Coconut & its By-Products

The coconut palm is a well-known sight throughout the tropics. It is not a true tree, however, as trees are properly defined as having branches, but what the coconut palm displays instead is a splendid crown of leaves. The coconuts it produces can loosely be referred to as a fruit, a nut, or a seed, but, in fact, they are botanically called a drupe. The initially white coconut turns brown when ripe, and has thick walls with high cellulose fiber. Fiber accounts for about 1/3 of the coconut. As a natural fiber resource, coconut is very eco-friendly.


There is nothing in a coconut that can be considered waste; every part of a coconut can be used—its water and sap, its meat and husk, and the fiber that can be made from it. The water—aka coconut juice—from young coconuts is traditionally popular in the tropics as a refreshing, alkalizing drink, and has acquired new Western health food markets. Coconut sugar can be made from its sap. The interior meat of the coconut is a delicious and nutritious food. It can be scooped out and eaten as is; it has long been shredded or flaked and used in a multitude of different tasty ways, from baked goods and candies, to ice cream. You can also find coconut powder. The dried meat of the coconut is called copra, which is 20% protein, and after processing, produces coconut oil and meal. The meal can be an ingredient in animal feed. The husk of the coconut is called coir, and is a valuable source of natural fiber.


Coconut oil has a truly excellent health profile, both for its nutritional value in cooking and in skin and hair products. Its short to medium-chain fatty acids are easily digested and absorbed, and are quickly sent to the liver to be used as metabolic fuel. Coconut oil improves the absorption of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and amino acids; it improves arterial and heart conditions, and supports the immune system. It is considered the most stable of oils, and is the oil of choice in frying. The health benefits of coconut oil on the skin are well known; it helps keep skin soft and youthful, so is a common ingredient in cosmetics, soap, and sunscreen. Coconut milk, also processed from the white meat of the coconut, is a popular ingredient in Asian foods. Please see our profile sheet “Coconut Oil” for detailed information about its use and benefits.


In a retting method, in which enzymes are used on either white or brown coir, fiber is extracted that can be used in numerous ways: for ropes, twine, yarn, doormats and floor mats, matted pots, brushes, sacks, fishing nets, caulking for boats, and as stuffing fiber for mattresses or upholstery padding in vehicles. The coir fiber can be formed into sheets that can be cut to size for insulation. Coconut palm trunks can also be used as a wood substitute—as lumber for structures and beams, or for everyday kitchen accessories, such as salad sets and bowls. The coir can also be pressed into pots, while the leftover dust from its production blends into potting soil.


Coconut shells can be used as planting pots for starts; they can also be made into cups and ladles. In the crafts, the shell can be fashioned into ornaments and other decorative objects. The crushed husks can also be used as charcoal, be pressed into fuel logs, or be processed further into fiberboard and even high quality jet fuel. Its high cellulose content can be applied to making cellophane. Coconut geotextiles, such as fiber meshes, can be used for erosion control. Also because of its high lignin content, the coir fibers can be turned into a peat that can hold a good volume of water, like a sponge, so is also valuable for stabilizing land.


The fronds of the coconut palm also has many uses—for making thatched roofs, hats, baskets, brooms, and fans, and can also be woven into fiberboard and panels.