Coconut milk is a white, milky substance extracted from the flesh of mature coconuts. It may benefit health in several ways, such as by stimulating weight loss and lowering cholesterol.

It can also add flavor to sweet and savory dishes and serve as an alternative to dairy milk.

Coconut water is the liquid inside a coconut, while coconut milk comes from the fruit’s white flesh. Products available include coconut milk as a dairy alternative, coconut cream for cooking, and coconut milk beverages.

In this article, we describe what coconut milk is, how manufacturers make it, and what health benefits it has.

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To make coconut milk, a person will scrape or grate the flesh of mature coconuts and then squeeze it through a strainer, such as a cheesecloth, to extract the liquid. Thick milk retains more fat than thin milk.

Coconut milk can be thick or thin. Thin coconut milk comes from the squeezed coconut flesh left inside the cheesecloth. Manufacturers mix it with warm water and strain it through a cheesecloth a second time. The resulting liquid is much thinner.

Manufacturers add stabilizers to prevent the contents from separating and ensure a smooth finish. Coconut milk is also available in powdered form.

Research suggests that coconut milk can promote weight loss, heart health, and immunity. Here, we look at each benefit in turn.

Weight loss

Coconut milk contains a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs stimulate energy through a process called thermogenesis, or heat production.

Research suggests that MCTs might help:

Insulin is an essential hormone that breaks down glucose and controls blood sugar levels.

Research from 2020 found that rats who consumed coconut milk were more likely to lose weight and visceral fat than those consuming other milk types and other diet combinations.

The results also suggest that combining coconut milk with a high protein diet could help reduce or manage levels of abdominal fat, weight gain, food intake, cholesterol, and triglycerides.

However, many factors can affect a person’s weight, including physical activity levels and the amount of food they eat. In addition, coconut milk can be high in fat and carbohydrates, which means consuming too much may lead to weight gain.

It is of note that more research is necessary to assess how coconut milk can affect body weight.

Heart health

Some evidence suggests that lauric acid, an antioxidant present in coconut milk, may help prevent stroke and heart disease.

Some rodent research also indicates that combining a high protein diet with coconut milk could help manage cholesterol levels.

However, there is not enough evidence to confirm that coconut milk is good for the heart. In addition, coconut milk contains the same fat as coconut oil, which is mostly saturated fat. There is a risk that saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels.

The American Heart Association (AHA) does not encourage the use of coconut oil, as there is evidence it may increase levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol in the body.

Antioxidant protection from disease

Coconut contains phenols, which are antioxidants.

During metabolism and other processes, the body produces waste products called reactive oxygen species, or free radicals.

Free radicals that remain in the body can cause oxidative stress, resulting in damage that may lead to various health conditions, including cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants can help the body fight or remove free radicals, protecting it from disease.

The authors of a 2015 study found that Malaysian coconut milk had higher antioxidant activity than milk from goats and cows.

Research from 2020 concludes that the phenolic content in coconut could help protect lipids, proteins, and DNA in the body from damage due to oxidative stress.

Antimicrobial activity fighting infection

Coconuts contain a lipid called lauric acid.

Some findings indicate that lauric acid has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, suggesting they may help support the immune system.

In a study of the antimicrobial effects of lauric acid from coconuts, the researchers isolated various bacterial strains and exposed them to lauric acid in a laboratory.

They found that lauric acid effectively inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Other researchers found that lauric acid triggers apoptosis, or cell death, in breast and endometrial cancer cells, suggesting it could inhibit cancer cell growth.

However, the amount of lauric acid a person is likely to consume in coconut milk is not enough to say it prevents cancer.

Coconut milk contains high levels of saturated fat, making it a calorie-rich food.

It also contains vitamins and minerals, but the nutritional contents vary by product. Coconut milk drinks, for example, have a different nutritional profile than canned coconut milk.

