Top six health benefits of coconut milk
Coconut milk can be used in everything from curries to smoothies, but is it healthy and how many calories are in it? Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains.
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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 often considered a nut, coconuts are in fact classed as a fruit, specifically 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.
Benefits of coconut milk include:
- Contains medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs)
- Has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties
- May support cardiovascular health
- May reduce stomach ulcers
Nutritional profile of coconut milk
A 100ml serving of canned coconut milk:
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- 169 calories/697KJ
- 1.1g protein
- 16.9g fat
- 14.6g saturated fat
- 3.3g carbohydrate
- 2.0g sugar
Coconut naturally contains significant amounts of fat, including saturated fat. However, the canned product is available as a reduced-fat version with approximately half the fat of the regular product. Check the ingredient information because the coconut content may vary quite considerably (from 22% to 55%) and this may impact the creaminess of your dish.
What are the top six health benefits of coconut milk?
1. Contains medium-chain fatty acids
These fatty acids are made up of a chain of six to 12 carbon atoms, whereas long-chain fatty acids consist of 12 or more carbon atoms. This difference in structure has all sorts of implications, from how the fat is digested to how it may influence your body. While it's important to get a variety of fatty acids, the body can digest MCFAs much more quickly and convert them to a ready source of energy.
Coconut milk is naturally lactose-free and 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, cow, 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 a popular choice with vegetarians and vegans and makes a great base for smoothies and milkshakes as well as being a good dairy alternative in baking. It is often the main ingredient in commercially produced vegan ‘cheese’ replacements.
However, coconut milk is not nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, with a lower protein and a much higher saturated fat level. If you do choose it as your product of choice you should be aware that only the fortified coconut ‘drink’ products will supply comparable amounts of nutrients, like calcium.
4. Has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties
About 50% of the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are a type called lauric acid, which is converted in the body to a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin. With antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, this 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.
5. May support cardiovascular health
Medium-chain fatty acids 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.
6. 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 behind this and explained that it is partly due to compounds in coconut milk (and coconut water) that appear to suppress inflammation. These compounds may also have a positive effect on the growth of the stomach lining.
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.
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