Coconuts: lately, they seem to be in everything! In the aisles of your local grocery store, you’ll notice coconut products in a variety of forms lining the shelves. This fruit is found in items ranging from candy bars to beauty products and everything in between.
Coconut can be sold shredded, whole, or even in oil form. Two of the most popular ways to consume this fruit are coconut water and coconut milk.
Coconut water is sold plain, in sports drinks, and in beauty products, while coconut milk is usually sold in canned form.
But, wait: what, exactly, is the difference between the two products? In fact, there are many differences between coconut water and milk, and the distinction between the two is critical when making decisions about nutrition and hydration.
Read on to better understand the key differences between coconut water and milk.
Where Does Coconut Water Come From?
It may be surprising to learn that coconut water is technically the juice of the coconut fruit! What we know as the “meat” of the coconut, or the white fleshy fruit, is the coconut’s seed. That white flesh is jam-packed with nutrients and energy intended to sustain a young palm tree sapling when the coconut sprouts.
Coconuts grow slowly on palm trees.
During the process of their development, water flows up from the tree’s roots and accumulates within the hollow coconut. The tree contributes plenty of nutrients to this water to nourish its future sapling, including vitamins, sugars, and fats.
However, the coconuts we harvest water and milk from never use these nutrients. Before they sprout, humans open ripe coconuts, cut them open, and capture the rich water within. This liquid is bottled and known the world over as coconut water.
Where Does Coconut Milk Come From?
Interestingly, the process that yields coconut milk is much more complicated than harvesting coconut water. Coconut milk cannot be harvested directly from a fresh coconut. Instead, the fruit must be processed in a specific way to produce coconut milk.
The preparation of coconut milk is very similar to how nut milk, such as almond and soy milk, are produced. The white flesh of the fruit is first blended and pulverized. Then, the resulting fruity mush is strained through a fine-mesh sieve.
Water is added to dilute the milk to the desired consistency; coconut milk made in different places for different purposes might be diluted more or less, causing it to be a thinner or thicker liquid.
The end result of this process is an emulsion, or a uniform, milky mixture of coconut and water.
When you crack open a can of coconut milk, you will likely see that it has separated! In fact, this is entirely normal. When a can sits on the shelf for even a short time, the water component of the milk sinks to the bottom, and the ground coconut, or coconut cream, rises to the top. This is easily remedied by giving the can of coconut milk a quick shake or stir.
What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Coconut Water?
High Electrolyte Content
Coconut water is a great choice to quench your thirst, because it is high in electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, and magnesium. Consuming a drink that is fortified with electrolytes helps your body absorb water more quickly and stay hydrated for longer.
Low in Calories
In addition, unlike other common ways to consume electrolytes–such as artificially fortified and flavored sports drinks–coconut water is low in sugar and calories, at about 50 calories in an eight-ounce serving.
For those choosing to drink coconut water for its hydrating properties, this beverage's low sugar and calorie content is certainly a draw. Consuming excess sugar in your diet can lead to weight gain and other health complications commonly found in artificial sports drinks.
Refined sugar, or sucrose, is best consumed in moderation due to its tendency to weight gain and calorie surplus. For nursing mothers, avoiding sucrose is advisable. The sugar has been found to pass through breast milk to an infant, leading to health issues later in life.
The knowledge that coconut water contains no added sugars is made even sweeter by the naturally delicious flavor. The drink is known for its nutty, delicately sweet, and refreshing flavor, which is entirely natural!
Low in Fat
Coconut water is also very low in fat, making it a safe choice for individuals looking for a healthy and hydrating beverage. Avoiding excess saturated fat in one’s diet is important for preventing weight gain and obesity.
The antioxidant properties of coconut water mean that this beverage can help your body eliminate toxins and free radicals from your system. Furthermore, coconut water has been found to lower blood pressure in some individuals.
However, if you are taking blood pressure medication already, it is best to consult with your doctor before beginning a coconut water regimen.
What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Coconut Milk?
Vitamins and Minerals
Coconut milk is a good source of several vitamins and minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, and vitamins C and E. The minerals in coconut milk give it great nutritional value.
Iron is a vital nutrient that aids the circulatory system, and manganese plays a role in metabolism. Vitamins C and E have important antioxidant qualities, meaning that they can help your body rid itself of toxins.
Compared to other plant-based foods, coconut milk contains a relatively high amount of fat. A one-tablespoon serving of coconut milk contains almost three grams of saturated fats. Saturated fats, as opposed to the unsaturated fats found in most other plant products, are linked to weight gain and high cholesterol levels.
