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Creamy spread fills coconut craving

by Doris Penner

Anyone who likes the taste of coconut and can't get enough of it will be ecstatic to learn there is a product on the market with a rich coconut flavour that could well become your favourite spread. Known as coconut butter, it is dense and creamy, has a consistency and taste that makes it a candidate for use in many dishes and better yet, it is made from actual coconut meat which gives it its fresh flavour.  An important question: is coconut butter an acceptable food in a healthy diet? Being a 'butter” how high is it in fat, and what type of fat is it?

Coconut butter is made from fresh coconut meat—harvested from coconut palm—which is dried at low temperatures. Next it is pulverized by machines into a paste, a very simple process that could be duplicated at home in a food processor. It is clear that the only ingredient in the spread is coconut although some food manufacturers add preservatives (read the label if you choose to buy the “pure” product). While plain coconut butter is the most widely sold, flavoured butters—with added dried or fresh fruits or chocolate—are also available.

From same fruit

It is important not to confuse coconut butter with coconut oil although the products come from the same fruit. Coconut oil is pure fat, a product released when coconut meat is pressed. It is made up of 90 percent saturated fat which was a cause for great concern 20 years ago since this is the type of fat—found in animals—that is implicated in raising serum cholesterol and other fats in the blood to wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system.

However, further research has shown that the saturated fat in coconut oil is composed of 60 percent medium-chain fatty acid, a different type than is found in animal fats. One of the fatty acids in coconut oil is lauric acid which is thought to have antibacterial and antiviral effects, thus improving absorption of nutrients and bowel function. More research needs to be done to confirm these and other healthy benefits that follow from ingestion of these unique fatty acids.

Thus while coconut butter offers similar nutrient benefits as coconut oil, there are significant differences. The butter is made of raw coconut so it is not pure fat, but rather a mixture of pureed meat and fat. This means it offers fibre as well as small amounts of magnesium, potassium and iron.

Again, while there are similarities in the texture and taste of the two products, they are used in quite different ways. Because of its high saturated fat content coconut oil—despite its name—is solid and opaque at room temperatures. However, the unique fat content also means the oil has a high smoke point, so it is suitable for using in stirfries and sautés, lending to the dish a very subtle coconut flavour.

Coconut butter is thicker and perfect as a spread on toast, scones or pancakes with a more pronounced taste than the oil. However, like natural peanut butter or almond butter, the oils in coconut butter will rise to the top of the jar, where it solidifies at room temperature and forms a layer (the oil solidifies at temperatures below 25C (76F). Thus to use the spread, warm the jar by placing it in a pan of hot water, or on gentle heat in the microwave and stir the oil back into the paste. 

Texture for frostings 

So in addition to using as a spread, what might be some other ways to use coconut butter in preparing dishes? It is the perfect texture for frosting cupcakes or loaves; by adding a little sugar and chocolate, change the flavour. Another option is adding a dab on a bowl of berries for dessert instead of yogurt, or add a few tablespoons to smoothies for a lovely coconut flavour. A further idea is changing the nature of the spread by adding fruit. Following is one idea.

Apricot Coconut Topping

  • Place 1 cup dried apricots in a small bowl and pour on ½ cup boiling water.
  • Allow to stand for 30 minutes. Pour softened apricots and soaking water into food processor.
  • Add ¼ to 1/3 cup coconut cream, 1 tablespoon coconut butter, 2 teaspoons liquid honey (or to taste) and pinch of nutmeg.
  • Puree until well blended. Serve with waffles or pancakes or over cereal or pudding.

It is important to remember, however, that while coconut butter is delicious and fits into a healthy diet, it is high in fat and thus calorie dense—100 calories per tablespoon. That means you want to use it with a light hand. For example, as a spread, used it instead of butter, and go easy when topping desserts.