Coconut Milk: Health Benefits and Uses
Written by Franziska Spritzler — Updated on December 11, 2018
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. Instead, solid coconut 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 far fewer nutrients than coconut milk.
Coconut milk comes from the flesh of mature brown coconuts. It is used in many traditional cuisines around the world.
How Is It 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.
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.
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 (2Trusted Source).
Coconut milk is high in calories and saturated fat. It also contains many other nutrients.
Effects on Weight and Metabolism
There’s some evidence that the MCT fats in coconut milk may benefit weight loss, body composition and metabolism.
Lauric acid makes up about 50% of coconut oil. It can be classified as both a long-chain fatty acid or a medium-chain, as its chain length and metabolic effects are intermediate between the two (3Trusted Source).
But coconut oil also contains 12% true medium-chain fatty acids — capric acid and caprylic acid.
Unlike longer-chain fats, MCTs go from the digestive tract directly to your liver, where they’re used for energy or ketone production. They are less likely to be stored as fat (4).
Research also suggests that MCTs may help reduce appetite and decrease calorie intake compared to other fats (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
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 (8Trusted Source).
What’s more, MCTs can boost calorie expenditure and fat burning — at least temporarily (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
However, the small amounts of MCTs found in coconut milk are unlikely to have any significant effects on body weight or metabolism.
A few controlled studies in obese individuals and people with heart disease suggest that eating coconut oil reduced waist circumference. But coconut oil had no effects on body weight (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
No studies have directly examined how coconut milk affects weight and metabolism. Further studies are needed before any claims can be made.
Coconut milk contains small amounts of MCTs. Although MCTs may increase metabolism and help you lose belly fat, the low levels in coconut milk are unlikely to significantly affect weight loss.
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 that it may benefit people with normal or high cholesterol levels.
An eight-week study in 60 men found that coconut milk porridge lowered “bad” LDL cholesterol more than soy milk porridge. Coconut milk porridge also raised “good” HDL cholesterol by 18%, compared to only 3% for soy (15Trusted Source).
Most studies of coconut oil or flakes also found improvements in “bad” LDL cholesterol, “good” HDL cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source).
Although in some studies LDL cholesterol levels increased in response to coconut fat, HDL also increased. Triglycerides decreased compared to other fats (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
Lauric acid, the main fatty acid in coconut fat, may raise “bad” LDL cholesterol by decreasing the activity of the receptors that clear LDL from your blood (20Trusted Source).
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 your diet.
In a study in healthy women, replacing 14% of monounsaturated fats with lauric acid raised “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 16%, while replacing 4% of these fats with lauric acid in another study had very little effect on cholesterol (20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source).
Overall, cholesterol and triglyceride levels improve with coconut intake. In cases where “bad” LDL cholesterol increases, “good” 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 (22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
- Decrease stomach 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 (25Trusted Source).
- Fight viruses and bacteria: Test-tube studies suggest that lauric acid may reduce the levels of viruses and bacteria that cause infections. This includes those that reside in your mouth (26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source).
Keep in mind that not all studies were on the effects of coconut milk specifically.
Animal and test-tube studies suggest that coconut milk may reduce inflammation, decrease ulcer size and fight viruses and bacteria that cause infections — though some studies did not solely examine coconut milk.
Potential Side Effects
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 (29Trusted Source).
However, some digestive disorder experts recommend that people who have a FODMAPintolerance limit coconut milk to 1/2 cup (120 ml) at a time.
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 (30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source).
Notably, some brands use BPA-free packaging, which is recommended if you choose to consume canned coconut milk.
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 It
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 It to Your Diet
- Include a couple of tablespoons (30–60 ml) in your coffee.
- Add half a cup (120 ml) to a smoothie or protein shake.
- Pour a small amount over berries or sliced papaya.
- Add a few tablespoons (30–60 ml) to oatmeal or other cooked cereal.
How to Select the Best Coconut Milk
Here are a few tips for selecting the best coconut milk:
- Read the label: Whenever possible, choose a product that contains only coconut and water.
- 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.
- Go light: For a lower-calorie option, select light canned coconut milk. It’s thinner and contains about 125 calories per 1/2 cup (120 ml) (36).
- Make your own: For the freshest, healthiest coconut milk, make your own by blending 1.5–2 cups (355–470 ml) of unsweetened shredded coconut with 4 cups of hot water, then strain through a cheesecloth.
Coconut milk can be used in a variety of recipes. It’s generally best to choose coconut milk in cartons or make your own at home.
The Bottom Line
Coconut milk is a tasty, nutritious and versatile food that is widely available. It can also be made easily at home.
It’s full of important nutrients like manganese and copper. Including moderate amounts in your diet may boost your heart health and provide other benefits as well.
To experience this tasty milk alternative, try using coconut milk today.
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