Coconut products are flooding the market – first there was coconut water, now there's coconut milk, coconut milk yogurt, coconut kefir and coconut milk ice cream. This decadent nut used to be considered a major nutritional no-no but it now enjoys a serious health halo and is touted for weight loss benefits. Is this tropical treat really all it’s cracked up to be? Here’s my take on five popular products:
Coconut water is the clear liquid that pools inside whole green coconuts. It’s different from coconut milk, which is pressed from the fatty “meat” of the fruit. An 11 oz serving of pure coconut water contains about 60 calories, no fat, a gram of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates. It’s often promoted as nature’s sports drink because it’s rich in the electrolyte potassium (lost in sweat), and packs twice as much as a banana. It’s not linked to weight control, but a recent study found that coconut water was just as effective as a statin drug for lowering cholesterol in rats, and numerous studies have pegged potassium as a key nutrient for controlling blood pressure.
Verdict: Try it either during or after exercise. Just remember that though it’s not very sweet, one serving does contain 60 calories, so even though it’s called water, it’s not calorie free. You can sip it as is or blend some into a smoothie.
For weight loss, pure coconut oil, not water, is where the research lies. Several studies have found that coconut oil may aid weight loss because the type of fat it contains, called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are metabolized differently than fats from other oils. Most of the fat in this delicious oil is saturated, but more and more research confirms that not all saturated fats are villains. Coconut oil can actually raise your “good” HDL cholesterol and provide antioxidants similar to those in berries, grapes and dark chocolate.
Verdict: Try it. I use it myself and recommend it, but keep it occasional and go easy – it still contains 120 calories and 14 g of fat per Tbsp. Look for it in the natural section of your supermarket. It’s a perfect alternative to butter in baked goods, it’s one of the secret ingredients in my dark chocolate truffle recipes in my new book, and it’s my go-to oil for pan-searing – major yum.
Coconut Milk (from the dairy case)
Coconut milk includes some of the “good” coconut fat – 66 percent of the fat comes from MCTs, and while the unsweetened is low in carbs (just 1 g per cup), it’s also low in protein (1 g vs. 8 in cow milk or soy milk) and calcium (10 percent of the daily value vs. 30 percent in cow milk or soy milk).
Verdict: If you decide to try it, buy unsweetened (vanilla has nearly double the calories) and don’t count it as a protein source. It’ll work in cereal, coffee or smoothies.
Kefir, sometimes referred to as drinkable yogurt is fermented with “good” probiotic bacteria linked to better digestive health, immunity and possibly weight control. Coconut kefir contains live active cultures with the added benefit of its natural MCTs.
Verdict: Try it. Compared to kefir from cultured cow’s milk, coconut kefir has just 70 calories per cup (vs. 160) and only 6 g of carbs, half of which come from dietary fiber (compared to 15 grams with the equivalent 3 g fiber from cow milk kefir). The only down side is less calcium – 10 percent of the DV vs. 30 percent.
Coconut Milk Ice Cream
There are a few brands of coconut milk ice cream on the market now. I compared the chocolate version of one brand side by side with a pint of premium ice cream and here’s what I found: the coconut provides about the same number of calories as well as the same number of total carb grams, but contains just 2 g of saturated fat vs. 11 in the cow’s milk ice cream - and 6 fewer grams of sugar.
Verdict: Try it, but stick to just a half cup. It’s very rich so you should feel satisfied with a small portion but you can pump up the volume with fresh berries or grilled fresh fruit like plums or pineapple. Again, the major downside is less calcium (0 percent DV per serving vs. 10 percent in ice cream).
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.