Coconut Milk: This Is Your Comprehensive Guide | Chris Kresser
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Coconut Milk: This Is Your Comprehensive Guide

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Referred to as the “tree of life” among tropical cultures, the coconut palm boasts a variety of uses and has fed and nourished populations around the world for generations.

This coconut milk carries numerous health benefits.
Coconut milk is antimicrobial and heart healthy, and it may even help with weight loss. iStock/LucidSurf

Coconut milk, a milky white liquid derived from coconut meat, has an impressive array of health benefits and is an excellent dairy alternative for those who are allergic or sensitive to cow’s milk. Read on to learn about the health benefits of coconut, traditional uses of coconut milk, and how to make your own coconut milk, yogurt, and kefir at home!

What Is Coconut Milk?

The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, native to tropical locales, produces a fibrous, fleshy, hard-shelled fruit that yields a variety of edible products, including the white coconut “meat” (called copra), coconut oil, and coconut water. (1)

Coconut water and milk are often confused with one another, though they are in fact quite different. Coconut water is the clear, thin liquid inside an immature, green coconut. As the coconut ripens (and turns the familiar dark brown you may be envisioning), this liquid mostly solidifies into the flesh, a process that takes five to six months. If you pick up a whole coconut and shake it, you will likely hear some coconut water splashing inside. Coconut water is a rich source of electrolytes and has become popular as a natural sports drink. (2)

Coconut milk, on the other hand, is an emulsion of ground coconut meat and water. It is high in protein and fat and has a consistency similar to cow’s milk. Coconut milk is a staple of tropical cuisines and can be found in curries, hot and cold beverages, and desserts. Coconut oil (also discussed here), like coconut milk, is also derived from the meat.

Coconut products have exploded in popularity in recent years, but what, exactly, is coconut milk? And is it good for you? Check out this comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about coconut milk. #paleo #nutrition #chriskresser

The Health Benefits of Coconut

Fibrous, fleshy coconut has numerous nutritional and medicinal properties. It contains a variety of beneficial fatty acids, including lauric and caprylic acids, B vitamins, the antioxidant vitamins C and E, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Thanks to this unique combination of beneficial nutrients, coconut has potent antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, it promotes heart and brain health, and it can help control blood sugar.

Coconut Is Antimicrobial

For thousands of years, coconut has held a prominent place in the traditional medicine of tropical cultures. It was used historically to treat everything from bronchitis to burn wounds to intestinal worms. (3) In modern-day medicine, one of the most well-studied health applications of coconut is in the treatment of infections.

The fatty acids in coconut have potent antimicrobial effects on gastrointestinal pathogens. Lauric acid, a saturated fatty acid found in coconut, inhibits the growth of Clostridium difficile (commonly known as C. diff), a human gastrointestinal pathogen that is notoriously difficult to treat. (4) Monolaurin, a compound formed from a combination of glycerol and lauric acid, inhibits gastrointestinal colonization by Candida albicans, the infamous cause of “yeast overgrowth.” It also blocks the formation of biofilm, a hard-to-eradicate surface build-up of bacteria. In fact, research indicates that monolaurin is as effective as a prescription antifungal. (5, 6) It is also useful for killing antibiotic-resistant H. pylori. (7)

Coconut oil and its individual antimicrobial fatty acids inhibit the growth of oral microorganisms responsible for dental cavities, gum inflammation (gingivitis), and gum disease (periodontitis), including: (8)

  • Streptococcus mutans
  • Porphyromonas gingivalis
  • Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans

Coconut oil is as effective as prescription-strength chlorhexidine, a synthetic disinfectant and antiseptic, for eradicating pathogenic oral microorganisms! (9)

Finally, lauric acid also has antiparasitic activity comparable to the antibiotic metronidazole against intestinal infection caused by the parasite Giardia duodenalis. (10) This body of research indicates that coconut is useful for treating infections throughout the entire length of the GI tract, including the mouth, stomach, and intestines.

Coconut is also useful for killing antibiotic-resistant infections. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a dangerous infection caused by staph bacteria that is resistant to most antibiotics, is an increasingly serious health problem around the world. There is a pressing need for developing new antimicrobials that are not easily subject to resistance. Lauric acid and myristylamine (a combination of the coconut-based fatty acid myristic acid and an organic compound, amine) have been shown to be as active against MRSA as two of the remaining pharmaceuticals currently in use. (11)

The medium-chain fatty acids and monolaurin in coconut oil have potent antiviral properties. In animal studies, monolaurin protects rhesus macaques from infection with an HIV-like virus that causes a disease similar to AIDS. (12) Monolaurin also inactivates measles, herpes simplex virus-1, and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women or any person with a weakened immune system. Coconut oil and milk and isolated monolaurin appear to exert their antibacterial and antiviral effects by breaking down pathogens and interfering with their replication. (13)

While coconut-based fatty acids significantly impact pathogens, they don’t have harmful effects on beneficial gut bacteria, unlike prescription antibiotics. (14)  In other words, coconut spares good gut bacteria while eliminating pathogens, which boosts your gut health.

