Coconut milk is a healthy alternative to cow’s milk. It comes from the white flesh of mature brown coconuts, which are the fruit of the coconut tree. Coconut milk is an opaque, white liquid extracted from the meat of a mature coconut.
The traditional method for making coconut milk involves grating coconut meat, mixing it with hot water, and pressing the liquid through a cheesecloth. This process produces a rich, fatty liquid known as coconut cream. Coconut cream can be further processed into coconut oil or pressed again to make coconut milk. Commercially processed coconut milk, the kind you’ll find in cans at the grocery store, is grated and pressed mechanically, and often stabilized with the addition of guar gum.
Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines commonly include this milk. It’s also popular in Hawaii, India and certain South American and Caribbean countries.
Coconut milk should not be confused with coconut water, which is found naturally in immature green coconuts.
Unlike coconut water, the milk does not occur naturally. Instead, solid coconut flesh is mixed with water to make coconut milk, which is about 50% water. Coconut water is about 94% water. It contains much less fat and far fewer nutrients than coconut milk.
About 93% of its calories come from fat, including saturated fats known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). The milk is also a good source of several vitamins and minerals. One cup contains:
- Calories: 552
- Fat: 57 grams
- Protein: 5 grams
- Carbs: 13 grams
- Fiber: 5 grams
- Vitamin C: 11% of the RDI
- Folate: 10% of the RDI
- Iron: 22% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 22% of the RDI
- Potassium: 18% of the RDI
- Copper: 32% of the RDI
- Manganese: 110% of the RDI
- Selenium: 21% of the RDI
Coconut milk is classified as either thick or thin based on consistency and how much it’s processed.
- Thick: Solid coconut flesh is finely grated and either boiled or simmered in water. The mixture is then strained through cheesecloth to produce thick coconut milk.
- Thin: After making thick coconut milk, the grated coconut remaining in the cheesecloth is simmered in water. The straining process is then repeated to produce thin milk.
In traditional cuisines, thick coconut milk is used in desserts and thick sauces. Thin milk is used in soups and thin sauces.
Most canned coconut milk contains a combination of thin and thick milk. It’s also very easy to make your own coconut milk at home.
There’s some evidence that the MCT fats in coconut milk may benefit weight loss, body composition and metabolism. Lauric acid makes up about 50% of coconut oil. It can be classified as both a long-chain fatty acid or a medium-chain, as its chain length and metabolic effects are intermediate between the two. Coconut oil also contains 12% true medium-chain fatty acids, capric acid and caprylic acid.
Unlike longer-chain fats, MCTs go from the digestive tract directly to your liver, where they’re used for energy or ketone production. They are less likely to be stored as fat.
Research also suggests that MCTs may help reduce appetite and decrease calorie intake compared to other fats. MCTs can boost calorie expenditure and fat burning, at least temporarily.
Coconut milk may also:
- Reduce inflammation: Animal studies found that coconut extract and coconut oil reduced inflammation and swelling in injured rats and mice.
- Decrease stomach ulcer size: In one study, coconut milk reduced stomach ulcer size in rats by 54%, a result comparable to the effect of an anti-ulcer drug.
- Fight viruses and bacteria: Test-tube studies suggest that lauric acid may reduce the levels of viruses and bacteria that cause infections. This includes those that reside in your mouth.
Unless you’re allergic to coconuts, the milk is unlikely to have adverse effects. Compared to tree nut and peanut allergies, coconut allergies are relatively rare.
Many canned varieties also contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that can leach from can linings into food. BPA has been linked to reproductive problems and cancer in animal and human studies.
How to Buy
- Read the label: Whenever possible, choose a product that contains only coconut and water.
- Choose BPA-free cans: Purchase coconut milk from companies that use BPA-free cans, such as Native Forest and Natural Value.
- Use cartons: Unsweetened coconut milk in cartons usually contains less fat and fewer calories than canned options.
- Make your own: For the freshest, healthiest coconut milk, make your own by blending 1.5–2 cups of unsweetened shredded coconut with 4 cups of hot water, then strain through a cheesecloth.
How to Store
Unopened, sealed containers of coconut milk can last several months, but opened coconut milk cans and cartons do go bad. Fresh, homemade coconut milk lasts up to five days in the refrigerator when properly stored in an airtight container. Glass jars work well. You will know that your coconut milk is bad if it smells foul, tastes sour, appears grey, or if you see the presence of mold or curdles
- At room temperature: An unopened can of coconut milk can be stored at room temperature for several months. For the best results, store canned coconut milk in a cool, dark place, such as a cupboard or pantry. Some cartons of coconut milk are also shelf-stable and can be stored in a cool, dark place for several months or until the expiration date on the carton.
- In the refrigerator: If you purchase a carton of coconut milk from the refrigerated section of a grocery store, it is likely not shelf-stable. Store your carton in the fridge until the posted expiration date and use coconut milk within seven to ten days of opening it. Store leftover canned coconut milk in a glass jar or airtight container in the fridge and use it within five days.
- In the freezer: Coconut milk can be frozen for long-term storage. Keep in mind that frozen coconut milk will take on a grainy texture and lose some of its flavor when defrosted. To freeze coconut milk, measure out recipe-sized portions of coconut milk and add them to individual plastic freezer bags. Lay the bags flat in the freezer until completely frozen. To thaw, place a bag of coconut milk in the refrigerator overnight. Alternatively, coconut milk can be frozen in ice cube trays. Defrost frozen cubes of coconut milk directly in soups, stews, or Thai curries, or add frozen cubes directly to smoothies.
How to Cook
- Include a couple of tablespoons in your coffee.
- Add half a cup to a smoothie or protein shake.
- Pour a small amount over berries or sliced papaya.
- Add a few tablespoons to oatmeal or other cooked cereal.