Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Barnes, RDN
Coconut milk is made from the white flesh, or coconut meat, inside the coconut and water. It’s different from coconut cream, which is made with less water and has a thicker, creamier texture, and coconut water, which is the clear liquid found inside the coconut.
Coconut milk is packaged in a can or carton. It can be used as a cow’s milk substitute and as an ingredient in coconut milk ice cream, yogurt, or creamer. Coconut milk is known for its rich flavor and texture.
The health benefits of coconut milk include containing medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. However, it contains saturated fat. More research is needed to understand better the benefits versus the risks.
This article discusses the different forms of coconut milk, its health benefits and risks, and ways coconut milk can be added to your diet.
Coconut Milk: Dairy-Free Option in Many Forms
Coconut milk can usually be bought in a can or carton. Canned coconut milk is often used in baking or cooking recipes, such as Thai curry, while carton coconut milk is often used as a direct substitute for a carton of cow’s milk, such as with a bowl of cereal.
In addition to the milk form, coconut milk can be used to make other dairy-like products such as:
Different Varieties of Coconut Milk
Coconut milk can come in many varieties, such as sweetened or unsweetened and full-fat or low-fat. When looking at canned coconut milk, consider brands that ensure their product is bisphenol A (BPA)-free.
Benefits of Canned or Carton Coconut Milk
Limited research is available on the overall health benefits of coconut milk, but studies on certain components of coconut milk have shown some positive health effects.
Benefits of coconut milk include:
It’s made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
It contains phenolic compounds.
It serves as a nondairy milk alternative.
It’s low in sugar.
While the high saturated fat content of coconut milk is seen as a negative by some scientists, others have suggested it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The medium-chain triglycerides in coconut milk are a different type of saturated fat than the long-chain fatty acids found in some animal products, such as beef.
Research has suggested that the shorter length of MCTs compared to long-chain fatty acids makes a difference in the health effects of these fats. For example, MCTs are absorbed differently and produce a better lipid profile (the amount and types of cholesterol and other fats in your blood) than long-chain fatty acids.
In addition, some studies have shown MCTs to help with a variety of health issues, such as:
Risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease
More research is needed to get a clearer understanding of whether the type of saturated fat found in coconut milk is beneficial or detrimental to health.
Phenolic compounds found in coconut milk have various health benefits, including antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Research indicates the antioxidant properties of these compounds found in coconut milk improve gut health.
Coconut milk appears to have the highest amount of phenolic compounds compared to other plant-based beverages, such as almond, rice, oat, or soy milk.
Another key benefit of coconut milk is that because it’s dairy-free, it can be used as a milk substitute for people who choose not to eat dairy (such as vegans), people with a dairy allergy, or people who are lactose intolerant (not being able to fully digest the sugar in milk). It can also be a milk substitute for people looking to add more plant-based foods to their diet.
Coconut milk is generally low in sugar unless a sweetener is added. Be sure to check the ingredients list and opt for unsweetened coconut milk if you are trying to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
There may be non-dietary benefits of coconut milk as well. For example, coconut milk and coconut oil is thought to be beneficial when used on the skin by being a good moisturizer for dry skin. However, there is limited to no scientific evidence to support skin benefits.
When comparing the healthiness of different milks, it’s important to consider what “healthy" means to you. For example, if consuming products that are low in fat is a priority, coconut milk may not be your best choice due to its high fat content, which contributes most of the calories of coconut milk.
In addition, regarding protein content, cow’s milk and soy milk have more protein than coconut milk and almond milk. Choosing the best milk will depend on your flavor, texture, and dietary preferences.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 cup, equivalent to 116 grams (g), of canned coconut milk contains:
Calories: 445 calories
Protein: 4.56 g
Fat: 48.1 g
Carbohydrates: 6.35 g
Cholesterol: 0 milligrams (mg)
Sodium: 29.4 mg
Calcium: 40.7 mg
Vitamin D: 0 micrograms (mcg)
The exact nutrition breakdown of a serving of coconut milk will vary by brand and the ingredients used in making the milk (such as added sugar). It’s important to check the label of a coconut milk product for the most accurate nutritional profile.