Coconut Supports Cardiovascular Health

Coconut milk and the individual fatty acids in coconut are loaded with heart-healthy benefits. A study of 60 healthy adults found that eight weeks of coconut milk consumption significantly reduced LDL cholesterol and raised HDL cholesterol. (15) Higher HDL cholesterol is consistently associated with protection against heart disease.

Coconut oil also improves a handful of other cardiometabolic risk factors. (16, 17, 18, 19) It can:

  • Promote reductions in waist circumference and body mass
  • Lower serum triglycerides
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Inhibit LDL oxidation (resulting in lowered levels of “bad” cholesterol)

Finally, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in coconut oil promote reverse cholesterol transport, the net movement of cholesterol from peripheral tissues back to the liver. Reverse cholesterol transport decreases circulating lipids, reducing the risk of plaque formation that leads to deadly atherosclerosis—the narrowing and hardening of the arteries.

Coconut Protects against Insulin Resistance and Diabetes

Fat is known to reduce the glycemic response, the effect a food or meal has on blood sugar after consumption, by delaying gastric emptying and by forming compounds called amylose-lipid complexes (ALCs), which reduce starch digestibility. In a study that tested the ALC-forming ability of different dietary fats and their individual fatty acids, coconut oil was the most effective at forming ALCs and reducing the glycemic response. (20) These findings suggest that coconut fat may help prevent blood sugar fluctuations and oxidative stress, which contribute to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Coconut Promotes Weight Loss

While countless “natural” products have been marketed as weight loss aids, often with disappointing results, coconut may be the real deal! A study that compared MCT oil (which is generally derived from coconut or palm kernel oil and is rich in medium-chain triglycerides) with olive oil as part of a weight loss program found that MCT oil induced significantly greater weight loss than olive oil. (21) In overweight subjects with type 2 diabetes, MCT oil produced significant reductions in body weight and waist circumference; this suggests that MCT oil reduces “visceral adiposity.” Visceral fat, as it is known, accumulates deep in the abdominal cavity near major organs—as opposed to surface belly fat that is relatively easier to lose—and is associated with an increased risk of numerous chronic diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (22)

Coconut Supports Bone Health

Oxidative stress and free radical damage can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Interestingly, virgin coconut oil, which is rich in antioxidant compounds, may help maintain bone structure and prevent osteoporosis by inhibiting free radical-induced bone loss. (23, 24) (Virgin coconut oil is cold pressed from fresh coconut meat; regular coconut oil can be extracted from fresh coconut milk.) The saturated fats in coconut oil also enhance absorption of calcium from the intestine and may increase the bioavailability of this crucial bone-building mineral. (25)

Why Coconut Is True “Brain Food”

A growing body of research indicates that coconut is a powerful “brain food.”

The consumption of coconut fats may alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury and even improve memory in healthy individuals.

Coconut and Alzheimer’s Disease

Up to 65 percent of the fats in coconut are MCTs, which are quite different from the saturated fats found in dairy and meat. MCTs are readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and rapidly travel to the liver, where they are converted into energy molecules called ketones. Ketones are an important alternative to glucose as an energy source for the brain because they cross the blood–brain barrier and are readily taken up by neurons. The energy offered by ketones may be especially beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by brain insulin resistance, which eventually leads to neuronal dysfunction and death. Ketone bodies provide energy for neurons when brain insulin resistance prevents normal neuron uptake of glucose. Several small clinical trials support the use of coconut products in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • In a small group of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and mild memory loss and cognitive impairment, supplementation with MCTs from coconut significantly improved memory function. (26)
  • Virgin coconut oil supplementation improved cognitive scores in 31 subjects with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. (27)
  • A product called Axona, which contains caprylic acid derived from coconut oil, improved multiple measures of cognitive function in adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. (28)

Amyloid-beta is a malformed protein that has been found to accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, impairing cognitive function. Coconut polyphenols have been found to inhibit the formation of amyloid-beta plaques, preventing this brain-damaging amyloid-beta accumulation. (29)

Coconut Could Promote Healing for Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injury is brain dysfunction caused by an outside force, such as a violent blow to the head. A variety of nutrients have been investigated for applications in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, including coconut oil. The consumption of MCT oil increases blood ketone levels, which subsequently increase cerebral blood flow to promote healing of the brain. (30)

It Could Improve Your Memory, Too

Virgin coconut oil consumption improves memory by increasing the activity of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory, and by enhancing antioxidant status and reducing brain oxidative stress. (31)

Isn’t the Saturated Fat in Coconut Milk Unhealthy?

