Think coconut milk and images of chilly piña coladas, spicy fish curries and sarong-clad super-buff, gorgeous Polynesians scaling coconut trees come to mind. I'm just saying. Coconut milk smells wonderful and from a pure culinary perspective is a great way to add flavor and richness to many dishes. Coconut is widely used in many cuisines of the world, including Indian, Thai and most Polynesian cultures. Coconut milk is also fraught with nutritional controversy.
The skinny or not so skinny on coconut milk
Coconut milk is very high in fat with about 550 calories per 8 ounce cup, 85-90% coming from saturated fat. The saturated fat in coconut milk comes from medium chain triglycerides. Saturated fat from coconut milk is different from most animal-based saturated fats in that it is chemically made up primarily from lauric and mystric acid, where as most animal based saturated fat comes from palmitic acid. I know it is confusing that coconut milk does not contain much "palmitic" acid.
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Impact on cholesterol
Studies are far from conclusive. Some studies do show that coconut milk increases LDL (bad cholesterol), and other studies show it increases HDL (good cholesterol.) One of the conundrums of the coconut controversy is the low rate of heart disease in traditional Polynesian and Thai cultures. These cultures consume large quantities of coconut, yet have some of the lowest rates of heart disease on the planet. Like the cultures that consume Mediterranean diets, these coconut-consuming cultures also eat lots of fish, fruits and vegetables. The bottom line is we don't know.
The coconut advocates
The advocates of coconut milk, including many who adhere to paleo diets, claim the medium chain tryglycerides are used by the body quickly and not stored as fat. Advocates of coconut milk have a long list of its benefits, some scientifically sound and others less proven. Google "health benefits of coconut" and you will find coconut pretty much heals whatever ails you.
The coconut minimalists
The coconut minimalists say saturated fat is saturated fat and not your best pick for regular consumption.
Where the two perspectives meet
Despite the controversy, no one says not to consume coconut. Where people differ is on how much coconut to consume. If you ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room (coconut milk is 85% saturated fat) coconut is rich in fiber, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc and phosphorous.
Lite vs. regular coconut milk
Traditionally lite coconut milk comes from a second or third press. Today, lite coconut products may just be regular coconut milk with added water and possibly flour. Lite coconut milk has a reputation for lacking flavor, or worse, having a bad taste. From both a flavor and cost stand point you are better off buying regular coconut milk and adding water to thin than buying the diluted and less tasty "lite" version.
One more coconut downer -- Bisphenol-A (BPA)
It would be best if we could all buy fresh coconut milk. While many brands of canned coconut milk have only one listed ingredient, coconut milk, the linings of the cans contain BPA. BPA is ubiquitous in the modern world and virtually impossible to avoid. It is also linked to a variety of diseases and maladies including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, infertility and ADHD. Canned foods that are high in fat and acid are particularly good at leaching the BPA from the can lining into the food. So like canned tomatoes, canned coconut milk is likely giving you a spike of BPA. It is hard to say how significant this spike is considering the preponderance of BPA in both our consumable and non-consumable products.
Good news! A great tasting BPA-free coconut milk.
Aroy-D now makes a BPA-free coconut milk that tastes great and has a delicious, fresh aroma. It comes in great 8.5 ounce milk carton-like containers, as well as larger 33 ounce container. If you don't have a local Thai market, you can buy Aroy-D coconut milk at Amazon. Just make sure you buy the cartons and not the cans.
My take on the coconut controversy
Coconut is a wonderful culinary ingredient. Heart disease is not a big risk in my family so I am less worried about coconut milk's potential risks or benefits. I eat it in moderation and enjoy every bite (and the images coconut evokes). Two of my favorite coconut milk recipes are Puamana coconut rice and Mango and yogurt breakfast jars.