Coconut milk has become an increasingly popular plant-based milk alternative in recent years. Made from the white flesh of mature brown coconuts, coconut milk has a rich, creamy texture and a slightly sweet flavor. Many people enjoy using canned or carton coconut milk for cooking and baking. But can you also drink coconut milk directly, as you would cow’s milk or other nut milks? Let’s take a closer look at the nutrition, taste, and health impacts of drinking plain coconut milk.
Nutritional Profile of Coconut Milk
Coconut milk has a unique nutritional makeup compared to other non-dairy milks. Here is a nutritional comparison of one cup of unsweetened coconut milk versus almond, oat, and cow’s milk:
As you can see, coconut milk contains significantly more calories and fat compared to other milks. The high fat content comes from the rich medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils found in coconuts. The predominant MCT in coconut milk is lauric acid, making up around 50% of the fat content. Coconut milk is also low in protein.
The taste of coconut milk can take some adjusting to if you’re used to the mild sweetness of cow’s milk. Plain, unsweetened coconut milk has a thicker, creamier mouthfeel with a strong coconut flavor. The flavor can be overpowering on its own due to the coconut oils. Coconut milk also lacks the sweetness of cow’s milk, which contains the naturally occurring milk sugar lactose.
For many people, plain coconut milk has too strong a coconut taste for drinking straight. Coconut milk is fairly watery when canned but develops a thicker consistency when refrigerated overnight. The thickness can also make it difficult to drink coconut milk plain compared to other nut milks like almond or oat that have a thinner consistency.
Added Sugars and Flavors
Some brands of canned coconut milk add sugar or flavorings to make it more palatable to drink straight from the can. Sweetened coconut milk often contains added sugars like sucrose, fructose, or stevia to counterbalance the unsweetened coconut flavor. Flavored coconut milks can feature chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, or other flavors.
The added sugars and flavors make flavored coconut milks taste better on their own but also add calories. Make sure to read nutrition labels carefully to know what’s being added. For example, a brand like So Delicious offers unsweetened original coconut milk alongside flavored vanilla and chocolate coconut milks with added sugar.
Fortified vs Unfortified
As a plant-based milk, coconut milk lacks some of the key micronutrients found in cow’s milk like vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin A. Some brands fortify their coconut milks by adding vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. Fortified coconut milk can provide nutrients lacking in the coconut itself.
For example, Silk’s coconut milk is fortified with vitamins A, D, B12, calcium, and zinc. On the other hand, Natural Grocers’ organic coconut milk contains only the nutrients naturally found in coconuts. Fortification makes some coconut milks more nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk when used as a daily beverage.
Benefits of Drinking Coconut Milk
Here are some potential benefits associated with drinking plain, unsweetened coconut milk:
– High in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) – The MCT fats in coconut milk may increase metabolic rate and promote feelings of fullness. MCTs are also easily used by the body for energy.
– Source of electrolytes – Coconut water naturally contains electrolyte minerals like potassium, magnesium, sodium, calcium, and phosphorus. Coconut milk retains some of these hydrating electrolytes.
– No lactose – Coconut milk is entirely dairy-free and plant-based, making it a safe option for people with lactose intolerance or milk allergies.
– Rich in nutrients – Coconut milk provides a range of B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, selenium, and copper. Look for a fortified brand to get additional vitamins and minerals.
– Anti-inflammatory effects – Some research indicates the lauric acid in coconut products has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in the body.
Drinking coconut milk may also come with some drawbacks:
– High in saturated fat – The MCTs may be metabolized differently than other saturated fats, but overall coconut milk is still high in saturated fat which should be limited in the diet.
– Risk of weight gain – The high fat and calorie content can promote weight gain if consumed in large amounts. Moderation is key.
– Allergic reactions – Tree nut allergies can sometimes cause cross-reactivity with coconut and coconut milk.
– GI symptoms – Some people experience bloating, gas, or diarrhea after drinking coconut milk due to difficulty digesting the high fat content.
– Contains oxalates – Coconuts contain oxalate compounds that can contribute to kidney stone development for prone individuals.
– Environmental impacts – Coconut farming can negatively impact tropical ecosystems. Opt for sustainable brands when possible.
When consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, drinking coconut milk can be safe for most people. Here are some tips for incorporating it into your diet:
– Limit to 1 cup or less per day – Around 1 cup contains 550 calories and 57g fat, so more can quickly increase calories and saturated fat intake.
– Choose unsweetened – Avoid added sugars by using plain, unsweetened coconut milk. The natural sweetness of fruits or other mix-ins can enhance flavor.
– Use fortified brands – Look for brands fortified with calcium, vitamin D, B12 and other nutrients to increase the nutritional value.
– Mix it into foods – Smoothies, oatmeal, chia pudding all work well mixed with coconut milk both for added nutrition and creamy texture.
– Opt for light coconut milk – For fewer calories and fat, choose light coconut milk which is diluted with water while retaining some coconut flavor.
– Watch overall fat intake – Pair coconut milk with lower fat foods and limit other high fat foods in your diet to accommodate the fat from coconut milk.
The Bottom Line
While coconut milk won’t act as a nutritionally equivalent replacement to cow’s milk, it can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a varied diet. The high fat content gives it a rich texture, but also means it’s best consumed in smaller amounts. Look for unsweetened, fortified brands and aim for around 1 cup or less per day. Diluting full-fat coconut milk or opting for lite versions can provide lower fat options. Overall, coconut milk can add flavor and variety as a plant-based addition to smoothies, oats, baked goods, sauces, and more. Drink plain coconut milk sparingly and savor the taste of this tropical treat.