Because of its distinctive flavor and creamy texture, coconut milk can add a nice touch to coffee, protein shakes, and desserts. While not nearly as popular in the US as other plant-based milk alternatives, it retains a loyal following. But how nutritious is this drink? And can it bring tangible health benefits?
Coconuts are known for their high saturated fat content. For decades, this nutrient has been linked to the obesity epidemic and a variety of chronic diseases. However, in recent years there has been a sharp increase studies (opens in new tab) question and even contradict these findings.
If you’re feeling confused, don’t worry. In this article, we discuss the nutritional value and potential health benefits of coconut milk to help you decide if it’s the right plant-based alternative for you.
Coconut milk: nutritional information
|nutrient||Amount Per Serving (1 cup)||% Daily Value|
|Vitamin D||3.6 µg||18%|
|Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)||0 mg||0%|
|Cobalamin (Vitamin B12)||2.16 µg||90%|
Coconut milk in a can vs. coconut milk in a carton
There are two types of coconut milk – canned and carton. Although made from the same ingredient, they differ in terms of consistency, nutritional value, shelf life, and culinary use.
Canned coconut milk is a thick, white liquid derived from the “meat” of the coconut. Because it is canned and sealed in a sterile container, it is durable and has a longer expiration date than coconut milk in a carton. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated either. Canned coconut milk has a much higher fat content than other types of milk and is therefore primarily used as a cooking ingredient. It’s a common staple in many South Asian cuisines and is often used to make curries.
Carton coconut milk is a watery, white liquid derived from the “meat” of the coconut and is typically fortified with vitamins, minerals, and added sugars. It is mainly used as a milk alternative in coffees, smoothies, shakes and cereals. Unlike canned coconut milk, the carton version contains significantly less fat and more water, and in most cases needs to be refrigerated before and after opening.
How long does coconut milk keep?
Like dairy milk, coconut milk from the carton falls into two categories: UHT (Ultra High Temperature)/Shelf Stable and fresh/chilled. The UHT drinks undergo extensive heat treatment to increase their shelf life, while the chilled ones do not. Therefore, they have different best-before dates and storage policies.
Shelf stable coconut milk typically has a shelf life of six to 12 months. The refrigerated ones tend to have a much shorter expiration date — usually a few weeks after they’re made — and stay fresh for about a week after opening.
What Are the Health Benefits of Coconut Milk?
Not accounting for water, saturated fat is the main ingredient in coconut milk. For several decades saturated fat is considered to be one of the biggest contributors to obesity, cardiovascular disease and degenerative diseases. However more studies (opens in new tab) begin to disagree, pointing to the fact that the correlation between cardiometabolic conditions and saturated fat consumption remains weak.
There is also increasing evidence that fatty acids in coconut oil – especially lauric acid and medium-chain fatty acids – can even be health-promoting. According to a published review Journal of Food and Agricultural Science (opens in new tab)Lauric acid has been shown to have significant antibacterial and antiviral properties, while medium-chain fatty acids, which are similar to the fats found in human breast milk, may play an important role in regulating blood lipids, enhancing cognitive function, and fighting free radicals and reduce inflammationas well as reducing the risk of development Type 2 diabetes and several cancers.
Compared to animal fats, regular consumption of coconut oil can lead to lower levels of “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and higher levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, according to the results of a meta-analysis published in nutritional assessments (opens in new tab). However, it is worth noting that another meta-analysis published in Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome (opens in new tab) points to other negative effects of coconut oil on cardiometabolic health.
Moreover, according to one published in the review International Journal of Food Science (opens in new tab), Coconut milk contains several compounds that may provide protection against damage to lipids, proteins, and DNA strands. This drink also tends to be fortified with calcium, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, which can help vegans to top up their intake of these nutrients without resorting to additional supplements. Unsweetened coconut milk is largely free of carbs and sugar, making it a great choice for people who are getting on with it low carbohydrate diets.
Coconut milk vs almond milk
Corresponding statistics (opens in new tab), Almond milk is the most popular plant-based milk alternative in the USA. Unsweetened almond milk tends to be far fewer in calories and much lower in fat and protein than coconut milk. In terms of nutritional values, the two drinks are roughly comparable, although of course this varies from brand to brand. Therefore, almond milk may be a better option for people whose main goal is weight loss, while coconut milk is suitable for those looking for a more substantial beverage.
Both almond and coconut milk work well in a variety of foods and beverages. However, coconut milk tends to have a stronger flavor and more overpowering aroma that can overwhelm other ingredients, so it may need to be used more sparingly in cooking.
From an environmental perspective, the impacts of growing coconuts and almonds are fairly similar in terms of their water and land use, according to a review published in the Global food security (opens in new tab) Diary. So it really comes down to your health goals and personal preferences.