Coconut milk has recently become very popular.
It's a tasty alternative to cow's milk that may also provide a number of health benefits.
This article takes a detailed look at coconut milk.
What Is Coconut Milk?
Coconut milk comes from the white flesh of mature brown coconuts, which are the fruit of the coconut tree.
The milk has a thick consistency and a rich, creamy texture.
Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines commonly include this milk. It's also popular in Hawaii, India and certain South American and Caribbean countries.
Coconut milk should not be confused with coconut water, which is found naturally in immature green coconuts.
Unlike coconut water, the milk does not occur naturally in liquid form. The solid flesh is mixed with water to make coconut milk, which is about 50% water.
By contrast, coconut water is about 94% water. It contains much less fat and fewer nutrients than coconut milk.
Bottom Line: Coconut milk comes from the flesh of mature brown coconuts. It is used in many traditional cuisines around the world.
How Is Coconut Milk Made?
Coconut milk is classified as either thick or thin, based on consistency and how much it's processed.
- Thick: Solid coconut flesh is finely grated and either boiled or simmered in water. The mixture is then strained through cheesecloth to produce thick coconut milk.
- Thin: After making thick coconut milk, the grated coconut remaining in the cheesecloth is simmered in water. The straining process is then repeated to produce thin milk.
In traditional cuisines, thick coconut milk is used in desserts and thick sauces. Thin milk is used in soups and thin sauces.
Most canned coconut milk contains a combination of thin and thick milk. It's also very easy to make your own coconut milk at home, adjusting the thickness to your liking.
Bottom Line: Coconut milk is made by grating flesh from a brown coconut, soaking it in water and then straining it to produce a milk-like consistency.
Nutrients in Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is a high-calorie food.
About 93% of its calories come from fat, including saturated fats known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
The milk is also a good source of several vitamins and minerals. One cup (240 grams) contains (1):
- Calories: 552.
- Fat: 57 grams.
- Protein: 5 grams.
- Carbs: 13 grams.
- Fiber: 5 grams.
- Vitamin C: 11% of the RDI.
- Folate: 10% of the RDI.
- Iron: 22% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 22% of the RDI.
- Potassium: 18% of the RDI.
- Copper: 32% of the RDI.
- Manganese: 110% of the RDI.
- Selenium: 21% of the RDI.
In addition, some experts believe coconut milk contains unique proteins that may provide health benefits. However, more research is needed on this (2).
Bottom Line: Coconut milk is high in calories and saturated fats called medium-chain triglycerides. It also contains many other nutrients.
Effects on Weight and Metabolism
There's some evidence that the medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) fats in coconut milk may benefit weight loss, body composition and metabolism.
About half the fat in coconuts comes from a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid.
Coconuts also contain small amounts of other medium-chain fatty acids, including capric acid and caprylic acid.
Unlike longer-chain fats, MCTs go from the digestive tract directly to the liver, where they're used for energy or ketone production. They are therefore less likely to be stored as fat (3).
In a small study, overweight men who consumed 20 grams of MCT oil at breakfast ate 272 fewer calories at lunch than those consuming corn oil (7).
Although no studies have directly tested how coconut milk affects weight and metabolism, several studies show impressive effects from coconut oil and MCTs.
The same should apply to coconut milk, because it has the same fatty acids.
Bottom Line: The MCTs in coconut milk may reduce appetite, increase metabolism and help you lose belly fat.
Effects on Cholesterol and Heart Health
Because coconut milk is so high in saturated fat, people may wonder if it's a heart-healthy choice.
Very little research examines coconut milk specifically, but one study suggests it may benefit people with normal or high cholesterol levels.
This 8-week study of 60 men found that coconut milk porridge lowered LDL ("bad") cholesterol more than soy milk porridge. Coconut milk porridge also raised HDL ("good") cholesterol by 18%, compared to only 3% for the soy (14).
Lauric acid, the main fatty acid in coconut fat, may raise LDL cholesterol by decreasing the activity of the receptors that clear LDL from the blood (19).
Results of two studies on similar populations suggest that the cholesterol response to lauric acid may vary by individual. It may also depend on the amount in the diet.
In one study of healthy women, replacing 14% of monounsaturated fats with lauric acid raised LDL cholesterol by about 16%. In another study, replacing 4% of monounsaturated fat with lauric acid had very little effect on cholesterol (19, 20).
Bottom Line: Overall, cholesterol and triglyceride levels improve with coconut intake. In cases where LDL cholesterol increases, HDL typically increases as well.
Other Potential Health Benefits
Coconut milk may also:
- Reduce inflammation: Animal studies found that coconut extract and coconut oil reduced inflammation and swelling in injured rats and mice (21, 22, 23).
- Decrease ulcer size: In one study, coconut milk reduced stomach ulcer size in rats by 54% — a result comparable to the effect of an anti-ulcer drug (24).
- Fight viruses and bacteria: The MCTs in coconuts, especially lauric acid, reduce the levels of viruses and bacteria that cause infections. This includes those that reside in your mouth (25, 26, 27).
Bottom Line: Coconut milk may reduce inflammation, decrease ulcer size and fight the viruses and bacteria that cause infections.
Unless you're allergic to coconuts, the milk is unlikely to have adverse effects. Compared to tree nut and peanut allergies, coconut allergies are relatively rare (28).
Many canned varieties also contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that can leach from can linings into food. BPA has been linked to reproductive problems and cancer in animal and human studies (29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34).
Fortunately, some brands use BPA-free packaging, which is recommended if you choose to consume canned coconut milk.
Bottom Line: Coconut milk is likely safe for most people who are not allergic to coconuts. It is best to choose BPA-free cans.
How to Use Coconut Milk
Although coconut milk is nutritious, it's also high in calories. Keep this in mind when adding it to foods or using it in recipes.
Ideas for Adding Coconut Milk to Your Diet
- Include a couple of tablespoons in your coffee.
- Add half a cup to a smoothie or protein shake.
- Pour a small amount over berries or sliced papaya.
- Add a few tablespoons to oatmeal or other cooked cereal.
Coconut Milk Recipes
Here are a few healthy recipes featuring coconut milk:
- Easy Coconut Shrimp Curry.
- Clean Eating Chicken Masala.
- Braised Coconut Spinach and Chickpeas with Lemon.
- Tropical Green Smoothie.
- Coconut Milk Chocolate Mousse.
How to Select the Best Coconut Milk
Here are a few tips for selecting the best coconut milk:
- Read the label: When possible, choose a product that contains only coconut and water. Avoid questionable ingredients such as carrageenan.
- Choose BPA-free cans: Purchase coconut milk from companies that use BPA-free cans, such as Native Forest and Natural Value.
- Use cartons: Unsweetened coconut milk in cartons usually contains less fat and fewer calories than canned options. Look for brands without carageenan, such as So Delicious and Silk.
- Go light: For a lower-calorie option, select light canned coconut milk. It's thinner and contains about 125 calories per half cup (120 grams) (35).
- Make your own: For the freshest, healthiest coconut milk, make your own with this simple recipe using shredded coconut: Homemade Coconut Milk.
Bottom Line: Coconut milk can be used in a variety of recipes. Avoid types that contain questionable ingredients, or make your own at home.
Take Home Message
Coconut milk is a tasty, nutritious and versatile food that is widely available. It can also be made easily at home.
Including moderate amounts of coconut milk in your diet may pay off in better health.
More about coconuts and related topics: