Why is coconut milk not a good dairy substitute?

Coconut milk has become a popular plant-based alternative to dairy milk in recent years. Many people choose coconut milk because they are vegan or lactose intolerant. Coconut milk is made from the meat and liquid of coconuts. It has a creamy, nutty flavor and rich texture that makes it seem like a good substitute for cow’s milk in recipes, coffee drinks, and more. However, coconut milk is quite different from dairy milk and not necessarily a nutritionally equal substitute. Here’s an in-depth look at why coconut milk doesn’t stack up to dairy milk.

Nutritional differences between coconut milk and dairy milk

Coconut milk and dairy milk have very different nutritional profiles. Here’s a comparison of the main nutrients in one cup of each:


Whole dairy milk: 146 calories
Full fat coconut milk: 552 calories

Coconut milk has nearly 4 times as many calories as dairy milk per cup. The high calories come from its rich coconut fat content.


Whole dairy milk: 8 grams fat
Full fat coconut milk: 57 grams fat

The fat content is one of the biggest nutritional differences between the two. Dairy milk is low fat, with just 8 grams of fat per cup. Coconut milk has 57 grams of fat per cup, most of which comes from saturated fat.


Whole dairy milk: 12 grams carbs
Full fat coconut milk: 7 grams carbs

Dairy milk has more carbohydrates, while coconut milk has barely any. A cup of dairy milk has 12 grams of naturally occurring milk sugar (lactose), while coconut milk has just 7 grams carbs.


Whole dairy milk: 8 grams protein
Full fat coconut milk: 5 grams protein

Dairy milk is a much better source of protein, with 8 grams per cup compared to just 5 grams in coconut milk.


Dairy milk contains more of certain vitamins and minerals than coconut milk. One cup of dairy milk has 30% DV vitamin D, 25% DV vitamin B12, and 30% DV calcium. Coconut milk has none of these nutrients. However, coconut milk contains more iron and potassium than dairy milk.

Overall, the fat and carb content is flipped between the two, and dairy milk has more protein and key micronutrients. So they cannot be nutritionally substituted for one another.

Coconut milk lacks calcium

One of the biggest nutritional drawbacks of coconut milk is that it lacks calcium. Dairy milk is a great source of calcium, providing 30% of the Daily Value per cup. Calcium is essential for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. It also supports muscle and nerve function.

Coconut milk contains only 2% of the Daily Value for calcium per cup. Most plant-based milk alternatives like almond milk and oat milk are also low in calcium or lack it entirely. This makes dairy milk a better choice if you want to get sufficient calcium from your milk.

Some coconut milk brands add calcium carbonate to fortify it. But the calcium may not be as easily absorbed as the natural calcium found in dairy milk. And even when fortified, coconut milk still provides far less calcium than dairy milk.

Calcium content per cup:

  • Whole dairy milk: 276 mg calcium (30% DV)
  • Full fat coconut milk: 48 mg calcium (2% DV)

For the best calcium intake, you’re better off sticking with cow’s milk instead of coconut milk. Other non-dairy sources of calcium include leafy greens, tofu, beans, and calcium-fortified non-dairy milks like soy or almond milk.

Coconut milk is low in protein

Dairy milk delivers a high-quality complete protein containing all essential amino acids. Just one cup provides 8 grams protein. This high-quality protein helps build and repair tissues, enzymes, hormones, and muscle.

Coconut milk is not a good source of protein, with only about 5 grams per cup. And the protein it does contain is not complete protein like dairy milk. So if you substitute coconut milk for dairy milk, you’ll be missing out on the muscle-building, satiating protein that milk provides.

You would need to drink almost two cups of coconut milk just to get the same amount of protein in one cup of dairy milk. Or supplement plant-based protein from other sources like legumes, grains and nuts. Overall, dairy milk is the better choice if you want an optimal protein source in your diet.

Grams of protein per cup:

  • Whole dairy milk: 8 grams
  • Full fat coconut milk: 5 grams

Contains saturated fat and calories

The high fat and calorie content is another nutritional drawback of coconut milk. With 57 grams of fat and 552 calories per cup, it packs a hefty calorie load and most of those come from saturated fat.

Dairy milk is much lower in fat and calories, containing just 146 calories and 8 grams of fat per cup.

Too much saturated fat from coconut milk can negatively impact blood cholesterol levels. High calorie intake may lead to unwanted weight gain if you drink a lot of it.

For heart health and weight management, you’re better off choosing low-fat or nonfat dairy milk over higher fat coconut milk on a regular basis. Other plant milks like unsweetened almond or oat milk are also lower in calories and fat than coconut milk.

Saturated fat per cup:

  • Whole dairy milk: 4.6 grams
  • Full fat coconut milk: 45 grams

May cause gastrointestinal distress

Some people experience bloating, gas or diarrhea from drinking full-fat coconut milk. This gastrointestinal distress may be caused by:

  • Fat malabsorption – too much fat can overwhelm the digestive system
  • Fructose malabsorption – coconut milk contains fructose sugars
  • Lactose intolerance – some coconut milks add dairy ingredients
  • Fiber content – insoluble fiber can cause bloating

These effects may be avoided by choosing light coconut milk or gradually increasing intake. But people with irritable bowel syndrome or digestive issues may tolerate dairy milk better.

