When helping Alchemist Eating clients transition to paleo-primal, I often get the question: “So what do I put in my coffee?”
Specifically, clients want an alternative to some now off-limits combination of sugar and creamer.
One of the first things I suggest is giving coconut milk a try.
It’s super-healthy, supports efficient metabolism and fat-burning, and has a natural sweetness that nicely cuts the bitterness of black coffee or tea.
It also makes a delicious dessert (especially when served with berries and 85% dark chocolate).
And yet, in a world full of “food-like substances” posing as real foods, things inevitably get confusing…hence this week’s question:
What about coconut milk?
The answer should be straightforward—after all, I just said it was super-healthy, right? But yet again, it depends.
The first thing to realize is that not all coconut milk is, well, coconut milk.
At clinic, I’m very selective with coconut-milk referrals. Specifically, I recommend Native Forrest unsweetened full-fat organic. Native Forrest comes in BPA-free cans and has three ingredients: organic coconut, purified water, organic guar gum (more on that last ingredient below).
There are some other good ones out there too. But I know Native Forrest and use it myself, so it’s what I recommend to clients.
Meanwhile, the coconut milk debuting at Starbucks nationwide is totally different. This is disappointing yet hardly surprising—and serves as a good example of what to watch for in other coconut milks (many of which aren’t much better).
For starters, the number 3 ingredient in Starbucks coconut milk is cane sugar (ingredients must be listed in order of weight, heaviest first). Coconut water concentrate (basically sugar water) comes soon after.
Following those is a long list of additives, including corn dextrin (likely containing GMOs) and “natural flavors.” “Natural flavors” include all manner of “naturally” derived chemicals. Typically, these are extracted and blended by flavorists in labs to give taste to foods that are processed, packaged, frozen and/or pasteurized. In other words, there’s nothing “natural” about them.
Oh, and then there’s carrageenan, an additive known to cause gut inflammation and digestive distress in many people—especially those suffering from any sort of gastrointestinal disorder (IBD, IBS, chronic diarrhea, spastic colon, etc.). For more on that inflammatory gem (often found in almond and soy milk as well), see the Cornucopia Institute’s post here. Also check their buying guide to learn which products still contain it—including quite a few “healthy,” popular and certified organic brands.
The one preservative in there that generally is okay is guar gum (recall it’s found in Native Forrest too). Guar gum is the endosperm of guar beans, and, as paleo-primal keeners know, beans and other legumes contain various compounds that make them difficult to digest. Guar gum can cause gas and other forms of gastrointestinal distress for some folks, but most do fine with it (it’s even being studied as a therapeutic tool for reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels).
Once again, those with digestive disorders are most susceptible to sensitivity reactions. If you think his might be you, do an n=1 experiment.
Remove it from your diet and see what happens. Worse case: you have to search for Native Forrest’s newer version omitting guar gum or you make your own coconut milk at home (more on that below).
Regardless, that other stuff in the Starbucks product makes it off limits for those staying within real-food, paleo-primal parameters.
Well then, what about real coconut milk?
Again, my pick for pre-packaged is Native Forrest unsweetened full-fat organic. In addition to its short, organic ingredient list, the BPA-free thing is a big deal.
BPA (Bisphenol-A) is a chemical used in the lining of many canned goods. From there, it leaches into food. This effect is greatest with foods that are salty (like high-sodium soups), acidic (like tomatoes) or fatty (like coconut milk). Seeing as some studies suggest harmful fallout from BPA exposure, I prefer to minimize risk. And while there are other organic brands out there with short ingredient lists, Native Forrest is one that’s for sure BPA-free.
Of course, another way around BPA—and the guar gum—is going DIY.
Though I have yet to attempt it, I hear coconut milk can be made easily at home using either creamed coconut and water or coconut flakes, a blender and cheesecloth. Google for simple recipes if you’re up for it—and maybe I will too. After all, it’s best to minimize consumption of packaged and canned goods…and stick with real food.
Okay, so why buy Native Forrest or bother making your own anyway?
Well, first, it’s delicious.
Second, it is an excellent source of healthy saturated fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides. These are easily burned as fuel in a way that supports transformation into a fat-burning beast.
Still think fat makes you fat??? It doesn’t. All that sugar in your frappuccino? It does.
Sounds great, right? But, even here, there’s one more thing to consider.
I adore coconut milk and the wider world of real coconut products.
And yet, no one food or way of eating is right for everyone. Remember that self-experiment I advised when it comes to guar gum? That applies to coconut milk without guar gum too.
For some people, particularly those with digestive disorders (whether GERD, IBD, IBS, SIBO, etc…or an undiagnosed complaint), coconut milk—even the real, homemade stuff—can be problematic. Basically, it can potentially (but not necessarily) make symptoms worse.
Testing for sensitivity is fairly simple: Doing your best to hold other factors constant, watch for any increase in cramping, gas, bowel irregularity or other signs of gastrointestinal distress with coconut milk consumption.
Note that the quantity consumed is another consideration. Even if a tablespoon of coconut milk is fine, an entire can in one sitting may leave you dashing for the toilet.
This is different for everyone, and you’ll need to play around to determine what works for you.
So where does this leave us? What about coconut milk? Here’s my take, in short form:
1. Avoid coconut milk containing added sugar and other additives, with the possible exception of guar gum. Sorry, this includes coconut milk at Starbucks. That stuff is not good for you and is not primal. (By real-food standards, it isn’t even coconut milk).
2. When buying pre-made coconut milk, choose organic full-fat products with no added sugar and very short ingredient lists (basically, coconut milk, water and possibly guar gum). Also choose products sold in BPA-free cans or other packaging, particularly if you’re consuming them regularly and/or are pregnant or breastfeeding, chronically ill or a kid. I use Native Forrest full-fat unsweetened organic, which comes in BPA-free cans.
3. Better yet, make your own coconut milk, using either unsweetened, additive-free shredded coconut or coconut cream. Real coconut milk is an excellent source of healthy saturated fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides. These are easily burned as fuel and support efficient metabolism and fat-burning. Plus, coconut milk tastes amazing and has a natural sweetness—very helpful when weaning off sugar.
4. If you have digestive problems (whether GERD, IBD, IBS, SIBO, etc….or an undiagnosed gastrointestinal complaint), coconut milk may make symptoms worse. Quantity is another consideration—a spoonful may be fine; an entire can in one sitting may leave you running to the toilet. Best way to figure this out is through self-experimentation, proceeding gradually and mindfully.