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Updated 01 February 2016

Why coconut milk may not be so good for you

Currently coconut milk is all the rage. DietDoc highlights the pros and cons of this new 'elixir of health'.

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I am always interested in what I call "food enthusiasms", generally known as “food crazes”. With monotonous regularity one or other food or group of foods becomes wildly popular and is touted as an “Elixir of Youth or Health”. As a species, we have been looking for such an elixir since the beginning of time.

All the rage

Currently coconut milk is all the rage. When our local newspaper did a full page feature on recipes featuring coconut milk late last year, it became clear that this tropical liquid has become extremely popular in South Africa – and that I was looking at the latest “food enthusiasm”.

What is coconut milk?

Coconut milk is not the liquid contained in a raw coconut, but a product made by grating or shredding the white meat found inside, adding it to hot (not boiling)water and thoroughly blending the mixture. The mixture is then drained through a colander to remove the shredded coconut meat and finally filtered through cheese cloth. Home-made coconut milk should be used immediately or stored in a fridge for not more than 3-4 days.

Commercially produced coconut milk can also be purchased in supermarkets.

Why is coconut milk so popular?

The popularity of coconut milk has spiralled due to the fact that people with proven or self-diagnosed milk intolerance and allergies have recently started to use coconut milk as a substitute for cow’s or goat’s milk. It has also gained favour among Paleo dieters, who aren't allowed milk and dairy products, as well as those who follow the Banting diet since Tim Noakes backtracked on dairy.

Read: Things to know about Paleo

Coconut milk is, therefore, the new “elixir” of the rich and indulgent section of the population. In the present economic climate many South Africans are not able to afford cow’s or goat’s milk or other dairy products, much less coconut milk, which is usually imported from tropical countries.

The negative aspects of coconut milk

Like everything in life, coconut milk does have some drawbacks, namely:

- Coconut milk has a high saturated fat content. One cup of coconut milk can contain up to 40g of saturated fat. Consuming large quantities of coconut milk may, therefore, raise blood fat levels and increase the risk of heart disease, particularly in susceptible populations as found in South Africa.

- Coconut milk can cause allergies because although coconuts are classified as “drupes”, they can have the same effect as tree nuts. In extreme cases, drinking coconut milk could be fatal if you have a tree nut allergy.

Read: Nut allergy alert

- Coconut milk has a high energy content of 230 kcal or 966 kJ/100 ml, so consuming a 240 ml cup of this liquid will add 552 kcal or 2,318 kJ to your daily energy intake. This represents 27,6% of your daily energy requirement if you are not trying to lose weight and 36,8% if you are on a slimming diet! If you are on a weight loss diet, you need to consider if having one cup of coconut milk which contains more than a quarter of your daily energy allowance, is beneficial or not.

- Even unsweetened coconut milk contains 8g of sugar per 250 ml cup. This can contribute to weight gain and raised triglyceride levels in the blood.

- The sugar in coconut milk contains fructose which can cause fructose malabsorption, a condition that affects 40% of western populations. The negative effects of excessive fructose intake have been the topic of a number of previous articles and include weight gain, hypertriglyceridaemia, fatty liver disease and gout. In addition, coconut milk has been classified as a FODMAP food (Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Monosaccharides and Polyols), which exacerbates Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), autoimmune conditions that are becoming more and more common worldwide. If you find that you develop flatulence, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation, vomiting and fatigue when using coconut milk, then you may need to avoid this new food craze.

- Commercial coconut milk is sold in cans which may increase your exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA leaches out of the linings of cans into foods that are rich in acid, salt or fat. Coconut milk with its high fat content could, therefore, be a source of BPA in the diet unless the products you buy are sold in cans with special linings that prevent leaching.

Read: What is Bisphenol A (BPA)?

- Canned coconut milk also contains a substance called guar gum. This is a so-called polysaccharide that can cause digestive problems in patients with IBS, IBD, and other gastrointestinal problems. If you make your own coconut milk you can of course avoid exposure to BPA and guar gum. 

Potential calcium deficiency

If you are lactose intolerant or have a proven milk allergy, you may be using coconut milk as a substitute for cow’s milk. This could lead to a calcium deficiency.

Read: Signs of calcium deficiency

The calcium content of coconut milk is only 38,4 mg/240 ml cup or 3% of the Nutrient Reference Value (NRV) for calcium. Low-fat (2%) cow’s milk contains 305 mg of calcium/250 ml or 23,5% of the NRV – that is nearly 8 times more calcium per cup than coconut milk.

In other words, if you are lactose intolerant or have a milk protein allergy and cannot drink cow’s milk, and are substituting coconut milk for cow’s milk, you will not ingest sufficient calcium on a daily basis to maintain strong bones and teeth or support the growth of strong bones and teeth in infants, children, teenagers, and young women. Pregnant or lactating women should also take care to include other sources of calcium, such as calcium-enriched soya milk in their diet if they are unable to drink cow’s milk or use dairy products.

Moderate your intake of coconut milk

If you are a coconut milk fanatic, the general consensus is that it is safer to make your own product than to buy the milk in cans. Remember to consume the fresh coconut milk within 3-4 days of storage in a fridge as it could go bad.

Moderation is once again the key, because even home-made coconut milk is rich in energy which can cause weight gain; it has a high saturated fat content that can affect your blood fat levels and may cause heart disease; and the high sugar (fructose) content can contribute to weight gain and hypertriglyceridaemia.

Read: Any added sugar is bad sugar

As a substitute for cow’s milk it is lacking in calcium and would require some other source of calcium to be added to the diet. If you suffer from any sort of digestive upset or diagnosed fructose intolerance, it is advisable to avoid coconut milk altogether.

Read more:

Coconut meat, milk: healthy or not?

7 reasons to use coconut oil

Coconut – the 'fruit of life'

References:

- Gov Gazette (2010). Nutrient reference values (NRVs). Regulations relating to the labelling  & advertising of foods. No. R 146. Published on 1 March 2010. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectant Act. 1972 (Act 54 of 1972).

- Kresser C (2011) 3 Reasons why coconut milk may not be your friend. Published 9 June 20111.

- Seedguides (2015). Coconut milk: benefits, side effects, nutrition and facts. 

- Nutrition Data (2015). Nuts, coconut mil, raw (liquid expressed from grated meat and water). nut-and-seed-products/3113/2.

- Style Craze (2015). 10 Side effects of coconut milk. Published on 25 March 2015.

- Wolmarans P et al (2010). Condensed Food Composition Tables for SA. Medical Research Council, Parow Valley, Cape Town.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.

 
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