First and foremost: The coconut milk you now find in the dairy case next to the soy milk, cow’s milk, and nut milks is not like the one you find in a can down the center aisle near the soy sauce. Despite the name, canned and carton-ed coconut milks are two very different products with two very different purposes. When it comes to cooking, stick with the can. When it comes to drinking, it’s the refrigerated carton you’ll want to seek out.
The difference? Nutritionally speaking, it’s about 400 calories and 38g of saturated fat per cup, plus a slew of vitamins and minerals that are added into the refrigerated version during processing. From a culinary perspective, the difference is mainly water. And lots of it. To make the refrigerated version more drinkable, palatable, and comparable as a beverage alternative, manufacturers add water. So much so that it dilutes the calories from about 450 calories per cup to about 45. Whoa.
The good: It’s an option both for vegans and the ~65% of the population who suffer from some form of lactose intolerance.
The not-so-good: It’s very high in saturated fat—1 cup carries 0.5g more than a cup of whole milk. It’s also a poor source of protein, with less than 1g per cup (unlike cow’s milk, with a hearty 8g). Some varieties also have added sugars, gums, and thickeners, too.
There’s a hard-to-ignore obsession with all things coconut that’s currently sweeping the country. You know it’s a trend when Starbucks takes hold of something, where you can now opt for coconut milk as the steamed companion to your espresso or coffee in all things latte/mocha/cappuccino. Just be aware that your Grande Caffe Latte has the same amount of saturated fat as that buttery Morning Bun.
The buzz has to do with the type of fat found in coconut, which is different from that found in other plant and animal products. The oil found in coconut has been found to give “good” HDL cholesterol a boost, and we aren’t quite sure why. But we also aren’t quite sure whether or not it affects heart disease and weight management … and for that reason it’s best to drink this higher-fat alternative in moderation.
How the refrigerated version is made: The coconut fruit, or pulp, is first pressed to release its rich, flavorful cream (it is not the liquid found inside a coconut, as is often mistakenly assumed). Once pressed, the cream is blended with water, vitamins, minerals, thickeners or gums, and sometimes sugar.
Compared to cow’s milk (per 1 cup):
A few refrigerated coconut milk bonuses:
- Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk has no naturally occurring sugars, so it won’t send your blood sugar into a spike.
- A cup contains 50% of your daily Vitamin B12 needs (good news for vegans, since most B12 is found in animal products).
- How does it taste? Creamy and rich, with a tropical nuttiness that was quite prevalent—take this into consideration if you are looking for something more neutral. Our crew thought the flavor would be perfect in a smoothie, or a lovely complement to breakfast whole grains like shredded wheat, muesli, oatmeal, or quinoa.
Bottom line: Coconut milk is an easy-to-find lactose-free, vegan alternative to dairy milk. If moderation is not your forte, then beware—coconut milk has more saturated fat than whole milk, and also lacks the filling protein that comes with cow’s milk. It’s also important to be sure and read labels to know what you’re putting your money into … if you want the added sugars, fine. If not, choose unsweetened.