However, with coconut milk, the story is not quite so simple! The saturated fats in coconut milk are known as medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs.
MCTs are small molecules, and our bodies can process them as energy more easily than other forms of saturated fats. Thus, these fats have actually been linked to weight loss, increased energy, and improved endurance.
Though the word fat is intimidating, it’s important to remember that not all fats are bad. In fact, the fat in coconut milk can give you a slow-burning energy reserve that will last hours! However, like all high-calorie foods, consuming coconut milk in moderation is best.
Nutrition in Comparison: Coconut Water vs. Coconut Milk
Pure coconut water, which contains about 45 calories and 8.8 grams of carbohydrates per serving, is also fat-free. This makes the juice a healthier choice for daily hydration.
The electrolyte boost that coconut water provides in tandem with its high water content is why coconut water packs such a punch as a hydrating beverage! For this reason, coconut water is commonly used as the main ingredient in health-focused, natural electrolyte drinks.
Coconut milk, by comparison, has 30 calories per tablespoon. In addition, the fat content of coconut milk is significant at 3.2 grams per ounce, as compared to 0 grams of fat in coconut water.
However, it’s important not to let these facts scare you into writing off coconut milk! Fats–in moderation, of course–are an important part of a healthy diet, and the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut milk serve their own purpose in the body.
Both coconut water and coconut milk are great sources of necessary vitamins and minerals.
All in all, coconut water and coconut milk have significantly different nutritional benefits. Because of this, they should be used in very different ways. But when incorporated in appropriate serving sizes and contexts, both of these substances can be a beneficial addition to your diet.
What is Coconut Water Used For?
The primary use for coconut water is as a hydrating beverage. The high water content and variety of electrolytes that occur naturally in coconut water make it a great way to rehydrate.
However, to ensure that you are getting the hydration benefits without compromising your health, double-check that the coconut water you choose has no added sugar. Sweetened coconut water, though popular, has more than double the amount of sugar than unsweetened coconut water on average.
Athletes may choose to drink coconut water or a coconut-water-based sports drink after exercise instead of a sugar-filled, artificially flavored electrolyte drink.
Coconut water is great for lactation as an all-natural way for nursing moms to stay hydrated. And for people recovering and rehydrating after gastrointestinal illness, coconut milk is a mild and stomach-friendly way to ingest electrolytes and water.
If you are looking for coconut water as a means of hydration, consider a coconut-water-based natural energy drink. The natural concentration of electrolytes in coconut water is significant, but the additional electrolytes and vitamins added to a coconut-water-based drink take the beverage’s hydration power above and beyond!
What is Coconut Milk Used For?
Unlike coconut water, coconut milk is not generally drunk in its pure, undiluted form. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in many cuisines worldwide, including South Asian and Caribbean cuisines, among others.
When used as an ingredient in stews and sauces, coconut milk is a fantastic way to add a rich creaminess to your recipes without adding dairy products.
The dairy food group is significantly high in long-chain saturated fats, which are more difficult for the body to utilize than the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) we discussed earlier, found in coconut milk. This difference and its culinary versatility make coconut milk a great substitute for dairy in most recipes.
Coconut milk may also be included in beverages, although it is generally not the main ingredient. Try adding a splash of coconut milk to your morning coffee for a boost of lactose-free vitamins and slow-burning energy.
Coconut Milk and Coconut Water: Sisters, Not Twins
Ultimately, although coconut water and coconut milk have similar names, this similarity is misleading. The two beverages differ in preparation, nutrition, and even their uses and benefits.
Coconut water, which is harvested straight from fresh coconuts, is a healthy and fat-free hydration-boosting beverage. Coconut milk, meanwhile, is produced by processing coconut flesh and is a vitamin-packed but rather calorie-heavy ingredient used in many dishes.
Incorporate coconut milk into your diet in moderation for a potent dose of vitamins, minerals, and slow-burning energy in the form of fats. And, if you’re seeking an all-natural, sugar-free hydration and energy boost, look no further than nature’s own energy drink: coconut water!
For all of us to whom hydration is of the utmost importance–including lactating moms, athletes, and health-conscious folks the world over–coconut water is an easy and healthy beverage choice to keep us going strong.
Now that you’re armed with knowledge about the difference between coconut water and coconut milk, you can go grocery shopping with confidence. Incorporate coconut beverages into your life, and you’ll reap the health benefits they offer.
Happy shopping, and stay hydrated!