3 Reasons Why Coconut Milk May Not Be Your Friend | Chris Kresser
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3 Reasons Why Coconut Milk May Not Be Your Friend

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Coconut milk is often a staple fat source for those following a Paleo diet. From a nutritional perspective, it’s an excellent choice. It’s high in saturated fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which are both easily burned as fuel by the body. MCTs are particularly beneficial in that they don’t require bile acids for digestion, and they’re directly shunted to the liver via the portal vein.

Coconut milk and fruit can be a great snack for Paleo folks, and coconut milk smoothies make a great Paleo breakfast choice – especially in the summer.

So what could be wrong with coconut milk? Here are three things to consider.

Bisphenol-A

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical that has been used in consumer goods since the 50s. It’s found in reusable drink containers, DVDs, cell phones, eyeglass lenses, automobile parts and sports equipment. While the research on BPA is still mixed (some studies indicating harm and others not), given the uncertainty I think it makes sense to avoid it whenever possible.

BPA is used in the lining of certain canned foods. BPA especially leaches into canned foods that are acidic, salty or fatty, such as coconut milk, tomatoes, soup, and vegetables.

Is BPA exposure common? You bet. This CDC report found BPA in the urine of 93% of adults. Perhaps most troubling is that companies like Nestle, Similac, Enfamil and PBM all use BPA in the linings of metal cans holding baby formula. This is scary in light of a recent study which found an association between neurobehavioral problems in infants and high levels of BPA in their mothers.

So what’s the solution here? In short, if you want to be on the safe side and reduce your exposure to BPA, you have to reduce your consumption of canned foods (including coconut milk) as much as possible. I made this recommendation in 9 Steps for Perfect Health-#3: Eat Real Food. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that families who ate fresh food for three days with no canned food, and using only glass storage containers, experienced a 60% reduction of BPA in their urine. The reductions were even higher (75%) for those with the highest BPA levels at the beginning of the study.

The good news, however, is that there are at least two brands of coconut milk that don’t have BPA in them. One is Native Forest, which you can purchase on Amazon if it’s not available at your local store. The other is Arroy-D, which is a brand imported from Thailand. You can get it here (but you have to scroll down and order the version that comes in cartons, not the cans at the top). I’m a little suspicious of Arroy-D, though, because one Thai reader mentioned that it does contain other ingredients aside from coconut milk. I don’t read Thai, so I can’t confirm this. If anyone out there can, please leave a comment below.

Coconut milk can also be made quite easily at home, with coconut flakes, a blender and cheesecloth. Here’s a video to show you how (get a load of the soundtrack). I find that blanching the coconut flakes prior to blending improves the results.

Guar gum

The other potential problem with canned coconut milk is guar gum. Guar gum is a galactomannan, which is a polysaccharide consisting of a mannose backbone with a galactose side group.

It’s primarily the endosperm of guar beans.

Beans and legumes have a variety of compounds in them that make them difficult to digest, especially for people with digestive problems (1 in 3 Americans, from the latest statistics). In my clinical experience, many patients with gut issues improve when they remove guar gum from their diet—including canned coconut milk.

Unlike BPA, there’s no evidence that guar gum may cause serious harm. So, if you’re able to tolerate guar gum, there’s no reason to avoid it. If guar gum does give you digestive trouble, Native Forest has just released a new version of its product that doesn’t contain it, and Arroy-D also does not have it. The other option, of course, is making coconut milk at home.

Fructose malabsorption

Fructose malabsorption (FM) is a digestive disorder characterized by impaired transport of fructose across the small intestine. This results in increased levels of undigested fructose in the gut, which in turn causes overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Undigested fructose also reduces the absorption of water into the intestine.

The clinical effects of FM include: intestinal dysbiosis, changes in motility, promotion of mucosal biofilm, and decreased levels of tryptophan, folates and zinc in the blood.

Symptoms produced include bloating, gas, pain, constipation or diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue (to name a few). Recent research has also tied fructose malabsorption to depression.

Lest you think this isn’t a common problem, studies have shown that up to 40% of people in Western countries suffer from fructose malabsorption.

Even in healthy people without fructose malabsorption, however, only about 20-25g of fructose can be properly absorbed at one sitting. Glucose assists in transport of fructose across the intestine, so in general foods with equal amounts of glucose and fructose will be better absorbed than foods with excess amounts of fructose (in relation to glucose).