Risk of foodborne illness

Raw, unpasteurized coconut milk may contain harmful bacteria that can lead to food poisoning. Dairy milk is pasteurized to kill any dangerous bacteria.

Most coconut milk sold in cartons has been heat-treated for safety. But some brands of canned coconut milk may not be pasteurized. Consuming raw coconut milk could potentially be dangerous for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with weak immunity. Dairy milk is the safer choice.

Allergies and intolerance

Some people have an allergy or intolerance to coconut ingredients. Coconut allergies are relatively rare but can cause hives, itching, swelling, or anaphylaxis.

Coconut milk is also not suitable for people with tree nut allergies, since coconut is botanically classified as a fruit, not a nut. People with dairy milk allergies can potentially tolerate coconut milk if they are not also allergic to coconut.

Lactose intolerance is very common, affecting 75% of the world’s population. Dairy milk contains lactose, so lactose intolerant individuals may prefer coconut milk. However, some coconut milk brands add small amounts of lactose-containing dairy ingredients. Always check the label if lactose intolerance is a concern.

Environmental impact

Some research suggests that the water and energy use required to produce coconut milk may be greater than that of dairy milk. More studies are needed to fully compare the environmental impacts. But choosing local dairy milk could potentially have less transport emission impact than coconut products sourced from tropical regions.

Taste and baking properties differ from dairy milk

The rich, fatty coconut flavor doesn’t necessarily taste like dairy milk. Coconut milk has a more pronounced, sweet and nutty flavor. For drinking, many people find the coconut taste overpowering or unusual at first.

Coconut milk also behaves quite differently in baked goods. The high fat content means baked goods made with coconut milk tend to be more dense, greasy or soggy. Coconut milk has less dairy proteins, so it lacks the binding, structure building, and browning properties of real dairy milk.

Lacks nutrients added to dairy milk

Dairy milk in the US and some other countries is fortified with vitamins A and D to boost the nutritional profile. Coconut milk is not routinely vitamin-fortified, so it lacks those added nutrients.

Many coconut milk brands add a stabilizer like guar gum or carrageenan to improve texture. Dairy milk does not need added stabilizers. The natural proteins in milk provide thickness and stability.

Quality and standards differ

Dairy milk is a strictly regulated food product. Farmers must comply with health and safety standards for producing and handling milk. Pasteurization kills any harmful bacteria and pathogens that may be present. Strict nutrient standards also ensure the nutritional content of dairy milk is maintained across different brands and batches.

Coconut milk does not have to meet the same rigid standards. Nutrient content can vary widely between brands and batches. Some brands contain thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers to improve mouthfeel. Low quality or substandard manufacturing practices could potentially result in contamination. So coconut milk lacks some of the safety assurances of dairy milk.

The bottom line

Coconut milk has a place in healthy plant-forward diets and food traditions. It provides a tasty, dairy-free alternative for vegans, lactose intolerant people, or simply a nice occasional change from cow’s milk. But for everyday nutrition, coconut milk isn’t the best substitute for real dairy milk.

Dairy milk provides superior nutrition, with more protein, calcium, vitamins, complete nutrition, and fewer calories and fat. It’s also a rigorously standardized product with assured safety and quality controls. While coconut milk tastes delicious in curries, smoothies, or coffee drinks, it shouldn’t be considered a complete nutritional replacement for the nutrients dairy milk provides.

For the best nutrition, enjoy coconut milk in moderation or occasionally, not as an everyday substitute for cow’s milk. Stick to low-fat or unsweetened varieties. And if you do opt for plant-based milk alternatives, choose ones fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12 to help close nutrient gaps compared to dairy milk. With a balanced diet, coconut milk can have a place alongside daily servings of real milk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is coconut milk healthy?

Coconut milk can be included as part of a healthy diet, but it is high in fat and calories compared to dairy milk. Full-fat coconut milk provides mostly saturated fat, so it should be used sparingly. Light coconut milk is a better option.

Does coconut milk have lactose?

Coconut milk is generally lactose-free, but some brands may add small amounts of dairy ingredients containing lactose, such as casein. Check the label if you have severe lactose intolerance.

Is coconut milk acidic?

Despite its tangy taste, coconut milk is not acidic. It has a pH of around 6.5-7.5, making it neutral or slightly alkaline. Acidic foods have a much lower pH below 4.

Can I replace dairy milk with coconut milk?

Coconut milk is not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk, so it’s not recommended as a total replacement. Dairy milk contains more calcium, protein, vitamins, and complete nutrition. For best results, enjoy coconut milk occasionally or use it measured in recipes, not as a drink substitute.

Is coconut milk good for weight loss?

Full-fat coconut milk is high in calories, so drinking a lot of it could lead to weight gain. Light coconut milk or unsweetened varieties are lower calorie options. For weight loss, you’re better off sticking to low-fat dairy milk or nut milks like almond or oat milk.

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