|April 10, 2014
Going coocoo nuts over CocoNUTS
By Kelly Copher – Montana State Dietetic Intern, CSKT Tribal Health Department
Coconut product use is on the rage! From coconut water to coconut flour, coconut products have been stocking more shelves at supermarkets and are being seen in both restaurant and home recipes. Specifically, coconut milk use has been on the rise. Fortunately, it has been discovered as a useful ingredient for many of those with restricted diets or food intolerances. Even those without restrictions are diving into the rich, creamy flavor that coconut milk can add to a simple dish. But is this trendy ingredient a healthy choice?
While that creamy goodness may be making a positive impact on our taste buds, frequent use of coconut milk may come with health consequences. Once used only for Asian dishes, coconut milk has been known as a high calorie, high fat food with a single one cup serving containing 552 calories and 51 grams of saturated fat!1 Saturated fat is the kind of fat that raises our LDL or “bad” cholesterol and is a contributor to heart disease. It is primarily found in animal products such as butter and meat, however, it is also found in two plant based products – palm oil and coconut oil (which the milk contains). The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats make up only 7 percent of our daily calorie intake or about 140 calories and 16 grams.2 That means one serving of coconut milk is providing about 3 times the amount of our daily saturated fat allowance (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet). But, some scientists claim coconut milk saturated fat is unique. While saturated fats are typically made up of long chain fatty acids, coconut milk’s is composed of medium chain fatty acids.1 Does the length of the chain really make a difference? The jury’s still out and it depends what aspect of health we are talking about. Some research suggests that medium chain fatty acids boost metabolism and in effect promote weight loss, but it has not been proven.1 More importantly, there is no proof that a medium chain allows saturated fat to have less of a negative effect on our hearts. Dr. Karol Watson, a professor of cardiology at UCLA Medical Center said in a statement that “every study on the subject links saturated fats, regardless of how short or long chain they are, with heart disease.” Watson also adds, “When it comes to fat, saturated is saturated.”3
Luckily, this ever popular ingredient has been extremely slimmed down to a lighter version with about 70 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat per one cup serving (brands can vary).1 That’s a 6.89 percent decrease in calories and 11.75 percent decrease in saturated fat; what a difference! However, remember to still be conscious of the serving size and the amount you are consuming in a day. Just because it is a lighter version doesn’t mean you should go overboard. Can’t find the lighter version at your local grocery store? Not a problem. Try adding ¼ teaspoon of coconut extract to one cup low fat or fat free cow’s milk.4
So how does coconut milk shape up to the traditional cow’s milk or even other milk alternatives? Like other sources, coconut milk is fortified with Vitamin D and other important nutrients. Unfortunately, it only contains one-third the amount of calcium of both cow and soy milk and zero protein.1 While it wouldn’t be recommended to replace your main sources of calcium with coconut milk, especially for children, it’s a great option for those who need to eliminate lactose or dairy from their diet. Coconut milk can be easily substituted for whole milk or cream in recipes. Additionally, the lighter version can be used just like low fat dairy milk.
Bottom line? Follow the cardinal rule of nutrition – everything in moderation. Depending on your nutritional goals or needs, coconut milk may just be what you’ve always been looking for. However, even when using the light version, keep your portion control in check to maintain heart health.
1 Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter. Should You Join the Switch from Dairy Milk? 2013; 31(7): 4-5.
2 American Heart Association. Saturated Fats. Click here.
3 Los Angeles Times. Got Coconut Milk? Click here Published March 2010. Accessed April 2014.
4 Consumer Reports on Health. On Your Mind: Coconut Meat and Coconut Milk. 2004; 16(12): 12.