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FIJI TIMES ONLINE Anne Moorhead Tuesday, January 11, 2011

KNOWN for centuries as the tree of life because it has many useful products, it seems unlikely that the coconut tree could have any new ones still to offer.

But it does, and what's more, it is almost as if the tree has been saving them for the 21st century.

Because these new products may be able to help us fight some of today's biggest health problems.

"We all know about virgin coconut oil by now" says Tevita Kete, coconut expert at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

"But there are other coconut products that also have very good health benefits."

Coconut flour is one of them.

Made by milling the dry, pressed coconut flesh after oil has been extracted, the flour is gluten-free and grain-free, offering a flour alternative to anyone with these allergies. It is also high in fibre. In fact, it has more fibre than any other kind of flour.

It is well known that a high-fibre diet is very good for the intestine, can help manage diabetes and protects against heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Coconut flour works particularly well in sweet recipes such as cakes, muffins and pancakes and as a bonus it is naturally sweet so you do not have to add as much sugar as with ordinary flour.

It can also be used with good results in some savoury recipes such as soups and sauces, and different kinds of bread, from pizza base to roti.

If you cannot tolerate gluten or grains, some recipes, for example those for some muffins and cakes, work with 100 per cent coconut flour.

For others who just want healthier eating, substituting 10-30 per cent of the wheat flour with coconut flour gives good results.

You can find many recipes on the internet - search for 'coconut flour recipes'.

But there is a catch. While coconut flour can be bought in health food stores in Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, it is not available in Fiji stores at the moment. Can we change that?

The raw material is definitely available - increasingly so as the virgin coconut industry takes off.

So a plea to suppliers - can we have this flour in our stores, so that we too can reap the health benefits?

Coconut sugar and coconut syrup are sweet products that are familiar in Kiribati and Tuvalu - and also the islands of Rabi and Kioa in Fiji, where people from these countries have made their home but surprisingly, not in the other Pacific islands.

These products are made not from the nut but from the sweet sap of the flower.

Known as toddy, it is boiled down to syrup or boiled until it crystallises and can be ground into sugar.

"Coconut sugar and syrup are sweeteners with a low glycemic index, which means they are very helpful for people managing diabetes and those who are trying to control their weight" says Kete.

"They have a great taste and are also high in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron", he adds.

There is no doubt we should all be using these natural and healthy sweeteners but like coconut flour, these products are not yet commercially available in Fiji.

This may soon change, however.

Entrepreneur Peni Drodrolagi has plans to import the products from Kiribati and Tuvalu.

"If we can build a market for these sweeteners, the next stage will be to start producing them in Fiji" he says.

Eventually, Drodrolagi believes, the sweeteners could become export products, boosting Fiji's economy.

One final product - coconut water - is as old as coconuts themselves.

What is new, though, is its use as a health and sports drink.

Potassium and essential electrolytes are the 'magic' ingredients that enhance performance and recovery.

Coconut water has much more of these than manufactured sports drinks, without any of the artificial additives.

As coconut water takes the world by storm, we may soon see Fijian coconut water conveniently packaged and on our supermarket shelves.

And again, that could be the first step to a new export for Fiji.

"As we try to eat both more healthily and locally, these products would be a welcome addition to our shops", says Kete.

"Like virgin coconut oil, they can easily be produced in small-scale community-based industries.

"We in the cities will get locally produced health foods and remote island communities will get much-needed income."

Surely that is a win-win situation.

Anne Moorhead is a science writer. You can contact her at annemoorhead@gmail.com

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