While fructose malabsorption can cause symptoms in anyone, those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) are particularly affected. While the prevalence of FM is the same in healthy populations and those with IBS & IBD, the experience of FM appears to be more intense in the latter group. This is probably due to the increased visceral sensitivity common in IBS and IBD patients.

In fact, one of the most promising clinical approaches to treating IBS & IBD right now is something called the FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides And Polyols. These include:

  • fructose (fruits, honey, HFCS)
  • fructans (wheat, onions)
  • lactose (milk sugar)
  • polyols (sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol & mannitol, along with fruits like apples, pears and plums)
  • galactooligosaccharides (legumes & beans, brussel sprouts, onions)
  • other sweeteners like polydextrose and isomalt

Studies have found that restricting FODMAPs can significantly improve the symptoms associated with IBS, IBD and fructose malabsorption.

What does this have to do with coconut milk, you ask? According to Drs. Gibson & Barrett, experts in fructose malabsorption, coconut milk is a FODMAP and should be avoided by people with digestive conditions like IBS & IBD.

According to NutritionData.com, coconut milk has very little sugar of any kind – including fructose. Nevertheless, I do have patients that cannot even tolerate homemade coconut milk (which has no guar gum in it), even though they are fine with coconut oil. I assume that they are reacting to the fructose in the coconut milk – but I can’t be sure.

Recommendations

Let’s bring this together into recommendations for three different groups of people:

  • Women who are trying to get pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding, children and other vulnerable populations (chronically ill): should avoid canned coconut milk products except for those that are BPA-free, like Native Forest and Arroy-D. Note: Native Forest is organic, but Arroy-D is not.
  • People with digestive problems (IBS, IBD, GERD, etc.): may want to avoid coconut products entirely, except for coconut oil
  • Healthy people: may be fine with canned coconut milk, provided they don’t react to the guar gum, and provided they’re willing to take the side of industry scientists that claim BPA doesn’t cause harm in humans

Want organic coconut milk – but without the BPA and guar gum?

The good news is that with a little extra effort you can easily make this at home yourself.

  • Purchase coconut cream (Let’s Do Organic and Artisana are good choices) and blend with water to make coconut milk.
  • Purchase shredded coconut (again, Let’s Do Organic is a good choice), and follow the instructions below for making homemade coconut milk.

Homemade coconut milk instructions

Ingredients

Instructions

  • Heat water until hot (but not boiling).
  • Add shredded coconut and water to blender (preferably a Vitamix!) If all of the water won’t fit, you can add it in two batches.
  • Blend on high for several minutes until thick and creamy.
  • Pour through a colander to filter out the coconut pulp, then squeeze through a cheese cloth or nut milk bag to filter the smaller pieces of coconut.
  • If you separated the water into two batches, put the strained coconut back into the blender with the second batch of water.
  • Drink immediately or store in the fridge. Fresh coconut milk should be used within 3-4 days of making it for the best flavor and texture.

1,043 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. How much water do you mix with how much coconut butter to make coconut milk. I love coconut milk and would like a change from almond milk for some things.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi everyone, I live in Alberta Canada.
    I use ‘Real THAI original Thai cuisine’ coconut milk in the carton.
    Its ingredients are:
    Coconut extract 85%, water
    In Canada our FDA has pretty strict rules about disclosing all ingredients on packages.
    I get my 1 litre cartons at super store.
    I only buy it in the carton not the cans.

    • I also live in Calgary Alberta and Safeway currently is running this huge sale for $1 a 400ml can. I bought about a dozen or of them I decided to make meals with them. A couple hours after first consuming some coconut milk drinks and some regular food, for about 10 days now I am still suffering from this canned garbage that I made meals with. I have had nothing but ER visits (around 5 times already) and cardiologist appointments. I just discovered that this canned garbage is the problem. Stay away from it as you are either allergic or could have a bad can.

  3. I just had a coconut milk smoothie (about 200ml) -land have felt nauseous for about 4 hours.

    I’ve had coconut milk in smoothies before but not as much and been ok.

    Any thoughts? Suggestions?

    • I am goin thru this right now. Just drank some coconut milk (native forest brand) in a drink and now I feel miserable. My stomach is painful, bloated and cramping. Can’t stop burping and lots of nausea. Never again!!

      • Too much coconut milk or coconut oil can do this. You have to build up a tolerance think. I once took a ton of coconut oil and have never experienced stomach pain and diarrhea like that in my life. It’s a shock to the system if you do too much too soon.

