By Lynn A. Kuntz, Editor-in-Chief
In northern climes, the image of a palm tree laden with coconuts likely evokes thoughts of an exotic getaway and nothing more nourishing than a piña colada. However, in tropical countries around the world, the coconut tree, Cocos nucifera, provides people with many of their basic needs, from shelter to medicine to decorations to—of course—food. It is so integral to the populations where it grows that one of its ancient Sanskrit names is “tree that supplies everything needed for life."
Approximately 93% of coconut production occurs in the Asian and Pacific tropics, with the two biggest producers being Indonesia and the Philippines. The coconut tree comes in many varieties, typically categorized as “tall" or “dwarf" and their hybrids, and bears its fruit under a crown of fan-shaped leaves. These nuts grow year-round and, depending on the variety, are different sizes, shapes, colors and weights. Typically, a full-grown palm produces at least one mature bunch of 5 to 15 coconuts every month. The nuts are sometimes harvested when they are young or, more typically, left to ripen until the coconut is 11 to 12 months old. At that point, they are either manually harvested or left to drop off the tree. The mature nuts produce better quality and higher quantities of copra (nutmeat) and coconut oil.
While there are a few foods derived from the coconut palm other than the nut, such as hearts of palm and a sweet palm sap with 16% sucrose, sometimes called toddy (especially after fermentation, to which it is highly prone), the vast majority come from the nut. The mature fruit of the coconut palm is a 3-sided seed covered by reddish-brown fiber (the husk, or mesocarp) and a smooth, outer skin (the rind, or exocarp). The round coconut seen in groceries is the dehusked fruit that consists of coconut milk, and “meat" (the kernel, or endosperm), surrounded by a hard shell (endocarp). Generally, after dehusking, the coconut is split in two, the coconut water is drained off, and the resulting “cups" undergo a drying process (sun-drying, kiln-drying or a combination of both), where the meat shrinks and is easily removed from the shell. Drying reduces moisture content from 50% to below 7%. Improperly dried copra can encourage mold growth (Aspergillus flavus and other aflatoxin-related molds).
Coconut oil processing consists of two major types: Extraction that uses copra is called the dry process, while the method that starts with fresh coconuts is generally called the wet process. Copra contains about 65% to 72% oil. After oil extraction, by expression or prepress solvent extraction, the remaining coconut cake is usually fed to livestock. Copra-derived coconut oil must undergo chemical refining, bleaching and deodorizing. This results in a yellowish, odorless, tasteless oil with a melting point of 76°F (24.4°C). It can be hydrogenated, which creates a hard, brittle, solid fat with a melting point of 92°F to 104°F (33°C to 40°C). Coconut oil has a steep solid-fat index (SFI) and sharp melting point, which is useful in products such as coffee whiteners.