One tall coconut latte please.
Coconut milk is becoming so popular that Starbucks recently jumped on the bandwagon by offering it as an alternative milk option in select markets. Alternative milks have been around for years, but the recent boom of coconut water has a lot of folks—and companies—excited about coconut milk. Is this fledgling new trend worth following? The boom is rooted in the very real nutritional benefits coconuts have to offer. However, before we all go out and buy gallons of this product, produced and marketed as a dairy alternative, let’s get clear on exactly what “coconut milk” is and consider whether coconut milk really does have benefits.
Which Coconut Milk?
Traditional coconut milk is produced by soaking grated coconut flesh in hot water and then straining out the solids. The final product is often sold in a can and has about the same consistency as whole milk. There is a lot of fat in coconuts, so a layer of cream forms on top of the milk. Coconut cream sold in cartons and cans is simply this layer skimmed off and packaged separately—much the same as dairy cream.
The coconut milk marketed as a dairy alternative is produced by watering down the coconut milk described above and then adding sweeteners, stabilizers, and gums to create a flavor and consistency reminiscent of low-fat milk. These products are either sold boxed in aseptic packaging on the shelf or sold in the cold case much the same as traditional dairy. Unfortunately, traditional coconut milk and coconut milk beverage are both usually referred to simply as “coconut milk,” so it can be a bit confusing when talking about the two. Just know that for the remainder of this article I’ll be discussing the beverage, as it is the more popular product at the moment and the most similar to the other dairy alternatives commercially available.
Coconuts have gained “superfood” status in some nutritional circles mainly because of their medium chain triglyceride (MCT) content. MCTs are a type of saturated fat. But before you panic, keep in mind that an increasing body of research shows that perhaps not all sat fats are created equal. Some, such as lauric acid (the predominate fat in coconut milk) may have a positive impact on cholesterol. Research also indicates that the body digests them differently than the more common long chain triglycerides (LCT) that most fatty foods contain. The metabolic pathways used to digest MCTs are much simpler than those necessary for the more complex LCTs, which means that MCTs can be turned into energy more immediately and more efficiently. The end result has been observed as increased metabolism, which of course can lead to weight loss, increased energy, and perhaps improved athletic performance.
Coconut milk beverages usually contain 3–5 grams of fat per serving, which isn’t much compared to the 14 grams available in just 1 Tbsp. of coconut oil (another very popular product at the moment). However, since there’s so much chatter on both sides of the dairy fat debate, one might argue that the benefits of coconut fats makes this a great alternative to dairy in and of itself.
Where’s the Protein?
While coconut milk does provide high-quality fats, it provides absolutely no protein. Yep, zero grams of protein per serving. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad beverage, but it is an important consideration for those using it as a milk replacement on a regular basis. An 8 oz glass of milk contains 8 grams of complete protein. Given that most Americans consume more than enough, even too much, protein, this is probably not a major concern, but those switching to coconut milk lattes at Starbucks should be aware that their beverage, which used to have up to 20 grams of protein (depending on size) will now have a protein content of zero.
Like all dairy alternatives, coconut milk beverages taste like their main ingredient. I love the flavor of coconuts, but some absolutely detest it. Producers do what they can to mask the flavor in some products, but this is often achieved through using natural and artificial flavorings. Also assume that unless stated specifically on the label, that there is at least some sweetener (usually sugar) added to these products. In the end, most products contain a similar amount of sugar as a glass of milk (10–15 grams per serving).
Coconut Milk’s Final Report Card
Given its quality fat content and creamy consistency, there’s plenty to like about coconut milk. Sure, it doesn’t provide any protein, but there are plenty of ways to get protein into one’s diet. Those looking to reduce their dairy intake will probably have no problem integrating moderate amounts into diets and recipes. Give it a try. See how you feel.