Coconut Milk Nutrition: Benefits, Risks, Recipes and More

Coconut milk offers minerals and can be a good replacement in sweet treats, but it's also high in saturated fat.
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Coconut milk is a showcase ingredient in several recipes, and you might even use a splash of it in your morning coffee. Its creaminess makes it delicious and satisfying, and it can even be used as a more nutritious alternative to sweeteners when added sparingly to drinks or desserts.

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While this creamy staple also provides essential minerals, coconut milk is also high in saturated fat, so aim to enjoy it in moderation.

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Coconut Milk Nutrition Facts

One tablespoon of full-fat canned coconut milk is equal to a single serving. One tablespoon of coconut milk contains:

  • Calories​: 30
  • Total fat​: 3.2 g
    • Saturated fat​: 2.8 g
    • Trans fat​: 0 g
  • Cholesterol​: 0 mg
  • Sodium​: 2 mg
  • Total carbs​: 0.4 g
    • Dietary fiber​: 0 g
    • Sugar​: 0 g
  • Protein​: 0.3 g

Coconut Milk Macros

  • Total fat​: One tablespoon of coconut milk has 3.2 grams of total fat, which includes 0.035 grams of polyunsaturated fat, 0.136 grams of monounsaturated fat, 2.8 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.
  • Carbohydrates​: One tablespoon of coconut milk has 0.4 grams of carbs, which includes 0 grams of fiber and 0.5 grams of naturally occurring sugars.
  • Protein​: One tablespoon of coconut milk has 0.3 grams of protein.

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Vitamins, Minerals and Other Micronutrients

  • Manganese​: 5% DV
  • Copper​: 4% DV
  • Iron​: 3% DV

Light Coconut Milk Nutrition

Low-fat coconut milk has fewer calories and fat. One tablespoon has:

  • Calories​: 11
  • Total fat​: 1 g
    • Saturated fat​: 0.9 g
    • Trans fat​: 0 g
  • Cholesterol​: 0 mg
  • Sodium​: 1 mg
  • Total carbs​: 0.2 g
    • Dietary fiber​: 0 g
    • Sugar​: 0 g
  • Protein​: 0 g

Health Benefits of Coconut Milk

1. Coconut Milk Contains Potentially Healthy Fats

The fats in coconut milk are somewhat complicated: While coconut milk is rich in saturated fat, which can be harmful in high amounts, it contains a particular type of saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs) that may have some benefits.

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MCTs are linked to weight loss because the body can use these fats as fuel instead of storing them as body fat, per Food Insight. But take the claims about MCTs helping with heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's with a grain of salt: Current research hasn't shown any conclusive evidence that MCTs have benefits for any of these conditions.

"Coconut milk is not a health food that you should have every day because of its saturated fat, but it is true that when you have it, you may get some of those benefits from fatty acids — including potential anti-inflammation, immune-boosting and gut health benefits," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD.

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As always, moderation is key. Replacing foods high in saturated fat with produce, legumes and whole grains can reduce your cholesterol levels, per the American Heart Association.

"Olive oil, avocado oil or omega-3 fats from fish are more slam-dunk heart-healthy fats," Blatner says.

2. Coconut Milk Provides Essential Minerals

With each tablespoon of coconut milk — say, the amount you'd add to a cup of coffee — you'll get 5 percent of your daily value of manganese, 4 percent of the DV of copper and 3 percent of the DV of iron.

Manganese is an essential mineral that plays an important role in several processes, including antioxidant function, metabolism, bone development and wound healing, per the Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute.

Meanwhile, copper helps with your metabolism, red blood cell production and neurotransmitter regulation, per Harvard Health Publishing.

Iron is important for creating hemoglobin (a chemical that carries oxygen in your red blood cells) and myoglobin (a protein in muscle cells) and is also needed to activate specific enzymes and make amino acids, collagen, neurotransmitters and hormones.

3. Coconut Milk Can Be Used as a Sugar Replacement

Because coconut milk is high in fat, it provides a rich and decadent flavor to recipes or a morning cup of coffee. This can be helpful if you're trying to cut back on added sugar (for instance, that white chocolate mocha creamer you've been using).

"Coconut milk is awesome for somebody who is struggling with a sweet tooth because one good way to remove sugar from your diet is to increase fat so you get satisfaction from that instead," Blatner says. "Satisfaction from fat is better because it's more satiating and it doesn't send your blood sugar on a rollercoaster."