Here is the nutritional profile for 240 grams (g) — or approximately 1 cup — of raw, unsweetened coconut milk for cooking:

The nutritional profile per cup, or 244 g, of sweetened coconut milk beverage is as follows:

  • calories: 75.6
  • water: 231 g
  • protein: 0.51 g
  • fat: 5.08 g
  • carbohydrates: 7.12 g
  • calcium: 459 mg
  • potassium: 46.4 mg

The drink contains no vitamin C, but it is fortified with calcium and vitamins A, B12, and D2.

There are plenty of opportunities to add coconut milk to meals and drinks. It is a staple ingredient in many Indian and Malaysian dishes, for example.

Here are some tips:

  • Cereal: Try replacing dairy milk with coconut milk.
  • Smoothies: Use coconut milk in any smoothie or try this recipe for a healthy coconut milk smoothie.
  • Soups: Use coconut milk as a base for any creamy soup, such as Tom Kha, a Thai coconut soup.
  • Oatmeal: Use coconut milk as the liquid in oatmeal. Bring a can of coconut milk to a boil. Stir in 1 cup of oats. Cook for 15 minutes or until the milk is absorbed. Top with fruit and cinnamon. See the full recipe here.
  • Sauces: Add coconut milk to sauces, as in this cashew nut curry.

People can use coconut milk products as part of a plant-based diet in place of dairy milk products.

At least one study has concluded that canned coconut milk is a low FODMAP food, making it suitable for people with irritable bowel syndrome.

To make fresh coconut milk at home, a person can combine unsweetened shredded coconut with warm water in a blender. Puree the mixture, then strain it through a cheesecloth.

Many types of coconut milk are available in grocery stores and health food shops. Some have higher fat and calorie contents than others. This depends on how the manufacturer has blended the milk and how much water it has added.

Canned coconut milk usually has a thick, cream-like consistency. It is higher in fat, and people typically use it for baking or cooking.

Coconut milk beverages tend to be thin and have a consistency closer to dairy milk. Store these drinks in the refrigerator and keep an eye on the expiration dates. Also, some brands add sugar, so check the labeling.

In general, it is best to buy coconut milk products that contain very few ingredients. Be sure to watch out for added sugars, preservatives, and artificial thickeners, such as gums.

What are some more substitutes for heavy cream?

In moderation, coconut milk can have health benefits, but consuming too much can have some undesirable effects.

Coconut milk contains high levels of calories and fats. Combining a high intake of coconut milk with a carbohydrate-rich diet can result in weight gain.

Replacing dairy milk with coconut milk may mean that a person consumes less calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A. Anyone using coconut milk instead of dairy milk should choose a product that is fortified with these nutrients or eat other foods that contain these nutrients.

Allergies

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies coconuts as tree nuts, they are technically fruits. Having a tree nut allergy does not necessarily mean a person will have an allergy to coconut products.

Research suggests that allergic reactions to coconut are rare.

However, the authors of a 2020 review warn that when a reaction occurs, it may be severe. Black and Asian Americans may also be at a slightly higher risk of coconut allergy.

Anyone with a coconut allergy should not consume coconut milk.

The symptoms of a coconut allergy are similar to those of other food allergies. In some cases, an allergic reaction can quickly lead to anaphylaxis — a severe, life threatening reaction that causes swelling, wheezing, and hives.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

Below, we answer some questions people often ask about coconut milk.

Is coconut milk good for you?

Coconut milk contains antioxidants that may be beneficial for health. However, it can also be high in fat and carbohydrates. Coconut milk drinks may also contain added sugar.

Is coconut milk actually milk?

It is made from coconut, which is a plant, and therefore, it is not a dairy product. However, people can use it instead of milk in tea and coffee.

They can also use coconut cream instead of dairy cream in savory dishes, such as soups and stews.

Is coconut milk healthier than dairy milk?

The nutritional content will vary between products.

Coconut milk contains less protein than dairy milk. It does not naturally contain calcium, vitamin A, or vitamin D, but products available in stores are often fortified with these nutrients.

Coconut milk is a versatile ingredient and an excellent milk alternative. Like other coconut products, it may provide health benefits, although more research is necessary to confirm this.

Consuming moderate amounts of coconut milk may help lower cholesterol and promote weight loss. The antioxidants it contains may also help protect the body from health issues.