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

As a result, coconut milk has gained popularity in the healthcare community and as an alternative to dairy milk.

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

Halved coconut on blue wooden tabletop with glass of coconut milkShare on Pinterest
Coconut milk is made from the white flesh inside the coconut.

Coconut water is the liquid inside a coconut, while coconut milk comes from the fruit's white flesh.

Coconut milk can be thick or thin. When making thick milk, manufacturers grate the flesh of mature coconuts, then squeeze it through cheesecloth to extract the liquid. Thick milk retains more fat than thin milk.

Thin coconut milk comes from the squeezed coconut flesh left inside the cheesecloth. Manufacturers mix it with warm water then strain it through cheesecloth a second time. The resulting liquid is much thinner.

Research suggests that coconut milk has three main health benefits. Below, we describe the effects on weight loss, heart health, and the immune system.

1. Weight loss

Coconut milk contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which researchers have linked with weight loss. MCTs stimulate energy through a process called thermogenesis, or heat production.

Some studies indicate that MCTs work to reduce body weight and waist size. They may also balance out unstable gut microbiota. A lack of this stability may play a role in developing obesity.

A 2015 study in overweight men found that consuming MCTs at breakfast led to reduced food intake later in the day.

Findings of a 2018 study suggest that MCTs increase insulin sensitivity, and many researchers believe that this sensitivity promotes weight loss. Insulin is an essential hormone that breaks down glucose and controls blood sugar levels.

2. Heart health

Research has linked diets rich in saturated fat with high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease.

Some people may not consider coconut milk to be heart-healthy, because of its high fat content.

However, different sources of saturated fats may affect the body in different ways. Also, genetics play a role in how a person metabolizes saturated fats and the extent to which these fats impact health.

Scant research has investigated the effects of coconut milk on cholesterol levels. However, a substantial body of research has explored the effects of coconut oil.

One study found that coconut oil did not significantly increase levels of "bad cholesterol," or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, but that it did increase levels of "good cholesterol," or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL).

It is important to note that the study period was short, only 4 weeks, and that the research was lacking in controls.

HDL cholesterol protects the heart and removes LDL cholesterol from the blood. It carries LDL cholesterol to the liver, which breaks it down, and the body eventually eliminates it.

While coconut oil may not raise levels of LDL cholesterol, coconut-based products are high in fat and calories. People should only consume them in moderation.

Keep in mind that coconut oil has substantially more fat per serving than coconut milk, which will have less dramatic effects on cholesterol levels.

Boots immune system

Coconuts contain a lipid called lauric acid, and many researchers believe that lauric acid can support the immune system.

Some findings indicate that lauric acid has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

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 petri dishes.

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, cell death, in breast and endometrial cancer cells. The findings suggest that this acid inhibits cancer cell growth by stimulating certain receptor proteins that regulate the growth of cells.

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Coconut milk from a can is suitable for cooking.

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

The milk is also rich with vitamins and minerals, but the nutritional contents vary by product. Coconut milk drinks, for example, have a different nutritional profile from canned coconut milk.

The nutritional profile per cup of raw, canned coconut milk is:

  • calories: 445
  • water: 164.71 grams (g)
  • protein: 4.57 g
  • fat: 48.21 g
  • carbohydrates: 6.35 g
  • calcium: 41 milligrams (mg)
  • potassium: 497 mg
  • magnesium: 104 mg
  • iron: 7.46 mg
  • vitamin C: 2.30 mg

The nutritional profile per cup of sweetened coconut milk beverage is:

  • calories: 74
  • water: 226.97 g
  • protein: 0.50 g
  • fat: 4.99 g
  • carbohydrates: 7.01 g
  • calcium: 451 mg
  • potassium: 46 mg

Manufacturers often fortify these drinks with vitamins A, B-12, and D2.

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

Coconut milk can go well in:

  • Cereal. Try replacing traditional dairy milk with coconut milk.
  • Smoothies. Use coconut milk in any smoothie, or try this recipe for a healthful, green coconut milk smoothie.
  • Soups. Substitute coconut milk as a base for any creamy soup (full-fat canned coconut milk has considerably fewer calories than cream), or add soup broth, vegetables, and curry powder to a coconut milk base for a Thai-inspired 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 some banana (or other fruit) and cinnamon. See the full recipe here.
  • Chicken curry. Bring a can of coconut milk to a boil, and add spices and curry powder. Mix in cooked chicken and vegetables, and serve with rice or quinoa. See the full recipe here.

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

Grocery stores and health food stores tend to sell many types of coconut milk. Some varieties will have higher fat and calorie contents than others, depending on how the manufacturer has blended the milk and how much water they have 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.

It is important to note that coconut milk beverages contain less protein than dairy milk. Anyone making the switch should incorporate protein from other sources into their diet.

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.

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A person with a coconut allergy may experience abdominal pain after consuming coconut milk.

In moderation, coconut milk can have health benefits, but consuming too much can cause problems.

Coconut milk contains high levels of calories and fats. Consuming too much of the milk and eating a carbohydrate-rich diet can result in weight gain.

Coconut milk also contains fermentable carbohydrates. These can cause digestive issues, such as diarrhea or constipation, in people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies coconuts as tree nuts, they are technically fruits.

Usually, people with tree nut allergies can consume coconut products without problems. However, some proteins in coconuts are similar to those in tree nuts, and allergic reactions can occur.

Coconut allergies are very rare. Anyone allergic to coconuts should not consume coconut milk.

The symptoms of a coconut allergy are similar to those of other food allergies. A person may experience:

  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • itching or irritation of the mouth, throat, eyes, or skin
  • anaphylaxis — a severe, life-threatening reaction that causes swelling, wheezing, and hives

Coconut milk is a versatile ingredient and an excellent milk alternative. Like other coconut products, it may provide health benefits.

Consuming moderate amounts of coconut milk may be able to lower cholesterol and promote weight loss.

Different varieties of coconut milk, in cartons and cans, are available in supermarkets, health food stores, and online marketplaces.