    • Having coconut milk as kefir which is fermented or as yoghurt where the culture is still live could make a difference. I now mostly don’t have unfermented coconut or coconut milk for digestive reasons. Fermented seems very good for me. Kefir is so much easier to make as no heating is needed. You just pour the milk onto the culture – Tibetan mushroom obtained from someone who needs to divide their culture. You can play around with the proportions until you get the thickness and taste you like. Easy!

  4. Hello, I just arrived home from Israel with a tetra-pack of ‘coconut liquid’ from AROY-D, and I drank a half cup. 10 minutes later felt myself terribly, and I wasn’t sure if i will be vomiting, too, or just having diarrhea.
    The ‘coconut liquid’ has instruction in Thai language (I’m guessing), which I don’t understand. But between the lines it has a few English words that say’s:
    serving per container: about 3,
    serving size: 80 ml.
    And is a mysterious ‘60%’ with no English information.

    I am just wondering if it should be solved in water or something… Or it might be a coconut liquid that is made of coconut powder. I assume this because there was something weird on the package, it was re-labeled with Coconut Liquid, I peeled it off and it said underneath Coconut Milk.
    I have no idea what was wrong with it that they had to do this.
    I was writing this post right after it happened with me, and now I am feeling better already. 🙂 I think my stomach is special, it doesn’t like coconut in general.

    • I live in Israel and I buy AROY-D all the time, I eat Paleo and I use the coconut cream with my coffee or instead of whipped cream. Sometime I drink it alone. One day I drunk maybe half a carton(500ml) and I never felt sick.

      Just my daily experience.

  5. You did mention guar gum but unless I missed it (which is possible as I am very tired at the moment) some brands also contain xanthan gum which I know I am highly intolerant of and I believe it is more problematic than guar. Coconut milk also comes in tetra-paks which should be BPA free but some of those brands also contain gums.

  6. Coconut water is the clear water in young thai coconuts. Coconut water contains a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals with many health benefits.

    Nice explaination. Great post. Thanks for share (y)

  7. Interesting article and it’s interesting to note the comments regarding brain fog. I have been on a fairly clean paleo diet where I have eliminated everything from a bottle or can except coconut milk, almond milk, and hemp milk. I also struggle with brain fog and fatigue and had not made the association with the BPA or thickeners or emulsifiers used in my dairy free milks.

    • I recently started buying Natural Value coconut milk. It’s organic, the can has BPA free lining, and there’s no added guar gum. The only ingredients listed are organic coconut extract and water. It’s a product of the Philipines. Have you heard of this brand? Tastes fine. Just needs to be shaken and stirred better beforehand.

        • Wow, thanks so much for that info about can liners. I just drank about a cup or less of coconut milk in a bpa free can (field day) and I feel so weird this next morning. Like my head does not feel quite right. I can’t explain. I don’t like it though and I eat ALL fresh foods except for this experiment last night with coconut milk. Thank you so so much, I might have tried it again. But now never ever. I might wait 6 months then try homemade.

        • PAT, Thank you for sharing WHAT they are replacing BPA with. I have been wondering. I will have to learn how to presoak my beans & boil them at home instead of buying in cans. It takes time, but it’s safer than all these chemicals.

      • This is my concern too. I understand coconut to be antifungal and too much of it when you aren’t use to it can cause the Herximer(sp?) effect which can make you feel terrible.

  8. I am experiencing brain fog as well. The only factor different in my life is “drinking coconut milk”. Listening to others bring up this concern, makes me suspicious. Thanks for sharing!

    • Can I know how you drink coconut milk, drink it pure or mixed with coffee or other beverages
      And also estimates how many ML
      Per day or serving

    • Brain fog is also caused from lack of oxygen to the brain. Many years ago i fell face first onto a concrete floor from five to six feet up. I broke my whole left side of the face and never got it reconstructed.then last year i found a chiropractor with neurological background. He did a ten minute procedure on me that consisted of blowing air into a miniature balloon that was inserted into each nostril. He did each sode about three times. The pain was just like jumping into a pool without plugging your nose. I have to say i walked out of there in tears because i could not believe how clearly my thoughts were and how good i felt. The slighty closed off bones in my sinus area were cutting off my oxygen supply, slightly. If any of you with brain fog have ever had a face or head injury, this might be something to look into. It costed thirty bucks and i still feel amazing compared to about ten years of horrible brain fog.

