all palms.

 Coconut brings many natural products, including foods, drinks, fibers, building materials, and chemicals. Portuguese reported coconut in normal use as food in the Caribbean area previous to 1526.  Later, in 1577 during a visit to Cape Verde Island, Sir Francis Drake frequently referred to the vast quantities available of “nargil,” then prevailing name of coconut.  

 In the Philippines, coconut is known for its buko.  It is often used for salads, halo-halo (crushed ice with sweetened fruits), sweets, and pastries.  However, buko comes in three forms: mala-kanin (having the consistency of boiled rice), mala-uhog (mucus-like consistency and ready for eating), and mala-katad (like leather).   The latter is specially used for making sweets.

 In Laguna, buko pie is a thriving industry.  It provides extra income to housewives and even young entrepreneurs.  It generates jobs for out-of-school youths.  During summer, young children earn income by selling buko pie.

 The coconut industry is considered a million dollar earner that provides livelihood to one-third of the total population in the Philippines.  This must be the reason why the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) has been setting several programs to enhance the uses of coconut.  The PCA, created under Presidential Decree 232, is mandated “to oversee the development of coconut and other palm oil industry in all its aspects.” 

 Aside from coco meat, the kernel can produce flour (which can be used as a wheat extender), desiccated coconut, coconut milk (gata), coconut chips (very popular in Hawaii), candies, and bukayo.  It can also be a main ingredient for pies, latik, and copra.

 Another popular product from coconut is the buko juice, also known as liquid endosperm.  The juice is promoted as a water therapy to cure renal disorders.  Called bukolysis – a brainchild of Dr. Eufemio Macalalag, Jr. -- it is a process of reducing or dissolving urinary stones of the urinary tract systems using buko water from seven- to nine-month old coconuts.

 Other uses of coconut water include coconut water vinegar, coconut wine, and production of the chewy, fiber-rich nata. 

Coconut can be made into musical instruments.  In the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, half coconut shells were used to make sound effects of a horse’s hoof beats when banged together.  The coconut shells are also used to make the base of musical instruments such as the Chinese ban-hu and yea-hu. 

 The coconut shell can also be carved out to make fashion accessories like necklaces, bangles, pendants, earrings and so on. In Hawaii, people use coconut shell to make the buttons for their Hawaiian shirts.

 Coir, the fibrous husk of the coconut, is used in a surprisingly large number of ways. Ropes and yarns, aquarium filters, car seat covers, flower pots, soundproofing, mulch for plant growing, heat insulation, brushes, bristles, mattresses, door mats and matting, rugs, carpets.  The list goes on and on!

 Out of the bud of the coconut tree’s inflorescence is a juice called coconut toddy or tuba.  Toddy can be taken as fresh beverage, as an alcoholic drink (once fermented), and it could also be used in making vinegar, coconut sugar, and as a source of yeast for making bread.

 But one good thing about the fresh coco toddy is that it contains inositol, which can be used in treating cancer patients. “We have to develop a way of prolonging the shelf life of coco sap while maintaining its fresh and pure form, and the validation as well as of the health benefits through a clinical study,” said Oscar G. Garin, the PCA administrator.

However, copra – the dried coconut meat – is still coconut’s main product.  It has high oil content, as much as 64 percent.  Coconut oil, which is the most readily digested among all the fats of general use in the entire world, furnishes about 9,500 calories of energy per kilo.  Its chief competitors are soya bean oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.  Some studies have shown that coconut oil retards aging.  It also counteracts heart, colon, pancreatic and liver tumor inducers.

 What is interesting is that coconut oil does not affect cholesterol levels of those who consume it.  The main reason for this is that coconut oil comprised primarily of a unique type of fat molecule known as medium-chain fatty acid, according to Dr. Bruce Fife, a nutritionist and naturopathic physician who wrote The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil.

 “These fatty acids are different from those commonly found in other food sources and are burned almost immediately for energy production, and so that they are not converted into body fat or cholesterol and do not affect blood cholesterol levels,” Dr. Fife explained.

 In recent years, the popularity of coconut oil boosted with the introduction of virgin coconut oil (VCO).  VCO, says Dr. Teresita Espino, a biotechnologist who developed product in the country, is the oil that comes from the milk that is extracted from fresh coconut milk.  Some studies have shown that VCO can help prevent sicknesses like skin problems, ulcer, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, immature aging, and degenerative diseases. 

 Unknown to many, coconut oil is also used as a basic ingredient in some of the cosmetic soap products.  Coconut oil is also used as a basic ingredient to make toothpaste for sensitive teeth.  In addition, coconut oil can also be applied to skin to treat minor irritations like insect bites and sunburn.

 Some farmers are finding coconut as a steady source of income.  That is what Benjamin Lao, of Bansalan, Davao del Sur, has shown.  Aside from the revenue he gets from copra, he also ventures into a value-adding enterprise by producing coconut sugar and coconut honey out of the coconut sap or toddy gathered from his coconut trees.   “These coco products have low glycemic index, a measurement of blood sugar, thus good for diabetics and those having prostate problems,” he said. 

 Lao’s claim that coco sugar is good for diabetics has been supported by some studies.  “We have already undertaken a clinical study on coconut sugar where we obtained a very encouraging result,” said PCA’s Garin. He was referring to the study undertaken by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute which found coco sugar to have a low glycemic index of 35, which is good for diabetics.

 The Philippines is the world’s second largest producer of coconut products, after Indonesia.  About 25 percent of cultivated land is planted to coconut trees, and it is estimated that between 25 percent and 33 percent of the population is partly dependent on coconuts for their livelihood.