Reader Question: What’s the low down on coconut milk? The full on version seems to contain so much saturated fat, is this a good thing?
Answer: Yes, the full on fat version of coconut milk is indeed a good thing, even with all of its saturated fat. One of the more controversial aspects of primal eating in our modern time, is the importance placed on eating fat. Fat helps us to feel full and satisfied. Fat is also crucial for the structure of each of our cell’s membranes and the formation and regulation of our hormones. I like to say fat is our friend, it is integral to our overall health. The most eye opening example for me, was taking a look at the native Inuit people who ate sea mammals and blubber as the majority of their diet. There wasn’t much else for them to hunt, gather, or forage in their subzero climate. Surprisingly, the Inuit people were incredible healthy and free of the diseases that plague us in modern times until they were introduced to processed foods and poor quality vegetable oils like grapeseed, canola, cottonseed, and peanut.
Let’s specifically address the fat in coconut, which consists of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). Medium chain fatty acids do not have a negative effect on cholesterol and they have been shown to help lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and heart disease. The size of the fatty acid, whether it is short, medium or long, is actually more important than whether it is saturated or unsaturated. The poorer fat choices, whether they are saturated or unsaturated or come from animals or plants, are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). The size of the fatty acid is extremely important because our bodies respond to and metabolize each fatty acid differently depending on its size. Short (my favorite being butter) and medium chain fatty acids are both immediately used for energy, so they are not stored easily as adipose tissue on your body or spend time clogging up your arteries.
The main issue with canned coconut milk is that it often comes in a Bisphenol A (BPA) lined can. BPA has been linked to cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, obesity, and insulin resistance. It is best to avoid food from BPA lined cans, especially coconut milk because toxins tend to be stored well in fat. There are BPA free cans of coconut milk or coconut milk in packages that are available.
Note on what is whole coconut milk and what isn’t: Whole coconut milk just contains coconut milk and often some brands contain guar gum to stabilize and thicken it. I have a few clients who find that they are sensitive to guar gum. Coconut milk beverages are also now sold, mostly in the refrigerator section of the store. The coconut beverage is thinner than whole milk and contains many more ingredients, it can still be considered Paleo. I have not personally attempted to cook with coconut beverage.
Here are some additional sources on saturated fat that go into greater scientific detail:
Discover Magazine – The Inuit