The coconut palm Cocos nucifera thrives even on salty coastal soils in subtropical to tropical regions with constant annual temperatures of 20 °C and above. Its unbranched slender trunk reaches up to 25 meters in length and bears a shock of pinnate leaves up to 7 meters long. The hollow coconut drupes, up to 30 centimeters in size, are buoyant. They develop in multiples on branched inflorescences. Their fibrous-coated stones (seeds), the "coconuts," harbor fat-rich endosperm beneath the hardwood endocarp, traded as an oil commodity copra when dried. This approximately 1.5-centimeter-thick layer of white storage tissue encloses the mineral-rich coconut water of unripe fruits.
Fossil finds suggest the Sunda Islands and the Melanesian Archipelago as the natural area of origin. The coconut palm is considered an invasive species in the tropical belt, and its main user, man, has been helping it spread for thousands of years. Thus, it probably reached the New World quite late, more than 2000 years ago. Numerous varieties are in cultivation around the globe, since the 1930s on dwarf plantations. However, the main cultivation region is still South to Southeast Asia. The FAO lists world production of 62 million tons of coconuts in 2019, of which 17 came from Indonesia, nearly 15 each from the Philippines and India, and 2.5 from Sri Lanka.
Coconut palms flower after about 6 years and bear all stages of maturity throughout the year. Their production peak is around the 12th crop year with a maximum of 100 fruits. Only mature fruits are ready for harvesting copra, 8 to 10 months after fruit set. 6,000 nuts yield one ton of copra. Individual harvesting is usually done manually using long-handled knives or by skilled harvesting macaques.
The coconut seeds ("nuts") are first freed from their fibrous fruit husk. Whether traditional or modern industrial processes: All processing steps must follow one another quickly (a few days) to counteract quality degradation caused by oxidative, enzymatic and microbiological processes. The hard shells are split. Traditionally, the separated meat halves are then dried in drying ovens or in the sun: their water content drops from 50 to less than 7 percent, while the fat content of the copra increases to up to 70 percent. After comminution, the oil is finally extracted. Either cold pressed as virgin coconut oil with typical aroma or thermally extracted and refined, up to bleached and deodorized (RBD).
Coconut fat and coconut oil are the solid and liquid state of the same product, its melting point is 23 to 26 °C.
The triglycerides of coconut fat contain over 90 percent saturated fatty acids: 45 to 54 percent lauric acid (12:0), 17 to 21 percent myristic acid (14:0) and caprylic (8:0), capric (10:0) and palmitic (16:0) acids. Of the unsaturated fatty acids, only oleic acid (18:1, n-3) and linoleic acid (18:2, n-6) are notable. A major advantage is its high heatability with a smoke point around 200 °C. The nutritional benefits of coconut oil are as controversial as the often postulated therapeutic ones. This may also be due to the variable fatty acid patterns of commercially available products. Although the proportion of weight-reducing medium-chain fatty acid esters (MCTs) with chain lengths C6 to C12 can be very high, previous study results on this are extremely contradictory. This also applies to the possibly favorable influence on the LDL and HDL cholesterol ratio in hypercholesterolemia: inconsistent data situation. Coconut oil is more convincing due to its gustatory qualities (native), refined as a neutral frying and deep-frying fat and due to the cooling effect on the tongue: specifically used in margarines, ice creams or confectionery. Cosmetically, it is used as a soap raw material, refatting agent in body cleansing products, creams and lotions. Industrial applications include lubricants, plastics, paints, synthetic rubber and hydraulic fluids.
Coconut water is a sterile liquid and was therefore already of great importance to the healers of the indigenous inhabitants of Papua New Guinea: for wound treatment and surgical procedures. Even today's tropical medicine uses it for infusions as a mineral-rich substitute for glucose solutions after diarrhea or dehydration.