Coconut Milk, Our Tropical Treat

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For the last installment in our milk series, we thought it would be a good idea to dive into coconut milk. Plus, you might want to get an early start on celebrating World Coconut Day (Sept. 2). Even if you don’t celebrate, you may have noticed that this tropical beverage has grown quite a bit in popularity in the past few years, which may be rooted in the fact that it offers another alternative to cow’s milk.

Similar to almond and soy milk, coconut milk sales are expected to continue to increase in coming years. A recent report has projected the market for coconut milk will grow 7.5 percent annually by the year 2023. It looks like coconuts are useful for way more than just coconut cream pies and piña coladas, but how is coconut milk made?

Where the Milk Begins

The coconut is a tropical tree species grown and harvested mainly by small-scale farmers. Its success depends largely on ample water availability, but they are also able to grow in a wide variety of soils. Coconuts are farmed in more than 90 countries, with the top four producers being Indonesia, Philippines, India and Brazil. While coconuts grow in many countries, their natural habitats are on coastal areas and the fringes of deserts, where rainfall and humidity are likely to be high.

Coconuts are not really nuts at all; they are fruits in the drupe or “stone fruit” family, which also includes apricots, cherries and peaches. The coconut kernel (also called the “copra”) and water are two edible parts that form the foundational ingredients for a variety of coconut products, including coconut water, oil, cream and, of course, coconut milk.

Crack the “Nut,” Get the Milk

Specifically for coconut milk and cream production, coconuts must mature to between 10 and 13 months, when the coconut kernel is hard and thick. Both the milk and the cream are considered natural oil-in-water emulsions that are extracted from mature coconut kernels, which have their husks and shells removed. In integrated coconut processing plants, the by-product coconut water is also collected by drilling the coconut before deshelling, or halving the coconuts after deshelling.

After being deshelled, the coconut’s thin, brown skin is removed until the white kernel is exposed. The kernel is then washed, drained and mechanically grated into kernel flakes that are pressed to extract the coconut milk. To manipulate the fat and oil levels in the final product, one can alternate the amount of water added to the flakes during the extraction process.

After extraction, coconut milk is filtered to remove large contaminants. In its final step of production, coconut milk is pasteurized and aseptically filled into packages—sterilized to be shelf-stable and require no refrigeration—and then transported to be sold.

The final composition of coconut milk depends on the type of coconut kernel used, the coconut’s maturity level (older ones have higher oil content) and growing conditions, as well as whether the brown skin has been removed from the kernel. Not removing it during processing can yield a more bitter-tasting milk.

Coconut Milk Nutrition Notes

Coconut milk is a hot item these days, but much controversy exists over whether coconut milk and oil are healthy. If you look at the nutrition label, you’ll see that coconut milk contains a lot more saturated fat than other milks, at about 25 g of saturated fat in ½ cup of milk. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise us to limit our intake of saturated fat.

Coconut milk also contains some medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have been associated with some health benefits, but there aren’t as many as in 100 percent MCT oil. While the research on saturated fat is ever-evolving, this video helps us better understand the role of fats in our diet.

Bottom line: If you like the taste of coconut milk, then have it once in a while. But if you think it’s a cure-all, you’re probably mistaken.

Final Thoughts

We hope you have enjoyed our “milk series.” While many of us were raised on cow’s milk and continue to enjoy it as a healthy beverage choice, there are other options for folks who want to try something different or are looking for non-dairy alternatives to go alongside their plate of cookies or in their cereal bowls.

This blog post includes contributions from Alyssa Ardolino, RD.