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Coconut Milk Versus Cow's Milk

Which milk is best for you will depend on what your nutritional priorities and needs are.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
May 16, 2017
Episode #430

Coconut milk has become one of the most popular nondairy milk options, and it’s one that wasn’t even on the radar when I did my original comparison of non-dairy milks back in 2009. So, today, I’m going to do a head-to-head comparison between cow’s milk and coconut milk.  As you’ll see, it’s impossible to declare one as the clear winner—which one is best for you will depend on what your priorities and individual needs are.

How Is Coconut Milk Made?

All coconut milk products, whether in cans or cartons, are made by grating the meat of the coconut and pressing it to extract the liquid.  If left to sit, the coconut oil will separate and rise to the top, the same way that the cream will rise to the top of unhomogenized milk. The fat content can then be adjusted by skimming off some of the fat and/or adding water to thin it.  

You’ll find canned coconut milk in two varieties: regular and light. Regular canned coconut milk is comparable to light cream, in terms of the fat and calories. Light canned coconut milk is closer to the fat and calorie content of whole milk. Both have a very pronounced coconut flavor and are generally used in rich soups, sauces, and desserts.

The coconut milk that you’ll find in cartons is much more diluted than canned coconut milk.  Small amounts of salt, sugar, and other flavorings are usually added, along with various gums or gels that act as emulsifiers to keep it from separating.  Calcium and vitamin D are also added in order to make the nutritional profile closer to that of dairy milk.

You’ll also find coconut-based creamers, designed to be used in coffee and other hot beverages.  These are less diluted. They contain emulsifiers but usually don’t have added calcium or vitamin D.  

In the following table, you can see how coconut milk and creamer compare with cow’s milk and half and half, nutritionally speaking.  As you can see, plain unsweetened coconut milk has only about half as many calories as skim milk.  However, coconut milk contains no protein, compared with about 8 grams per serving with cow’s milk. Coconut milk is also very low in carbohydrates, while milk has about 12 grams of carbohydrates per serving in the form of lactose, or milk sugar. 

So, if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins, coconut milk offers a clear advantage.  If you’re trying to include more protein in your meals, coconut milk will be of little help there.

Cow’s Milk versus Coconut Milk

Is Coconut Oil Healthier than Butterfat?

Virtually all of the calories in coconut milk products come from fat—and virtually all of that fat is saturated. By comparison, about half of the fat in cow’s milk is saturated and half is unsaturated.

There is quite a debate about whether or not the saturated fats in coconut milk are good or bad for you.  I've unpacked this issue in previous episodes, most recently How does coconut oil affect your cholesterol? (Ep #271).  In this case, however, because coconut milk beverages are relatively low in fat, I’m not sure it really matters either way.

Is Coconut Milk a Better Nondairy Option?

Coconut milk is, obviously, a plant-based food. For those who do not wish to consume animal products, coconut milk would certainly fit the bill. However, other plant-based milks may offer some nutritional advantages over coconut milk. Soymilk, for example, contains high quality protein. Hemp milk contains omega-3 fatty acids. Oat milk contains fiber. (Coconut milk contains none of these nutrients).

See also: What’s the best non-dairy milk?

The bottom line is that choosing cow’s milk, coconut milk, or any of the other nondairy options will depend on your nutritional and other priorities, not to mention your taste preferences.   If you’re someone who does not enjoy the taste of coconut, coconut milk or creamer will probably not be your favorite. But if you're a fan, it may be just the thing!

What do you put on your cereal or in your coffee? Post your favorite below or on the podcast’s new Facebook page.  Did you know you can get all my nutrition tips while you're on the go? Subscribe to the Nutrition Diva podcast on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or wherever you listen and you'll never miss and episode!

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