On the Table

Should you try the coconut milk in the dairy case?

CORRESPONDENTAugust 3, 2011 

You may have noticed a newcomer in the supermarket milk department.

Coconut milk has staked a claim in the dairy case, where cow's milk is being crowded out by the nondairy alternatives - soymilk, almond milk and rice milk.

How does coconut milk compare to the competition?

It depends on your criteria.

If you like the flavor of coconut, you'll like coconut milk. It's made from grated, pressed coconut meat thinned with water to make a creamy, white beverage.

Coconut milk is versatile. You can use it in most of the ways cow's milk is used - on cereal, in baked goods and other cooking, and to dunk a cookie.

In fact, coconut milk is a traditional ingredient throughout much of the world, including Asia, the Caribbean and parts of South America. It's used in desserts, curries, soups, sauces, baked goods and other foods.

It's high in fat

To clarify a potential source of confusion: Coconut milk is different from coconut water, which some people also refer to as "milk." Coconut water is the watery, translucent fluid that you'll find in the center of a coconut if you crack one open.

Coconut milk stands out nutritionally because it's high in saturated fat. It's lower in sodium and protein, and it's higher in calcium than cow's milk when you buy a fortified brand such as Silk Pure Coconut.

Coconut milk is oily, so it doesn't work as well as soymilk and almond milk do as a coffee creamer. It whitens, but with an oil slick on the surface.

Of course, coconut milk is lactose-free, so it's suitable for anyone with lactose intolerance.

The alternatives

How does coconut milk compare to other milk alternatives?

Here's my assessment:

Soymilk tops the list. It's highly nutritious and tastes good, and it works well in most recipes in place of cow's milk. Soymilk is high in protein, and fortified varieties contain as much calcium as cow's milk.

If you don't like the slightly beany flavor of soymilk, vanilla-flavored soymilk containing a small amount of sweetener is another option. If you're allergic to soy, you'll be interested in the next best option.

Almond milk is the close runner-up. Like soymilk, it works well in most recipes. The flavor is delicious, and the consistency of almond milk is creamy, like whole milk.

It's lower in protein than soymilk, but it's similarly low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol. Fortified almond milk is higher in calcium than cow's milk.

If you're allergic to tree nuts, though, almond milk isn't an option for you.

Rice milk and coconut milk are a toss-up because each has substantial - but different - limitations.

Rice milk is low in protein, though fortified varieties are similar in calcium content to cow's milk. It's hypoallergenic and easy for most people to tolerate.

The consistency of rice milk is thin, though, so it doesn't work as well as creamier products do in foods like pudding, cream soup, and your coffee. It also has a bit of a starchy aftertaste.

Coconut milk, on the other hand, delicious and creamy, works well in most recipes. The big downside is its substantial saturated fat content - 5 grams per cup. Yes, scientific consensus still comes down on the side of limiting saturated fat as much as possible.

The bottom line? Try these milk alternatives and choose based on taste preferences and nutrition needs. And enjoy having choices.

Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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