After reading my post about the best plant-based milks, a health-conscious Lady Moxy reader asked me what I thought about coconut milk. “Great question,” I replied, “I’ll do some research.” Commercially-processed coconut products burst onto the American supermarket scene in various forms, starting with coconut water in 2004. Today, we can also purchase coconut milk, coconut oil, coconut yogurt, and coconut frozen dessert. The pervasiveness of coconut-based products begs the question, “Are these coconut products healthy?” Is there any science behind the coconut craze that touts its health benefits?
Here’s a true story that got me thinking about whether coconut products are healthy long before writing this blog post. At the time, I was consulting to a San Francisco-based bakery where I had a front row seat to large-scale ingredient purchases. One of the popular oils used in this bakery was coconut oil. I learned that an industrial-sized quantity of coconut oil is delivered in a 55-gallon metal drum. Inside the drum, the coconut oil is completely solid. In order to make the solid oil usable, it needs to be melted using a heating band that works like an electric blanket.
Fats that are solid at room temperature, like coconut oil, are saturated fats. Saturated fats are not considered healthy fats. I wondered: did this apply to coconut oil, too?
How Healthy is Coconut Oil?
In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) maintained its long-standing recommendation to replace saturated fats, including coconut oil, with mono-unsaturated fats (olive and avocado oil) and poly-unsaturated fats (safflower, grapeseed and flaxseed oil).
In seven randomized controlled trials, the AHA found that coconut oil, like other saturated fats, raised LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol that’s raises the risk of clogged arteries, heart disease, and stroke.
But What About the Alleged Coconut Oil Health Claims?
The health claims circling on the internet are based on studies of coconut oil made with a special formulation that consists of 100% medium-chain triglycerides; this type of coconut oil is NOT available in supermarkets.
The coconut oil found in grocery stores is rich in lauric acid which does tend to raise HDL, the beneficial cholesterol. Although this offsets the increased LDL, there is not sufficient evidence to claim that coconut oil is a healthy fat. To date, the science indicates that coconut oil should be consumed sparingly.
Side Note: The keto diet includes a high percentage of saturated fat, including coconut oil. Studies indicate that some people do lose weight and reverse diabetes. What is unclear however, are the long-term effects with regard to high cholesterol and heart disease. If you are experimenting with the keto diet, seek the guidance of your doctor who can request regular blood tests.
Understanding the fat content of coconut oil sets the stage for a review of coconut milk that’s made from water and coconut cream.
Coconut cream that’s used for cooking is high in calories and saturated fat. However, when coconut cream is used to make coconut milk, it’s mixed with filtered water, thus lowering the calories and fat content.
Coconut milk lacks protein; this is not an issue for many of us who probably consume too much protein anyway. As with any plant-based beverage, it’s best to purchase unsweetened varieties that are made without added sugars. Avoid brands made with natural flavors, gums, and carrageenan. Look for brands with added nutrients, and low sodium content.
How Healthy is Coconut Milk?
Coconut milk has not been studied extensively like coconut oil; therefore, there’s not much scientific or medical data.
But given its high saturated fat content, 4 grams or more per cup depending on the brand, my recommendation is to be mindful of your daily intake especially if you’re concerned about high cholesterol and heart disease.
When marketers dubbed coconut water, “Mother Nature’s sports drink,” they created a multi-billion-dollar worldwide sales category. Coconut water reached elite status in the food world with the promise of hydration, and the claims to help a host of medical conditions.
What’s the truth about coconut water?
Coconut water does hydrate. Plain unsweetened coconut water is best. Coconut water provides a rich source of potassium, an electrolyte. If you have kidney disease however, consumption of beverages and foods high in potassium, including coconut water, should be limited.
Current research does not support the hype that coconut water is beneficial for kidney stones, cancer, hangovers, etc.
Unless you are engaging in prolonged strenuous exercise for more than three hours, plain water and a quick source of healthful food energy is a perfect substitute.
Here’s the front-of-package marketing: vegan, plant-based, and dairy-free, now with coconut as the base ingredient.
But buyer beware, the ingredient line and nutrition label provide the telling details. In addition to the saturated fat content, many coconut yogurts include less healthy ingredients such as added sugars, starches, and gums.
And, unlike dairy-based yogurts, coconut yogurt doesn’t offer the option to reduce saturated fat intake with nonfat, or lower fat varieties. This is not a deal-breaker, just something to be aware of.
Coconut Frozen Desserts
The biggest issue with coconut frozen desserts is the significant level of saturated fat, often with a % Daily Value as high as 65 – 80% per serving.
Most coconut frozen desserts have ingredient lines with added gums, sugars, and starches — all a denigration of the purported health halo.
Even frozen coconut desserts with a “No Sugar Added” label on the front are worthy of a second look. Research on sugar substitutes such as sugar alcohols (erythritol), stevia, and monk fruit is not conclusive, but there’s speculation that these non-sugar sweeteners may cause cravings for sweets, and alter taste perception.
Bottom line: relegate coconut frozen desserts to occasional treat status.
Conclusion – How Healthy Are Coconut Products?
There’s nothing like a 55-gallon drum of solid coconut oil to make you think twice about this saturated fat, and by extension, coconut products.
Studies suggest that coconut oil should be used sparingly in cooking and baking.
Scientific data related to other coconut products (water, milk, yogurt, frozen dessert) don’t provide clear evidence one way or another. However, on a per serving basis, the amount of saturated fat is high — the exception being coconut water.
If the coconut products you consume include added sugars, gums, starches, and natural flavors, that isn’t healthful.
If your cholesterol is high or if heart disease is a concern, limit coconut products. Remember to consult with your doctor if you’re on the keto diet.
If high potassium levels are an issue and/or you suffer from kidney disease, limit your intake of coconut water.
Otherwise, moderate consumption of coconut products is fine.
Thank you to the Lady Moxy reader who spurred the creation of this blog post.
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