Sweets can spike blood sugar and then result in a crash — especially when they contain added sugar, which usually isn't paired with other nutrients and fiber that might otherwise slow down its absorption into the bloodstream, per Harvard Health Publishing.

And it may not be great for your heart: Getting 17 to 21 percent of your total calories from added sugar is linked to a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease (versus getting 8 percent of your calories from added sugar), per an April 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Added sugar can contribute to extra pounds and reduced heart health, per the American Heart Association.

Is Coconut Milk Dairy-Free?

Despite its name, coconut milk is different from dairy milk. As a non-dairy product, coconut milk is free of lactose (a type of sugar found in milk). Because it's not derived from the milk of animals, coconut milk can be a good alternative for people on a lactose-free diet.

Coconut Milk Health Risks

Saturated Fat

Just a tablespoon of coconut milk contains 2.8 grams of saturated fat, or 14 percent of your DV. That can add up quickly, especially if you're using coconut milk in recipes or adding more than a splash of it to your coffee.

"Coconut products tend to have high amounts of saturated fat, so this is not a health food you should eat whenever you want, like strawberries or spinach," Blatner says.

Saturated fat is considered one of the unhealthy fats, along with trans fat, because it can raise your heart disease risk by causing cholesterol to build up in your blood vessels and raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Too much fat intake, in general, can also contribute to weight gain because fats contain 9 calories per gram, which is more than twice the amount found in protein and carbohydrates.

Aim to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories, or about 16 to 22 grams per day on a 2,000 calorie diet.

IBS Symptoms

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic condition that affects the large intestine and can cause symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, bloating, gas and constipation, per the Mayo Clinic. These symptoms may be triggered by stress, hormones or food.

A high amount of fat — like that found in coconut milk — can trigger IBS, and experts typically advise folks to avoid fatty foods to improve their symptoms.

Fat delays stomach emptying and speeds up how fast food moves through your small intestine, and people with IBS often report bloating after high-fat meals. People with IBS should limit overall fat intake to no more than 40 to 50 grams per day, according to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Drug Interactions

High-fat foods like coconut milk can alter the effects of certain drugs, including the following, per a widely cited March 2011 review in the Oman Medical Journal:

  • Theophylline (a bronchodilator used to treat the symptoms of asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema)
  • Cycloserine (an antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis and urinary tract infections)
  • Esomeprazole (a proton-pump inhibitor used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease)

Because the interactions between high-fat foods and drugs can vary widely, ask your doctor about when to take your medication and any potential drug interactions.

Allergies

Most people who are allergic to tree nuts can safely eat coconut. Even though the Food and Drug Administration recognizes coconut as a tree nut, it is classified botanically as a fruit.

If you're allergic to tree nuts, still speak to your allergist before adding coconut to your diet, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Coconut Milk Recipes

Coconut Milk Preparation and Helpful Tips

Coconut milk is called for in a variety of recipes, particularly curries, soups and sweets. Here's how to buy it and use it as part of a healthy diet.

Don't confuse it with coconut milk beverages (or coconut water).​ Real coconut milk is typically found in a can and is a thick liquid made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water, per Iowa State University Extension.

Meanwhile, the cartons of "coconut milk" you may find in the dairy aisle contain far more water and fewer calories and can be sipped on like a cup of milk.

Coconut water is the potassium-rich liquid found naturally inside an immature coconut that is often enjoyed as a sports drink.

Use light coconut milk as a substitute.​ Light coconut milk is simply a more watered-down version of full-fat coconut milk. While shredded coconut is steeped with hot water in a 1:1 ratio to make regular coconut milk, light coconut milk is made by steeping shredded coconut with hot water in a 1:2 ratio, per Iowa State University.

Enjoy it when you have a sweet tooth.​ Coconut milk can make a more nutritious replacement for high-sugar staples like ice cream or sweetened creamer. "Try whipped coconut milk as a whipped cream substitute, or try it in your coffee instead of adding sugar," Blatner says.

Alternatives to Coconut Milk

If a recipe calls for coconut milk, keep in mind that many other ingredients will have a much thinner consistency and therefore not serve as a true replacement. Regardless, some alternatives might be:

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