Dear Dr. Blonz: My husband and I are changing to a more plant-based diet. We are finding many recipes that call for coconut milk, which we enjoy very much. However, I was under the impression that it was very high in saturated fat. Should it be eliminated, or at least used sparingly, if one is concerned about heart disease? — E.B., online
Dear E.B.: Coconut can add wonderful flavors and textures to many dishes. You ask about coconut milk — which we will get to shortly — but first, let’s take a look at coconut oil.
Coconut oil has a reputation as a dietary “villain” of sorts, which it earned by virtue of being a concentrated source of saturated fats. About two-thirds of these are shorter in chain length than most other vegetable fats. These particular fats, referred to as medium-chain triglycerides, are handled differently in the body. Even though they are saturated fats, these MCTs can be burned as fuel rather than being handled in a way that contributes to the risk of heart disease.
Now for your question. Coconut milk is a liquid extract of the mature coconut’s grated pulp and contains coconut oil. But unlike the pure oil, coconut milk also contains a small amount of protective phenolic substances. (The primary protectant for the oils in the coconut is the physical barrier provided by the shell.)
As with most questions about food ingredients, the best answer considers the amount consumed and the entire dietary context. Coconut milk and its oil do not provide essential nutrients, and there is no scientific basis for any general statement that these saturated fats represent a more healthful choice than others. If they are part of an otherwise healthful diet and lifestyle, the saturated fats from coconut oil won’t add much risk to your health. If added to a poor diet, however, there is no basis to assume they will make anything better. As is always the case, your diet’s overall quality holds more sway over your health and longevity than a particular ingredient.