Coconut contains 92 percent saturated fat; this figure has spurred health organizations to warn against the consumption of coconut products, on the premise that the saturated fats they contain will increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. (32) In 2017 the American Heart Association even issued a “presidential advisory,” stating that people should replace coconut oil and other saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats like canola, soybean, and corn oil. (33)

However, the idea that coconut, and other saturated fats for that matter, causes heart disease does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

First, early studies that implicated coconut in heart disease involved hydrogenated coconut fat that was fed to test animals; hydrogenated trans fats have been directly implicated in cardiovascular disease, so the hydrogenation of the coconut fat was likely the culprit, not the coconut fat itself. (34)

Second, saturated fat does not cause heart disease, despite what we’ve been told by public health organizations for the past six decades. I encourage you to read more about the Diet–Heart Myth to learn why diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol don’t cause heart disease.

Third, as I mentioned earlier, coconut products do not increase the risk of heart disease—and they can even improve cardiovascular disease biomarkers. Coconut has numerous health benefits for your heart.

Last but not least, epidemiological research suggests that coconut consumption does not cause heart disease. Among indigenous cultures that consume large amounts of coconut, the incidence of cardiovascular disease is strikingly low or even nonexistent.

Coconut is a staple food among the inhabitants of the South Pacific region, including the Kitavans, a people indigenous to the Trobriand Islands, and the Tukisenta, who are native to Papua New Guinea. Both populations eat copious amounts of coconut and have very low rates of heart disease. (35, 36) The Tokelau people of New Zealand show no signs of cardiovascular disease despite deriving 50 percent of their calories from coconut fat! (37) This evidence directly contradicts the reactionary claims of medical authorities warning us that eating coconut will give us heart disease! In fact, coconut is a wholesome, nutritious food that may promote a healthy heart and a long life free of chronic disease.

Two Reasons Why Coconut Milk May Not Be Right for You

While coconut milk is generally well tolerated, there are two groups of people who may want to avoid it:

  1. People with FODMAP intolerance
  2. People who are hyper-responders to dietary saturated fat

Coconut is a rich source of fermentable fibers. In a healthy human gut, fermentable fibers feed beneficial gut bacteria and promote the formation of short-chain fatty acids, which are an important fuel source for intestinal cells. However, the fermentable fiber in coconut may be problematic for people with FODMAP intolerance, a condition in which the consumption of fermentable fibers causes gas, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. FODMAP intolerance is typically caused by gut dysbiosis. The good news is that correcting gut dysbiosis can alleviate FODMAP intolerance, which means you don’t need to avoid coconut milk forever!

While the saturated fat in coconut milk is not a concern for most people, as I discussed earlier, it may raise LDL cholesterol levels in a subset of individuals called “hyper-responders.”

Hyper-responders who experience increases in LDL particle number on a high-saturated-fat diet may do better on a Paleo diet that is lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates from starchy tubers, whole fruits, and non-starchy vegetables.

Coconut Milk as Part of a Traditional, Ancestral Diet

Coconut milk has nourished humans around the world for thousands of years. The fruits of the coconut palm hold a prominent place in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional medical system that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Coconut figures into the cuisine of cultures throughout equatorial regions, including:

  • Central America
  • The Caribbean
  • Coastal Brazil
  • The Western coast of Africa
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • The Pacific Islands

Each culture uses coconut in unique, delicious ways.

Coconut milk is one of the main ingredients used in the traditional cuisine of Malaysia. (38) Coconut milk is used to produce a creamy sauce for grilled chicken in a dish called ayam percik, on top of steamed rice in nasi lemak, and in curries. Serabi, a pancake made of rice flour and coconut milk, is consumed throughout Asia.

Coconut milk is used in seafood stews and desserts in Brazil, consumed as an iced drink called cendol in Southeast Asia, and as a dessert called titote in Colombia and Panama.

When consumed as a part of traditional diets, coconut intake in these cultures is not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. (39, 40) Typically, it is only when these cultures begin to consume the foods of industrialized civilizations that they experience an increased risk of heart disease. (41)

Interestingly, while coconut is certainly not a traditional component of North American cuisine, records show that coconut oil was one of the primary dietary fats in the United States before the introduction of industrial vegetable oils in the 1940s! (42)

Perhaps not surprisingly, coconut oil fell out of favor in the United States at the same time research began to emerge linking saturated fat to poor cardiovascular health outcomes. Fortunately, the diet–heart myth has since been disproven, and coconut has experienced a resurgence in North America. Coconut milk is now a popular dairy substitute for those who can’t tolerate cow’s milk and has found its way into a variety of delicious, innovative recipes.

How to Make Your Own Coconut Milk, Yogurt, and Kefir

While grocery stores are increasingly offering coconut milk, yogurt, and even coconut kefir products, it is quite easy (and cost effective!) to make these foods at home. In this section, you will find three simple recipes for making homemade coconut milk, yogurt, and kefir.

