If you think you see coconuts in all forms everywhere these days – sold by the slice or as coconut water, coconut oil, and coconut milk – you’re not going coconuts.
Coconuts have traditionally been used for culinary purposes in cuisines like Thai and Indian but have recently surged in popularity outside of those spheres. Nowadays, there’s no shortage of recipes for coconut milk in puddings or coconut milk in artisanal coffees.
Many see coconut milk as a healthier, more sustainable alternative to dairy milk and even other vegan milk alternatives like almond or soy. Coconuts definitely have a unique flavor profile with a claim to creamy indulgence, but is coconut milk actually good for you? As coconut connoisseurs ourselves, we’ll break down coconut milk’s tangible benefits and limitations.
What is coconut milk?
Unlike cows, coconuts don’t actually “produce” milk. The watery liquid you see when you crack open a young, green coconut is coconut water.
Coconut milk is a mixture of coconut meat – the white flesh you see when you crack open a coconut – and water, emulsified to create the smooth, creamy liquid we know as coconut milk.
If you’ve ever opened a can of coconut milk and seen a solid white layer of cream at the top, that’s coconut cream. That cream is the fat and protein in coconut milk that’s floated to the top. You can use coconut cream in place of coconut milk, but do note that it’s the high fat and low water content that make it particularly rich.
Coconut milk is higher in calories.
Compared to its equally popular non-dairy milk alternative counterparts, coconut milk is definitely higher in calories. But looking at calories isn’t entirely a question of quantity; you could eat a tiny pack of 100-calorie pack snacks, but will it help you feel full? Is it nutrient dense?
Most of the calories in coconut milk come from its fat content – saturated fat. Saturated fat gets a bad rep in popular culture, but there’s evidence to suggest, that the saturated fat in coconut milk is a good type. When we investigate "why is coconut milk good for you?" instead of a black and white yes or no to the question "is coconut milk good for you," we uncover a more nuanced nutritional profile of coconuts and the importance of fats in our diets.
Fat content in coconut milk
The fat in coconut milk comprises in large part of MCT oil, which is an abbreviation for medium-chain triglyceride. One of the main claims about MCTs is how medium-chain fatty acids, as compared with long-chain fatty acids, are more easily absorbed and used by the body for energy. Studies have shown MCT oil to make subjects feel fuller after eating, exercise better (increase fat burning instead of carb burning for energy), and generally have lower calorie content than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) such as olive oil, nuts, and butter of the same unit weight.
One type of MCT in particular is lauric acid. Lauric acid is the main fatty acid found in coconut fat and is shown to increase good cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure and heart rate. But the studies that showed lauric acid to improve good cholesterol levels, however, showed lauric acid to potentially increase bad cholesterol levels as well.
Lauric Acid in Coconut Fat: Antimicrobial Properties
Finally, on the topic of fats in coconut milk, lauric acid is the reason why coconut milk is lauded as a creamy, delicious plant-based milk that also defends the body. It may be higher in calories than plant-based milk alternatives like almond milk, yes, but almond milk is higher in water content and therefore less nutritionally dense. Studies have shown that lauric acid fights viruses and bacteria that cause infections – bacteria that is even commonly found in our mouths.
If you’re simply trying to cut calories from your diet, then coconut milk might not initially seem like your go-to substitute.
But if you’re looking to incorporate the benefits of healthy fats into your diet, then coconut milk may be the MCT-rich milk you’re looking for.
Coconut Milk in a Keto Diet
Coconut milk being high in fat and relatively low in carbs is why adherents of the keto diet swear by it. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet which aims to achieve ketosis; ketosis is when your body burns ketones (fats) for energy instead of carbs.
Every person’s bodies, dietary needs, and weight loss goals are different, so the keto diet is not for everyone. Please advise a doctor to see which foods and nutrition plans are best for you.
But if you are already keto, coconut MCTs are a great way to boost your morning without leaving you feeling empty. You can blend MCT oil into your smoothies or, in a popular method of MCT consumption known as “bulletproof coffee,” in your morning cup of joe. Because MCTs are easily broken down into ketones in the liver, MCTs are suggested to supply immediate energy for the brain if you’re on a ketogenic diet.
How to Use Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has long been used in Southeast Asian dishes and adds a sweet creaminess to just about any recipe it touches. If you’re looking to add coconut milk to more than just savory dishes, however, you can generally use it as a substitute wherever you would normally use dairy milk.
Coconut Milk in Coffee
We love a good coconut creamer in our coffee because – as we mentioned earlier in this post – its fat content lends to not only a deliciously rich mouthfeel but also some awesome added benefits. With the rise of vegan food companies accompanies increased availability of coconut creamers. This means that you have a great chance these days of finding a coconut creamer, typically in a liquid format, at your local supermarket.
But if you’re frequently on-the-go, packing liquid coconut milk with you may be a no-go. We recommend dried coconut milk creamers, which feature desiccated coconut cream as their main ingredient.
Coconut Milk in Desserts
Wherever a recipe calls for conventional dairy milk, feel free to use coconut milk. Coconut milk will naturally lend an added sweetness and its unique flavor profile. Here are some dessert recipes we’ve collected on the blog that make great use of coconut milk:
- Matcha White Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
- Brownies with Almond Butter Frosting
- Vegan Hot Cocoa Mug Cake
- Ginger Snap Cake with Buttercream & Bourbon Sauce
- Vegan Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream
So, is coconut milk good for me?
We’ve covered a lot of information and hopefully have shared some insight into the magic of coconuts. Ultimately, you should consult a physician or nutrionist before implementing any changes in your diet.
Our verdict is that coconut milk is a great option especially if you’re dairy-free and lactose intolerant. So are most nut milks. Compared to popular alternatives like soy and almond, however, coconut milk is particularly dense in its nutritional content. It’s high in fat, and studies suggest that the fats found in coconut milk are the types of fats to help you feel fuller and fight against certain bacteria and viruses.