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Is a Coconut a Fruit or a Nut?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Although the name suggests that a coconut is a nut, it is in fact botanically classified as a fruit. Specifically, it is a drupe, a kind of fruit that is characterized by a fleshy outer layer and the fact that it develops from the ovary wall of a flower. Some other examples of drupes include nectarines, pistachios, almonds, and mangoes. The evolutionary advantage for drupes is that their fleshy outer layers attract animals, ensuring that they will be widely distributed along with a little natural fertilizer in the form of animal dung. In fact, some drupes are specifically designed to go through the intestinal tracts of animals.

The outer layer of a coconut is known as the mesocarp. Those in the store are usually stripped of their mesocarps, but people who have a chance to see one in nature will see the thick fibers that cover the fruit. These fibers are known as coir, and they are used in rope making and textiles in some regions of the tropics. Coir fiber is very strong and durable, although it can also be a bit itchy.

The next layer is the endocarp, which is the hard hull of the fruit that most people see when they buy whole coconuts at market. The endocarp protects the tender fleshy endosperm, the meat of the fruit. People may also note several soft depressions, which are designed to allow the embryo to grow if the drupe is fertilized and allowed to mature.

People eat coconut meat because it is the only palatable part of the drupe. It is rich in fat and nutrition because the endosperm is designed to nourish the embryo as it matures, giving it a start in life until it gets large enough to start photosynthesizing and absorbing its own nutrients. The more mature one is, the firmer and denser the flesh will be; in young coconuts, the meat can be almost like a jelly in texture.

Coconuts are one of a number of foods that are misnamed, at least from the view of botanists. They were probably associated with nuts, rather than fruit, because of their meat, which is intensely rich and flavorful, much like the meat of a nut. In fact, the endosperm of drupes like peaches and nectarines is also very rich, but humans cannot eat it because it is too hard and because it contains compounds that can make people sick.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By honeybees — On Nov 03, 2012

About the only way I like to eat coconut is in a coconut cake. I don't think coconut tastes all that great plain and need some sugar to sweeten it up. I know I probably don't get very many health benefits when I eat coconut this way, but it sure does taste better.

By sunshined — On Nov 02, 2012

I can understand why coconut would be considered a fruit, but I had no idea that almonds were also considered a fruit, or a drupe. I have always thought these were nuts, just like walnuts and cashews.

As far as coconuts go I have heard of many health benefits of coconut oil. One day on the Dr Oz show he had a whole segment on the benefits of using coconut in your diet every day. He also said coconut oil was used for weight loss.

It is hard to understand how an oil like that could help with weight loss, but I love the taste of coconut and coconut oil and think it might be worth a try.

By SarahSon — On Nov 01, 2012

We like to use coconut oil when we pop popcorn. I don't like using the microwave popcorn because I don't think the ingredients are very healthy for you. Coconut oil is one of the healthiest oils and it makes the best popcorn.

This is a solid oil at room temperature, so I just scoop some out of the jar and let the heat of the popper melt the oil before adding the popcorn. I always thought coconut was a nut just because the word 'nut' was part of the word. I guess you learn something every day and will now refer to coconut as a fruit.

By julies — On Oct 31, 2012

@anon449999 -- I wish I had the answer to your question. I saw some coconuts for sale at the health food store and thought I would enjoy some coconut meat, but I had a tough time even getting to the meat of the coconut.

Somehow I had to poke some holes in the coconut to let the juice drain out. That was the easy part. The hard part was removing the hard shell to get to the good stuff inside.

I realized it was way too much work for me and from now on I just pay the money to buy coconut that is already shredded or coconut milk in the store. Coconut has a lot of health benefits, but if you don't know what you are doing, it can be quite a challenge to figure out how to open one up.

By bythewell — On Aug 17, 2012

@anon136974 - You should avoid coconut until you ask your doctor. Some people will be allergic to it, some people won't be. I think you are more likely to be allergic to it if you are allergic to other nuts, because they do contain some of the same allergens, but you may not be.

Coconut is present in quite a few things, and it often isn't sign posted on the label, so make sure you double check for coconut oil or fats in your food products as well.

By irontoenail — On Aug 16, 2012

@anon44999 - I don't think there's a subtle way to do it. You just have to bash at it with a big knife. I've seen it done in tropical countries and people with experience will make it look easy, but it's actually quite difficult and you need to be extremely careful not to cut yourself.

Another suggestion is to use an electric knife or maybe a saw to cut into the husk. Once again, make sure you are careful and keep a good grip on the coconut. Perhaps put it into a vice or something, because it could roll and your tool could slip and hurt you.

By anon136974 — On Dec 25, 2010

Can you eat coconut if you have a tree nut allergy?

By anon44999 — On Sep 12, 2009

What is the best way to remove the mesocarp (outer layer) of a coconut just recovered from a tree?

By anon44378 — On Sep 07, 2009

Answered that question! Thanks.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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