The coconut is an extremely versatile fruit, often used to make everything from coconut sugar, to coconut flour, coconut water, coconut vinegar, and even coconut milk.
It may seem like there are endless plant-based milk alternatives popping up in the market. Options like oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk have become trendy among vegans and individuals with dairy allergies over the last few years.
Coconut milk, however, is a milk alternative that has been used by many different cultures for centuries. Though coconuts are relatively low in sugar, they have a high fat content, so you may be wondering if it’s a healthy option to include regularly in your diet.
Read on to learn more about the nutritional benefits of coconut milk and this beverage may be affecting your blood sugar levels.
What is Coconut Milk?
Coconut milk dates back over 2,000 years and has long been a staple in southeast Asian cuisine. The neutral taste of this plant-based milk makes it a versatile ingredient in everything from curry to a creamy lemon pasta dish.
Coconut milk is made from the pulp of coconut flesh and water. The traditional method of preparing this creamy milk involves grating or shredding the coconut flesh and slowly combining it with hot water to help dissolve the fat content.
Let’s explore the different varieties of coconut milk and how they can be added to your diet.
Types of Coconut Milk
The two main types of coconut milk are full-fat coconut milk and skimmed (or light) coconut milk.
The canned (full-fat) variety of coconut milk is made by taking the grated coconut flesh, mixing it with hot water, and squeezing it through a cheesecloth. Coconut cream, which is thicker than coconut milk, is made using the same process and adding less water to achieve the desired texture.
Canned coconut milk is typically used in cooking, and may also have additives such as gums and emulsifiers to help it maintain its thickness.
Skimmed coconut milk, on the other hand, is made by combining the coconut flesh and hot water mix, pressing it to strain the liquid, and repeating this process a few times further in a cheesecloth. This results in less fat in the drink, as the final result contains more water.
Nutrients in Coconut Milk
Because there are so many different varieties of coconut milk, the nutritional content may vary depending on the brand.
Macronutrients in Coconut Milk
Here’s a breakdown of some of the nutrients found in two different types of coconut milk per half cup serving.
Skimmed coconut milk is significantly lower in calories due to its higher water content, and contains less fat (82 percent of its contents) and less carbohydrates than the full-fat variety.
While full-fat coconut milk has a small amount of carbohydrates and protein, 91 percent of its nutritional content comes from fat (most of which is saturated fat). Though saturated fats were previously thought to be harmful, new literature reviews suggest that saturated fats may not contribute to an increased risk of heart disease as was once believed.
One study even found that these fats may help slow cognitive decline, though more research is still needed to determine the link.
While the saturated fats in coconut milk are not inherently bad for your health, you may want to discuss your intake of saturated fats and its effects on your body with a nutritionist or dietitian, as some people may have different dietary necessities.
Micronutrients in Coconut Milk
Along with being rich in fats, coconut milk also contains other nutrients that can benefit your health. Coconut milk is rich in potassium, iron, and calcium.
A half cup serving of full-fat coconut milk contains:
- Potassium: 4 percent of your daily recommended value
- Iron: 3 percent of your daily recommended value
- Calcium: 0 percent of your daily recommended value
A half cup serving of skimmed coconut milk (which is often fortified with vitamin D and calcium depending on the brand) contains:
- Potassium: 1 percent of your daily recommended value
- Vitamin D: 13 percent of your daily recommended value
- Calcium: 10 percent of your daily recommended value
The Difference Between Coconut Milk, Coconut Water, and Coconut Oil
Along with the different varieties of coconut milk, there are other coconut products with specific uses and nutritional benefits.
Coconut water is a beverage made from young coconuts (which are green in color). These young coconuts naturally contain juice in the center, and this is what we now know to be coconut water. This natural juice is high in electrolytes, meaning it’s rich in vitamins and minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and vitamin C.
Coconut milk differs from coconut water in that it’s produced from the coconut flesh. The flesh is made up mostly of fat, which explains the high fat content of coconut milk compared to coconut water.
Finally, coconut oil, which is virtually all fat, is made by heating up the coconut flesh mixture in hot water. This neutral cooking oil can be used in many styles of cooking and has been observed to raise HDL cholesterol, which can be beneficial in the body. The preparation of coconut milk is actually an intermediate step for coconut oil.It’s important to note that there are two types of coconut oil—refined and unrefined, which have similar nutritional properties but have different uses in cooking. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point and milder flavor profile, while unrefined, or virgin coconut oil has a stronger flavor and lower smoke point.
Coconut Milk and Blood Glucose Levels
So, how do the macro and micro-nutrients in coconut milk affect your blood sugar levels? And is coconut milk good for your health?
Well, because of the high saturated fat content and low carb content of coconut milk, consuming this milk alternative may have minimal impact on your blood glucose. This may be especially true if you’re consuming unsweetened coconut milk (or one without added sugar).
One study found that coconut products such as coconut milk, coconut oil, and coconut water decreased type 2 diabetes induced damage to organs in rats. However, the authors also found these products can lead to an increase in serum glucose.
The glycemic index (GI) of coconut milk is 97, but it has a glycemic load (GL) of 4.8, which is considered to be low. The glycemic load of a food measures its carbohydrate content together with how quickly the food affects blood glucose levels, also taking the amount you consume into account.
In the case of coconut milk, its glycemic load, which factors in a low overall carbohydrate and high fat content, means that blood sugar spikes are not likely in most individuals.
Tips for Consuming Coconut Milk
Here are some tips to help prevent a potential blood glucose spike (and help lower blood sugar) when consuming coconut milk:
- Have it alongside a meal rich in protein and fiber
- Go for a walk after consuming coconut milk
- Practice meal sequencing by eating a source or protein or fiber before consuming coconut milk
- Opt for unsweetened coconut milk wherever possible
So, while coconut milk will not likely lead to sharp blood sugar spikes, putting the tips above into practice and discussing how coconut milk fits into your overall diet with your dietitian can help you keep your levels regulated.
Health Benefits of Coconut Milk
Along with being more glucose friendly than high GI foods and beverages, here are some other health benefits of coconut milk:
- May reduce oxidative stress
- Has antioxidant properties, especially lauric acid, which is a specific type of MCT (or medium chain triglyceride)
- May help with cognitive decline
- Promotes satiety, which can help with weight loss
- A great option for those who are lactose intolerant, have dairy allergies, have issues digesting regular milk (especially cow’s milk), casein intolerance, or are vegan
How to Add Coconut Milk to Your Diet
There are so many fun ways to get coconut milk consumption regularly. If you’ve decided to include more coconut milk in your diet, here are a few ideas:
- Make a smoothie with coconut milk and add some unflavored collagen for protein.
- Try a coconut milk pudding or dessert.
- Make tea with a splash of coconut milk.
- Try it with your coffee (skimmed coconut milk in a carton is preferable here)
- Try cooking a coconut curry.
- Bake a dessert with coconut milk
- Add coconut milk in your overnight oats.
- Try making pancakes with coconut milk.
- Try a stir fry or noodle bowl with some coconut milk added into the sauce.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
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Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.