Coconut: your backpacking food companion
Coconuts are harvested from the coconut palm tree. These trees flourish in tropical climates such as the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, and India. They also grow on the U.S. mainland in South Florida. Coconuts have made it to the shore of nearly every continent, unassisted by human effort. They can travel up to 3 months in the ocean, wash up on sandy island shorelines, and sprout into a tree that will bear up to ten thousand coconuts in a lifetime. This is why coconut palms are found growing throughout island beaches.
The water from a coconut is high in electrolytes, and the white meat is rich in fat. In particular, the milk and meat are valued for imparting decadence in desserts, adding a creamy texture and aroma to curries, and a sweet flavor to smoothies.
Coconut may be an acquired taste to those that live in colder regions where the trees do not grow. I am surprised by the number of customers we meet that curl their nose when we mention a specific meal contains coconut. I love the flavor of coconut! My former stomping grounds included coconut palms and memories of delicious sweet rolls made from coconut milk…plus, many fond memories associated with Malibu rum runners.
I started to love coconuts when living on the Pacific Island of Guam as a kid. Coconut trees lined our yard, each tree yielding a dozen or so of hanging coconut drupes. The coconuts would pry loose from the trees and become projectiles during typhoon storms. Dented car hoods, chipped paint, and cracked windshields were often the blame of flying coconuts. I enjoyed going outside collecting the battered coconuts and trying to split open their hard shells with a machete. It is no simple task to pry off the fibrous exterior shell to expose the smaller, inner seed filled with the milk and meat. Breaking opening the inner shell is also not an easy chore – requiring more attempts of banging – usually against a concrete slab or hammer. I would love to witness someone who can crack open a coconut with a single blow.
Now that I am living where coconut trees do not flourish, but still craving their rich and creamy taste, I find myself slipping coconut into meals time and again. Furthermore, I fully appreciate the ease of purchasing directly from the store, pre-shredded. And it turns out, dried coconut meat works wonderfully as a backpacking food because it is shelf-stable and loaded with calories. It also works exceptionally well for vegetarian or vegan meals since it provides a high source of plant-based fat. Although vegans should scrutinize the ingredient list carefully for foods containing coconut because many contain non-vegan additives (i.e. casein).
Coconuts are Calorie Dense
Beneath that tough exterior is a fruit that flourishes with calories. 1/3 cup (or 1 ounce) of dried coconut contains 187 calories, most of which come from fat. Backpackers ideally seek meals that contain 100+ calories per ounce. It is more challenging to achieve high-calorie with vegetarian food and more-so with a vegan diet. Adding unsweetened coconut is one way to boost the calories in meals. It may not taste good with certain foods such as pasta, but you have olive oil for that one, right? On the other hand, it does pair well with most rice-based meals, soups, hot/cold cereals and desserts. It is an easy way to boost calories without an overpowering taste.
- Adding coconut provides an easy caloric boost. Dried unsweetened coconut (about 1/3 cup) = 187 cal/oz.
Coconut is unique because it is one of the few plant sources that contain saturated fat – nearly 90% of the fat is saturated. It contains more saturated fat than the fattest of animal fats, such as butter and lard. For example, the percentage of saturated fat (as a percentage of total fat) for butter is 65% and pork lard is about 40%.
Why flaunt food that is 90% saturated fat?
Unlike animal-based saturated fat, coconut is made up of medium chain triglyceride fat (MCT), which is broken down in the body at a faster rate than the long chain triglycerides of animal fats. MCT puts less strain on the digestive system while providing a quick source of energy. In fact, coconut oils are used in hospital formulas to treat patients that have malnutrition because they are quickly absorbed. Many baby formulas also contain coconut oil because they are easily digested, absorbed, and promote healing of the body. MCT appears to not carry the same risks as other saturated fats, but much research is still needed in this area.
Coconut meat does not contain an excellent source of vitamins but does provide a significant amount of the minerals potassium, copper, and manganese. Potassium, together with sodium, is essential for maintaining fluid or electrolyte balance, necessary for all types of exercise, especially long-duration ones like backpacking or hiking. Manganese is essential for protein and fat metabolism. Copper is important for the production of red blood cells and formation of collagen.
Coconut meat, dried, not sweetened
Nutritional value per 1 oz (28.35 g) about 1/3 cup
|Energy||187 kcal (783kJ)|
|– Sugar||2.08 g|
|– Dietary Fiber||4.60 g|
|– monounsaturated||.778 g|
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Use Unsweetened, Dried Coconut
Fresh coconut meat is dried, packaged and sold for retail as flaked coconut. Look for unsweetened shredded coconut meat also called desiccated coconut in health food stores or Asian markets. The bagged coconut sold in most U.S. supermarkets is the sweetened variety, which is intended for baking, rather than meals. Sugar and moisture are added after the coconut is dried, which makes it less suitable for storing with other dried meal ingredients. On the other hand, unsweetened dried coconut can be stored at least 12 months if sealed up and kept at room temperature.
- Look for dried coconut meat, not sweetened.
If you have dried unsweetened coconut on hand, there is no need to purchase separate coconut milk powder or coconut cream powder. You can make it yourself by grinding the dried coconut meat to a finer texture. A coffee/spice grinder or a powerful blender works well.
Grinding the coconut yourself also allows you to control the ingredients because many of the dry coconut powders or coconut milk contain added sugar, such as dextrose or maltodextrin, to make it taste sweeter. Also, many brands of coconut milk packets contain casein (derived from cow’s milk) to refine the consistency, making it unsuitable for vegan diets. Even the “vegetarian” coconut curries often contain casein.
- Avoid powdered coconut packets if you are vegan. Most contain casein.
Outdoor Herbivore’s Featured Backpacking Meals with Coconut
All Fats In Moderation
Fat is still fat, and all fats should be consumed in moderation. It appears unsaturated fat still remains the best choice of fat for health. So, a higher proportion of fat intake should come from those sources (olive oil, avocados, walnuts, chia and other nuts/seeds are a few excellent choices). For a liquid fat, olive oil remains Outdoor Herbivore’s top choice of oil-based fat for taking on the trail. See also our article Vegetarian Fats for additional plant-based fats.