The health benefits of coconut milk
Registered nutritionist Jo Lewin takes a closer look at the nutritional properties of coconut milk, including its calorie, fat, protein and carbohydrate content.
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What is coconut milk?
The coconut (Cocos nucifera) belongs to the palm family (Arecaceae) and grows in abundance throughout Malaysia, Polynesia and southern Asia. Although typically considered a nut, coconuts are in fact classed as a fruit, being a one-seeded drupe. Nearly all parts of the coconut can be used, including the water, milk, flesh, sugar and oil. It’s worth noting, however, that unlike coconut water, the milk does not occur naturally and is made by mixing coconut flesh with water.
Nutritional profile of coconut milk
A 100ml serving of canned coconut milk:
- 169 calories/ 697KJ
- 1.1g protein
- 16.9g fat
- 14.6g saturated fat
- 3.3g carbohydrate
Coconuts contain significant amounts of fat, and although canned coconut milk is available as a reduced-fat product with approximately half the fat of the regular product, you may need to check the coconut content because it will impact the creaminess of your dish.
Top 5 health benefits of coconut milk
1. Contains medium-chain fatty acids
What this means is that the fatty acids in coconut oil are made up of a chain of six to 12 carbon atoms, as opposed to the more than 12 found in long-chain fatty acids. This difference in structure has all sorts of implications, from how the fat in coconut milk is digested to how it may influence your body.
2. Is lactose-free
Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose-free, so can be used as a milk substitute for those with lactose intolerance. Lactose is the main type of carbohydrate in all mammalian milk, including human, goat and sheep. It's made up of two sugars, and your body needs an enzyme called lactase to adequately digest it. It’s this enzyme that's lacking in those with lactose intolerance.
Coconut milk is also a popular choice with vegans and makes a great base for smoothies or milkshakes and can be used as a dairy alternative in baking.
3. Has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties
About 50% of the MCFAs in coconut oil are a type called lauric acid, which is converted in the body into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin, an antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory that destroys a wide variety of disease-causing organisms. It's therefore thought that the consumption of coconut milk and other coconut-derived foods may help protect the body from infections and viruses.
4. May support cardiovascular health
MCFAs are rapidly metabolised into energy in the liver; it’s because of this that unlike other saturated fats, MCFAs are used up more quickly by the body and are less likely to be stored as fat.
Research is mixed, but some recent studies are suggesting that the fats from coconut may not have such a detrimental effect on blood lipids, cholesterol balance and cardiovascular health as once thought. This is certainly one area of research to watch.
It should be noted, however, that due to large variances in diet and lifestyle patterns within the various studies, the findings to date may not be conclusively applied to a typical Western diet.
5. May reduce stomach ulcers
One animal study found coconut milk reduced the size of a stomach ulcer by the same amount as that of an anti-ulcer drug. Further studies confirm the mechanism for this is partly due to the milk’s anti-inflammatory properties in combination with positive effects on the growth of the mucosa.
Is coconut milk safe for everyone?
Allergic reactions to coconut are rare, although contact dermatitis and sensitisation to the tree pollen is more often seen.
Coconuts are one of those foods that oscillate between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food camps. Coconut milk, especially the lower-fat variety, can be used in moderation (up to two times per week). However, The British Heart Foundation recommends swapping saturated fats and sources of them, including coconut oil, for unsaturated varieties.
This article was last reviewed on 5 November 2021 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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