  9. If you are interested in consuming BPA free coconut products. Trader Joes states that their canned coconut products do not contain BPA. And lists which products do on their website.

  10. I am getting extreme brain fog from drinking Silk Coconut milk which contains some of these gums. I will making this milk at home from now on. Just wanted to share in case someone else has this problem.

  11. Chris, wondering if you have considered the possibility that those with problems tolerating coconut milk could be getting a candida die off reaction? Fodmaps app has suggested that canned coconut milk should be ok but I still have problems with it. I also can experience nausea if I consume too much coconut oil.

    • A very good point Dee. Coconut in any form is not my friend. I wonder about the connection between coconut and candida. I experience extreme fatigue and brain fog, a sort of drugged feeling, when I use coconut in any form. I also had mercury and do not think it has all been chelate out. Have read that candida is prolific when having mercury as it gets out of control trying to fight the mercury.

      • at first I thought I had an allergy to coconut with itchy mouth, nausea and then later digestive pain. I have persisted with it mainly because i can’t tolerate dairy and nuts and I needed some type of milk and heard that coconut allergy is rare. After about 5 weeks the symptoms have reduced significantly which is why I am now suspecting candida? Would love more info on this topic.

        • You are correct, the itchy mouth and digestive upset are signs/symptoms of allergies. By continuing to drink the milk, your body developed a tolerance. If you were to stop drinking the milk for some time, then restart it, you could probably expect to have worse allergy symptoms from it.

  12. Coconut water is the clear water in young thai coconuts.Coconut water contains a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals with many health benefits.Thanks for sharing.

  13. Hi – I recently tested positive for e-histolytica for the 3rd or 4th time in the past few years. My Dr has subsequently prescribed me a heavy dose of two antibiotics (paromomycin and tindamax), which I have actually taken previously with mixed results. While these drugs fix my gut issues short-term, Im worried about the longer term damage they are doing to my gut flora. Since I concluded the last bout of antibiotics 11 months ago, I have tightened the diet to a more paleo-centric one focused on higher fat, lower carb and have been virtually gluten free, while also upping my exercise via crossfit and taking probiotics 2x a day. This is why I am particularly frustrated with the most recent positive test, and I simply don’t know what to do anymore. If the antibiotics will only relieve the symptoms for a few months, I don’t want to keep taking them as I fear they are doing more bad than good. But the natural more holistic alternatives haven’t had much of a positive impact either. Do u think I should continue with the meds and hope this is the last time? Any other paths u’d recommend I head down? I really don’t know what to do

    • Just a note in regards to your gut flora, you should look into fermenting as
      it will help you replenish. My dad teaches classes at a CC in Sedona, AZ regarding fermented vegetables and how the probiotics can positively impact your digestive system. It’s crazy simple and pretty tasty. I myself consume fermented cabbage on an almost daily basis ?

      Good luck to you!

      • Does fermented grapes count? I’ve started drinking 4-6oz of red wine for the health benefits. Does this help with the digestive tract?

    • Have you tried an enzyme? I had the same problem and my dr friend told me to take Omnizynes by Empirical Labs which you can purchase on Amazon. I had amazing results in just a few weeks. So I was told to start by taking 3-4 tabs with larger protein meals and less depending on the protein down to 1 with fruits, vegetables and such. It changed my life!
      I hope it works for you.

    • Great info on this site! I was looking for how to soften creamed coconut to make a pumpkin desert recipe and came across other topics.
      I too have digestive issues, but I believe I lost motility due to chemotherapy…horrible case of mucousitis. But I’m alive! 😉 So, of all people, my dermatologist told me to take a tablespoon of Bubbies sauerkraut each day. I got it a Fresh Market. It’s so frustrating taking so many things to hopefully make my digestive tract operate better that I forget to take it some days. I’m taking it now!! LOL Anyway, the jarred Bubbies sauerkraut is fermented. I personally like sauerkraut and eat a bit more right out of the jar. Thanks everyone!

  14. http://www.chefdoughty.com/blog/?p=173

    That (whacking it with a hammer on the ground) is not a great way to crack a coconut open. You’re handling food on the ground that is dirty. If you must do it this way, at least place the coconut in a clean plastic bag so the coconut doesn’t come in contact with the dirty concrete ground.

