What is a Coconut?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A coconut is the fruit of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera. These plants are believed to be native to Southeast Asia, where they have been cultivated and used in food for centuries. Various coconut products can be found in the cuisine of many Asian nations, and they appear in other tropical diets as well, especially in the Caribbean. The distinctive flavor of the fruit makes it a very popular food, and a wide range of things are made with this plant, from palm wine to pie.

Coconut trees can provide timber for fuel and construction projects.
Coconut trees can provide timber for fuel and construction projects.

Technically, a coconut is a drupe, which means that it has a hard shell encased in a fibrous outer layer. When the shell is cracked open, it reveals a fleshy white meat and a liquid that is known as coconut water. Cracking open the shell is no mean feat; a number of techniques are used, ranging from baking coconuts to make them brittle to dropping them onto sharp rocks in an attempt to wedge open a crack in the shell.

Coconut water is highly nutritious and is crisp, cool, and refreshing.
Coconut water is highly nutritious and is crisp, cool, and refreshing.

The water found inside the shell is not the same thing as coconut milk, a popular creamy product which is actually made with the flesh of the fruit. Coconut water is crisp, cool, and refreshing, and it is often used in drinks in tropical regions. It is also high in vitamins and minerals, making it popular with the health food community. The milk is made by grating the flesh, soaking it in hot water, and squeezing it, extracting a very rich, dense white liquid that is very high in protein and fat.

A coconut has a hard shell encased in a fibrous outer layer with a fleshy, white inside.
A coconut has a hard shell encased in a fibrous outer layer with a fleshy, white inside.

Coconut milk is often used in curries and soups in tropical nations. It is also used to flavor drinks and desserts. The flesh of coconuts can be grated and toasted as a garnish, added whole to desserts, chunked in soups and stews, and it may be fresh, dry, or roasted, depending on the dish and regional preferences. Like coconut milk, the flesh has a high protein and fat content, and it has a very rich flavor.

Desiccated coconut.
Desiccated coconut.

Sap from coconuts is fermented to produce palm wine, while the leaves are used for thatching and the bark is sometimes used as a source of fiber. The fibrous outer shell is sometimes used as well; this fiber is known as coir. Coconut trees can also provide timber for construction projects and a source of fuel. There are numerous other uses for these plants and their fruit, explaining why they have become so popular in the tropical regions where they grow.

A globe showing the Caribbean, one of the places where coconuts grow.
A globe showing the Caribbean, one of the places where coconuts grow.
Coconut milk is high in fat and protein.
Coconut milk is high in fat and protein.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


It seems like I only like eating coconut in desserts. I love coconut cream pie and German chocolate cake with coconut frosting. I don't think this is the kind of benefits they are talking about with coconut. My husband doesn't care for the taste of coconut at all. Even if there is a tasty dessert there, if it has coconut in it, he will pass.


There are a ton of benefits from using coconut oil. It is used for healthy skin, hair and some even use coconut oil for weight loss. I heard Dr Oz talking about this one day on his show. It is hard for me to understand how an oil can help you lose weight, but apparently it is pretty effective.

I have been trying to cut down on the amount of dairy in my diet and love coconut milk on my cereal in the morning. It costs more than regular milk, but once I got used to the taste I haven't switched back.


We like to use virgin coconut oil when we eat popcorn. I don't like using microwave popcorn very often and like to make my own. Coconut oil is not only good for us but is a light oil that really enhances the taste of the popcorn. Another interesting thing I have noticed is that there is not a residue left on the popper like there is if I use something like plain vegetable oil.


@DentalFloss -- I wish I had known coconut water was so good for me. I recently bought a coconut at the store thinking I wanted to make some of my own coconut milk.

I had to go online to figure out what to do with the coconut once I got it home. Before cracking open the shell I drained the water out of the coconut, not knowing I should have been saving it.

I eventually got the coconut opened up, but realized it was a whole lot easier to buy coconut products that have already been processed. It is probably an easy process if you know what you are doing, but for me, it seemed like it took a lot of time and effort.


I've used several coconut dessert recipes, and one has become my favorite. I make a coconut ambrosia that is a hit at the dinner table.

I use pistachio pudding, grapes, oranges, walnuts, whipped cream, and shredded coconut to make this glorious combination. The coconut gives the dish a tropical flavor, and it adds nutrients, too.

This is one dessert I don't feel guilty about eating. True, too much coconut can make you gain weight, but since it is just sprinkled across the surface, I don't think I'm running that risk by eating ambrosia.


Coconut oil benefits your hair in many ways. I've been using it on mine for years, and it is shinier and more healthy looking than it used to be.

It moisturizes the scalp and the strands, and it can treat dandruff. I used to battle with the flakes, but since I've been using coconut oil on my scalp, I haven't seen them return.

It seems to make my hair grow faster. I've read that it gives the hair the protein it needs to grow, so maybe this isn't just my imagination.

@StarJo – Coconut milk can cause diarrhea, but coconut water can actually treat severe dehydration. I have read that people in impoverished countries drink the coconut water to replenish themselves with nutrients during an episode of severe diarrhea, and this has saved their lives.

However, I have had diarrhea after consuming a soup made with coconut milk. I have a low tolerance for it, as do many other people. I had coconut soup in a Thai restaurant, and the results were not pleasant.


I've heard that coconut milk can cause diarrhea, especially if you drink a lot of it. Is this true? I've been wanting to try some, but I'm scared of what might happen!


I guess coconuts are sort of a love them or hate them food. I love them. I love them in savory dishes, like curry, or in sweet dishes, like coconut cake. In my opinion, a coconut is one of the few foods that works equally well in savory or sweet applications.


I found this great Lithuanian cereal while I was in Europe called Romeo. Think Cocoa Puffs, one they're Coco Puffs- coconut flavored cereal. It is so incredibly delicious, I've been trying to find something like it in the states.


I would love to try coconut water because it is supposed to be so good for you, and coconut milk is so refreshing. At the same time, it is really expensive- coconuts are not exactly a cheap or practical source of water, obviously.


I love that coconuts can be used for so many different things, and that you can utilize almost every part of them.

However, this article does miss one very important use- horse sound effects.

(If you do not get this joke, please go watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

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