Why Do People Say Coconut Milk Isn't Healthy?
One of the main reasons why coconut milk may be considered unhealthy is that it contains a lot of saturated fat.
Of the approximately 48 g of fat in 1 cup of canned coconut milk, almost all of it is saturated fat (approximately 43 g). For comparison, 1 cup of whole cow's milk (3.25% milk fat) contains less than 5 g of saturated fat.
Saturated fat is generally considered “unhealthy” fat. Experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend eating very limited amounts of saturated fat (less than 6% of your total daily calories), especially for people looking to lower their cholesterol.
Scientists have suggested that the antioxidants in virgin coconut oil may help reduce the negative effects of the high saturated fat content. However, it’s unknown whether manufacturers use virgin coconut oil to make their coconut milk.
Risks and Side Effects
Research on the health effects of coconut milk is limited, but research on coconut oil suggests that the high saturated fat content is something to keep in mind when using coconut milk and/or oil.
The saturated fat content of coconut is largely made up of lauric, myristic, and palmitic fatty acids.
Research on coconut oil has shown that lauric acid and myristic acid raise total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (generally considered “bad” cholesterol). But it was also found to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (generally considered “healthy” cholesterol), which may offset some of the negative effects of the saturated fat content.
Overall, the researchers determined that because of the high saturated fat content, coconut oil should not be recommended, and claims of its health benefits are not supported.
In contrast, a small study of 60 healthy adults found that the coconut fat from eating coconut milk porridge was beneficial because it raised HDL and lowered LDL. However, this was a small study and requires more research to validate the claim of the benefits of coconut fat on cholesterol levels.
Given the conflicting views on the benefits and risks of saturated fat in coconut milk, more research is needed to determine the potential risks and benefits of consuming coconut milk on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to be aware of the amount of saturated fat that coconut milk adds to your overall diet.
In addition to the saturated fat content, the lower protein content of coconut milk may be of concern for some people who look to dairy milk as a source of protein. Coconut milk contains far fewer essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) than cow’s milk.
Compared to whole cow's milk, coconut milk contains less than half the protein (8.14 g for cow's milk vs. 3.55 g for coconut milk in 1 cup). However, considering a well-balanced diet with other protein sources, the protein content of coconut milk doesn’t need to be a concern.
Ways to Use Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has a variety of uses and can easily be substituted for regular dairy milk when desired. Some ways coconut milk can be incorporated into your diet include:
Smoothies: Coconut milk can add creaminess and some heartiness to fruit and/or vegetable-based smoothies.
Baking: Coconut milk can usually be substituted for dairy milk when making cookies, cakes, and the like.
Cooking: Coconut milk adds important flavor to certain dishes like Thai curry and can be used instead of dairy milk in things like creamy pasta sauces.
Ice cream: Coconut milk can serve as a base for ice cream instead of dairy milk and maintain the creamy texture.
Coffee or tea: Coconut milk (regular or creamer-style) can replace dairy milk or creamer.
While coconut milk can easily replace dairy milk in food or drinks, it will usually change the flavor profile somewhat as coconut has a distinct taste. You can experiment with different kinds and amounts of coconut milk to get the flavoring to your liking.
For example, sweetened coconut milk may be useful for making sweetened coffee drinks, but unsweetened coconut milk should be used in savory dishes.
Coconut milk is a dairy-free milk option with a rich, creamy texture that can be used in a variety of cooking and baking recipes.
While the high saturated fat content has led some scientists to not recommend coconut milk, some research has shown the specific type of saturated fat in coconut milk (medium-chain triglycerides) has health benefits. Certain compounds in coconut milk may also provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
When comparing coconut milk to other kinds of milk, the nutritional benefits and drawbacks will depend on your dietary preferences and goals.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.