    If you’re in the tropics, coconuts are split cleanly in half by 1 to 2 whacks with a large heavy knife (jungle knife, hatchet, machete). You can use a chef’s knife (the back of it) instead and whack the coconut several times in the middle while turning turning the coconut. Here’s a video demonstrating the whacking – http://thehealthyfoodie.com/crack-open-coconut-easily-painlessly/

    It’s more sanitary than whacking on the ground and you get clean coconut water pouring directly into your bowl instead of onto the concrete ground.

  15. As I started reading your article it was apparent you are referring to canned coconut milk, so I stopped reading since I only use it packaged in a carton. Have updated your information?

    • Have you checked the package of your carton coconut milk? What ingredients are in it that shouldn’t be? Generally things like that are full of preservatives and thickeners…

  16. Is BPA-free organic coconut milk good for 1-year-olds? My baby is 10 months now. I am lactose intolerant. I’d like to give him coconut milk instead of cows milk when he turns 1. Any suggestions/advice?

      • Raquel .
        Also, my kid is 5 now. not so big on drinking milk, but loves goat yogurt, goat kefir and LOVES lots of greens.

        Arugula, Kale, Mix Power Green, Spinach ect.

        no sure if it has anything to do with it, but i think its from the milk having a mild grass flavor.

      • Goat milk is exactly the same as cows milk with one exception, it lacks the enzyme to curdle. Otherwise it has the same sugars , proteins, fats, mineral levels.

  17. also, this article makes no mention of another problem that can be associated with a lot of coconut (milk) products out there, & that is the forced labor of monkeys to harvest the coconuts in many countries, an ethical issue akin to those associated with palm oil production & the destruction of habitat & populations of orangutans & other species living where these palm oil plantations are replacing thousands of acres of virgin rainforest

    • Hi there, I live in a country that do use monkeys to harvest coconuts but in a very limited way. Because it takes time to train the monkey and you don’t get that much harvest because monkeys are not that efficient. Sometimes they just sit on top of the coconut trees and refuse to do any work.
      The misconception that we forced the monkeys to do the harvest is really not true. The monkeys are well look after and you could see the relationship between the owner and the monkey to know they have a good close relationship. Nothing like forcing them to work. Come and have a look and you will understand. The majority of the harvests are done by men using long poles with a curve knives.

  18. Great article. When I first read he negative title, I was thinking there was something bad or negative in the coconut itself. However that’s clearly not the case, but something the coconut juice is stored in. Then I immediately understood the story, as I too am painfully aware of BPA in containers.

    However, you then go on to say, wisely, about making one’s own coconut juice. But when I read that you use/recommend a Vitamix, my jaw dropped. Are you not aware that the jugs on all present day Vitamix machines are plastic – more specifically Tritan! Apparently tests have been conducted on so-called BPA-free plastics, only to reveal that actually they DO contain BPA! So BPA-free containing BPA. Yep!

    I’d steer well clear of ANY plastic jugs, especially so if heat is created, as BPA release is even more marked when the temperature is increased. Vitamix also does this, for making soups – AVOID!

    Go for either stainless or glass jugs. I’m given to understand that you can use a stainless Warings blender jug on a Vitamix (I’m not sure if it’s a standard jug, or one made especially for the Vitamix).

    Breville do make a machine very comparable to the Vitamix in performance, which has a glass jug, but they are limited, as there is a another similar model that has the dreaded (and to my mind cheap, like ALL plastic) Tritan jug (or cheaper plastic jugs too).

    I hope this at least alerts you to this hazard too, seeing as you’re obviously, and rightly, sensitive to anything containing BPA.

    Keep up the good work!

  19. If you are in Australia, Pure Harvest Organic Coco Quench coconut milk:

    http://www.pureharvest.com.au/products/coco-quench/
    http://www.pureharvest.com.au/faq/

    Ingredients: Filtered water, organic coconut milk (20%), organic brown rice, sea salt.

    I buy a carton of 1 litre packs for about $3.50ea on special at a major supermarket. It has a high percentage of coconut milk compared to other brands. Their packaging is BPA free.

    I can’t develop a taste for nut, soy, goats, camel or any other substitutes. I am relieved to have found this product.

    • I just wanted to support this comment. I, too, have been a fan of coco quench for a number of years. I don’t consume dairy, can’t drink nut milks and try to avoid soy, so it is a welcome choice for someone severely limited in choice!

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