How to Make Homemade Coconut Milk

This coconut milk contains only two ingredients—coconut and water! It is completely free of emulsifiers and added sugars.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups finely shredded unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 2 ¾ cups filtered water

Instructions

  1. Combine the shredded coconut flakes and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, cover with a lid, and let sit for one hour.
  2. Pour the coconut and water into a blender or food processor. Blend until the coconut and water form a pulp with a thick texture.
  3. Pour the pulp into a nut milk bag suspended over a large bowl. Let the coconut milk drain from the bag into the bowl either by using gravity or by squeezing the full bag with your hands.
  4. Pour the strained coconut milk into a sterile glass jar and store for up to two weeks in the fridge. You can add a little vanilla extract to the coconut milk if desired.

Make Your Own Coconut Milk Yogurt

The process of transforming homemade coconut milk into coconut yogurt is a lot simpler than you might expect! All you need is a high-quality probiotic and full-fat coconut milk.

Ingredients

  • 14 oz of homemade coconut milk or one 14 oz can of full-fat coconut milk
  • 2 capsules of a high-quality probiotic (I recommend looking for one with at least   50 billion CFU noted on the label)

Instructions

  1. Shake or blend the coconut milk well so that it is smooth. You can shake it while it’s still in the can or pour it out and mix in a blender or bowl.
  2. Pour the coconut milk into a sterilized glass jar.
  3. Empty the probiotic capsules into the jar and stir with a wooden or plastic spoon. Do not use a metal spoon, as metal can adversely affect the probiotics. Stir until the probiotic powder is evenly distributed.
  4. Cover the jar with cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band.
  5. Let the yogurt sit for at least 24 hours. The longer the yogurt sits, the tangier it will become. This recipe will keep up to seven days in the fridge.

How to Make Your Own Coconut Milk Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk drink with a distinct effervescent, tangy taste. It is thinner than yogurt and pours easily. While kefir has historically been made from cow’s milk, you can make equally delicious kefir with coconut milk.

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Fill a half-gallon glass mason jar with the coconut milk. You may want to blend or stir the coconut milk in a blender or large bowl first to ensure an even consistency before pouring it into the mason jar. Add the kefir grains to the jar.
  2. Cover the jar with a piece of cheesecloth and a rubber band. Leave at room temperature (68 to 75 degrees) for at least 12 hours.
  3. After 12 hours, taste the kefir at intervals until it reaches your desired level of fermentation.
  4. Once the kefir has reached your desired level of fermentation, filter out the kefir grains. Store the coconut milk kefir in the fridge until you drink it (it will stay fresh for around a week). Save the kefir grains for future use.

Note: Most kefir starter cultures contain a minute amount of dairy. If you are very sensitive to dairy, you may want to start by making coconut water kefir and then use the grains from the finished coconut water kefir to make coconut milk kefir. This option is completely dairy free. You can find instructions in this blog post from Cultures for Health.

Also, be aware that sometimes, kefir grains require an adjustment period when used with coconut milk. If your first batch doesn’t taste quite right, don’t get discouraged! You can use the first batch for cooking and try again with a second one.

Thinking of Buying Coconut Milk? Keep This in Mind

If you choose to buy coconut milk rather than making it yourself, there are two factors you should consider.

Canned Coconut Milk May Contain BPA

Food cans are lined with a coating that contains bisphenol-A (BPA), a plasticizer with a slew of adverse health effects. If you choose to buy canned coconut milk, you may want to select a BPA-free version such as Native Forest Organic Classic Coconut Milk. However, keep in mind that emerging research suggests that BPA alternatives used in “BPA-free” products may be just as harmful, if not more harmful, than BPA! For more information on BPA and BPA-free alternatives, see my article “Re-Examining the Evidence on BPA and Plastics.”

Canned and Boxed Coconut Milk Contain Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers, such as guar gum and xanthan gum, are added to coconut milk to keep the water and coconut mixed together in a suspension. While guar and xanthan gums are generally considered safe, they may cause gastrointestinal upset, including gas and bloating. If you have preexisting GI issues, such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), you may want to avoid these emulsifiers. If you’re looking for premade coconut milk without emulsifiers, try Native Forest Simple Coconut Milk. For more information on emulsifiers, read my articles “Harmful or Harmless: Guar Gum, Locust Bean Gum, and More” and “What Is Xanthan Gum – And Is It Bad For You?

Boxed Coconut Milk Often Contains Added Sugars

Premade coconut milk often has added sugars, which none of us need in our diet. Making your own coconut milk is a good way to avoid the sugar trap hidden in boxed coconut milk. (Incidentally, avoid canned “cream of coconut,” which also has added sugar.)

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