Coconut milk is a popular choice as a non-dairy milk alternative and comes in several varieties, including canned and carton.
The main difference between canned and carton coconut milk are their texture and fat content.
Canned coconut milk is very high in fat and low in liquid, and carton coconut milk is essentially canned coconut milk diluted with water to make it thin and drinkable. Carton coconut milk is most often used as a non-dairy milk alternative for drinking, whereas canned coconut milk is typically used in rich, creamy recipes.
Carton coconut milk often has thickeners added to make it creamy and less watery in texture, such as guar gum, xanthan gum, and carrageenan. These thickeners are gluten-free.
Because dairy-free milk alternatives are popular among vegans, carton coconut milk is usually fortified with key nutrients that can be deficient in a vegan diet, such as calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
Canned coconut milk usually doesn’t have nutrients added, but can have guar gum added as a stabilizer.
Read on for common uses of both canned and carton coconut milk…
What are the popular uses for canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk?
Common uses for canned coconut milk
- Recipes such as Thai and Indian food
- Baking, especially vegan dishes
- Ingredient in non-dairy creamy recipes for soups, dips, etc.
Common uses for carton coconut milk
- Drinking as a non-dairy milk alternative
- Smoothies and coffee
- Cold cereal
- Non-dairy substitute for cow’s milk in cooking and baking
Drinking: Why does carton coconut milk beat canned as a milk substitute?
If you expect to open a can of coconut milk and pour it directly into a glass, you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise. Due to its very high saturated fat content, canned coconut milk becomes mainly solid at room temperature. Some of the liquid will separate from the solid part, which requires mixing or reheating to re-emulsify the fats and liquids together.
For that reason, carton coconut milk is more suitable as a milk substitute. Not only is carton coconut milk liquid (both refrigerated and shelf-stable), but carton coconut milk has added nutrients like calcium and vitamin D to make it more similar to cow’s milk and other milk substitutes.
Carton coconut milk doesn’t separate, so you won’t need to mix it or heat it like you would with canned coconut milk.
Cooking: Why do people generally use canned coconut milk vs. carton?
Canned coconut milk is more suitable for cooking than carton coconut milk in many cases. Carton coconut milk is a thinner liquid and is much lower in fat, which won’t add the same creaminess and texture as canned coconut milk.
For these reasons, most coconut milk recipes like Thai curry and other coconut cream-based dishes will call for canned coconut milk, not carton coconut milk.
How are canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk made?
Canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk are made in a similar way in the beginning stages.
Coconut milk is made by heating coconut pulp in hot water and then extracting the liquid from the solid pulp. The result is very high-fat coconut milk which will solidify once it’s cooled, which will then either be canned or diluted with water to make carton coconut milk, which is thinner in texture.
The type of fat in coconuts is saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature. Its high saturated fat content is the reason canned coconut milk is primarily solid with some liquid separation. To make canned coconut milk homogeneous and smooth, you’ll need to stir it over low heat until the fats are emulsified for best results.
Carton coconut milk is made by blending thick coconut milk or coconut cream (a fattier version of canned coconut milk) with water. The original product is quite thin and watery, which is why thickeners are often added to give the carton coconut milk a smoother, creamier texture.
Ingredients in canned coconut milk vs. carton coconut milk
The ingredients of canned and carton coconut milk will vary a little among brands, but typically include ingredients such as:
Canned coconut milk: coconut, water, guar gum (stabilizer)
Carton coconut milk: filtered water, coconut cream, added vitamins and minerals, thickeners, salt, preservatives (such as ascorbic acid/vitamin C); some have added sugar
The first ingredient in canned coconut milk is coconut, while the first ingredient of carton coconut milk is water. This highlights the main difference between canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk since ingredients are listed from greatest to least.
How to get the best coconut milk
I firmly believe that the best coconut milk is made right at home – but if you don’t have the time, store-bought is fine so long as you make sure the coconut milk:
- Has no preservatives, additives, or chemicals. Just coconut and water.
- Is fresh and organic.
To give you a jumpstart, we’ve done the research and identified the best coconut milk brands you can buy.
Key nutritional differences between canned coconut milk vs. carton coconut milk
Below we’ll compare the nutritional information for canned coconut milk vs. carton coconut milk.
|Per one cup serving
|Canned coconut milk1
|Carton coconut milk (unsweetened)2
|Yes, when unsweetened
Sources: USDA, So Delicious Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk product page
Fat & liquid content
Canned coconut milk is much higher in fat compared to carton coconut milk. The main reason canned coconut milk is higher in fat compared to carton coconut milk is that it contains less water and more of the high-fat coconut.
Fat provides the most amount of calories per gram compared to the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein). Since canned coconut milk is very high in fat, it’s also much higher in calories compared to carton coconut milk (360 calories per cup vs. 45 calories per cup, respectively).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists coconuts as tree nuts, though many people with tree nut allergies can safely eat coconut. Therefore, canned and carton coconut milk are considered allergenic, even though many people with tree nut allergies can safely eat coconut.
Both canned and carton coconut milk are dairy- and lactose-free, making them suitable for those who follow a vegan diet, who have a cow’s milk allergy, or those with lactose intolerance.
Can I use carton coconut milk instead of canned?
You can substitute carton coconut milk instead of canned, but it will likely yield a different taste and texture. Carton coconut milk is much thinner and lower in fat, so it will result in a less creamy and thick texture compared to canned coconut milk.
Canned coconut milk and carton coconut each have their own advantages and best uses – neither can objectively be considered better than the other.
Canned coconut is creamier and higher in fat, while carton coconut milk is lower in fat and calories. Canned coconut milk tends to be better for cooking while carton coconut milk is better suited for drinking as a non-dairy milk.
Canned and carton coconut milk are not the same. Canned coconut milk is higher in fat and lower in liquid compared to carton coconut milk, and isn’t diluted with water like carton coconut milk.
Canned coconut milk and coconut cream are very similar, but they aren’t quite the same. Coconut cream is canned coconut milk with even more liquid removed, making it higher in fat and calories. Coconut cream is a popular option for creamy desserts and can be used to make vegan whipped cream.
You can dilute canned coconut milk with water and blend it to make a homemade version of coconut milk (similar in texture to carton coconut milk). Keep in mind some of the fat might separate once it’s chilled, so it likely won’t have the same texture as store-bought carton coconut milk, which contains emulsifiers or stabilizers to prevent separation.