About a year ago my newborn baby was diagnosed with reflux and I was advised to eliminate all dairy from my diet and to fill up on probiotics to ease his symptoms via my breastmilk. During my search for a natural snack that would tick both the dairy-free and probiotic boxes I came across my first tub of coconut yoghurt. It was simply made with coconut milk and a few live cultures, just what I wanted! As a scientist and nutritionist, I decided to delve deep into the science behind this product to understand where coconut yoghurt would sit in the coconut’s fats controversy. Here are the 3 main scientific highlights from my research:
About 7 years ago Australia saw the first appearance of coconut yoghurt when Sunshine Coast based company COYO created the first batch and released it onto the shelves as a response to the growing demand for dairy-free probiotic alternatives 1. Today a few coconut yoghurt brands are on the market, catering for a rising number of health-conscious, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan or paleo consumers 2. From a food science perspective, coconut yoghurt is a fermented product made from the flesh of coconut fruits to which live cultures are added. Being an alternative to conventional yoghurt and providing unique health benefits it fits the criteria as to what science calls “functional food” 3. Coconut yoghurt manufacturers claim that it is packed with exclusive health benefits, some of which are recognised by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand 4. Due to its probiotic nature, coconut yoghurt is said to aid digestive health. The takeaway on this is that if ingested in adequate amount 5 probiotics may improve intestinal function 6, protect from infections 7, reduce the risk for colon cancer 8 and lower serum cholesterol 9. In addition to its probiotics, coconut yoghurt derives from coconut fruit, which is per se a functional food due to its reported benefits on health 10 like being a source of minerals, vitamins 11, dietary fiber 12 and providing protection from certain viruses and bacteria 11. Takeaway: When you combine the research that takes into account the impact of probiotics as a digestive aid and the health benefits that come from including coconut in your diet, coconut yoghurt gets the thumbs up as a true functional food.
As a mindful eater, when you choose to eat coconut yoghurt keep in mind that it can be as simple as 3 ingredients: coconut milk, live cultures and starch. Starch is a natural product often derived from tapioca or corn that is commonly added in very small amounts in yoghurts as a thickener and stabilizer 13. Not only it naturally helps to produce a richer body but also it may improve fermentation from the Bifidobacterium live culture, hence boosting the probiotics effect of the yoghurt 14. Coconut yoghurt doesn’t need any further additive or taste enhancer. In fact, although a satisfactory sensory appeal is commonly a recurring challenge for non-dairy yoghurts such as soy, it appears that coconut yoghurt can naturally confer a more than pleasing taste 1. In fact some studies have reported that coconut yoghurt has received higher consumer preference for taste and aroma even compared to traditional yoghurts 15, 16. There is also no need for additional sugar in coconut yoghurt. Coconut fruit is already naturally sweet. Plus, coconut yoghurt is per se a high source of energy due to its fat content so any extra sugar would only add some unnecessary hidden calories, potentially posing a challenge to your weight management regime. Takeaway: When you choose coconut yoghurt, natural is the keyword: coconut milk, live cultures and starch is all you need! Keep it simple.
Whether you are a scientist or not, a quick search on the internet to find out whether coconut products are good or bad for you can leave you quite overwhelmed and confused. The debate is still burning in the scientific world. Traditionally, a diet high in saturated fats containing foods, like coconut, has been correlated to high risk of cardiovascular disease 17. However, since the description of the Polynesian paradox in the 1980s whereby high saturated fat intake from coconut protects against heart disease 18, a series of conflicting opinions have accumulated. Recently, a review of 21 studies related to the coconut controversy was issued in the high impact factor Nutrition Reviews Journal. The New Zealand researchers remarked that many of the published studies have significant limitations in the design and/or methods and are difficult to compare with each other making it very challenging to draw scientifically sound conclusions and settle on one side of the debate 19. As a note, the authors highlight how most of the studies with a positive correlation between saturated fats in coconut and heart health refer to coconut flesh or squeezed coconut cream consumption and not to coconut oil 20, 21, 22. Coconut milk fermented into yoghurt derives directly from coconut flesh where the fat content is almost 3 times less concentrated than coconut oil 19, 23. In addition to these findings, coconut yoghurt actually preserves minerals, vitamins and some fiber from the fruit. These factors might help explaining the positive effects of coconut meat or milk on health found in some studies and would place coconut yoghurt healthfulness in a less debatable standpoint than coconut oil. Further research focusing on the effects on health of coconut milk and yoghurt will be needed to reinforce these findings. Takeaway: Coconut yoghurt contains 3 times less concentrated fats then the oil and preserves most vitamins, minerals and fibers. This is likely to make the key difference for your health when compared to coconut oil (as research suggests).
While science still demands for further high quality studies to answer the controversial question about the impact of coconut products on heart health, The existing evidence suggests that coconut yoghurt is a natural yet innovative food with the potential to offer benefits to health when eaten as part of a balanced healthy diet.
This article is written for informational purposes only based on available published sources. The content in this article is not a substitute for independent professional advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The reader assumes full responsibility for consulting a qualified health professional regarding health conditions or concerns and before starting a new diet.