There are several coconut products to choose from while stocking your refrigerator and pantry.
Both are made from the pulp of coconuts but are as different as the “oil” and “milk” in their names would suggest.
Here’s a summary of each.
Coconut fruit is high in fat, the majority of it being saturated fat. Coconut oil is made by extracting the fat out of coconut flesh, leaving a product that is 100% fat.
Unlike other popular plant-based oils (olive oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, etc.), coconut oil is solid at room temperature due to its high saturated fat content. Most other plant-based oils are made of unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature. Coconut oil is primarily used in cooking and baking.
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.
Canned coconut milk is most often used in cooking and baking, while carton coconut milk is easily drinkable and used as a dairy-free milk alternative.
What are the popular uses for coconut oil and coconut milk?
Common uses for coconut oil:
- Frying food
- Baking, as a substitute for butter or as the primary fat source
- Topically as a moisturizer
Canned and carton coconut milk are quite different, so I’m breaking their uses out separately.
Common uses for canned coconut milk:
- Thai and Indian cooking
- Vegan baked goods
- As the “cream” element in non-dairy recipes (soups, dips, etc.)
Common uses for carton coconut milk
- Non-dairy milk alternative (for drinking or over cereal)
- Coffee and smoothies
- Cooking and baking (e.g. non-dairy substitute for cow’s milk)
Cooking: What are the different ways you use coconut oil vs. coconut milk?
Coconut oil is primarily used to cook other foods, such as stir-frying vegetables, or as an ingredient in baking. Coconut oil is popular for vegan baking recipes since its texture is similar to butter.
For cooking purposes, canned coconut milk is usually preferred to carton coconut milk and often used in Thai and Indian recipes. 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 in cooking.
Carton coconut milk is usually used for drinking due to its liquid texture and the addition of nutrients like calcium to make it a suitable dairy-free milk alternative.
Coconut milk vs. coconut oil in coffee
Carton coconut milk can easily be used in coffee, such as making lattes or lightening black coffee. Canned coconut milk isn’t as easy to use in coffee, but it can be done if it’s properly mixed beforehand and kept in liquid form.
Coconut oil in coffee won’t lighten it like coconut milk, but it will add a substantial amount of fat. Coconut oil is a popular addition to make bulletproof coffee, a high-fat version of coffee that typically uses coconut oil or butter. Bulletproof coffee has gained fame among ketogenic diet followers and those wanting to add the fats from coconut oil to their diet.
How are coconut oil and coconut milk made?
Coconut oil: Coconut oil is made by pressing the liquid oil out of coconut meat or dried coconut meat called copra. Virgin coconut oil is usually made from fresh coconut meat, while refined coconut oil is generally made from copra.
Coconut oil is most often cold-pressed or expeller-pressed. Cold-pressed oils are thought to retain more of their nutritional value because they aren’t exposed to heat. Expeller pressing uses high friction and pressure which can heat the oil more even though no additional heat is applied.
Cold-pressed and expeller-pressed oils don’t yield as much oil as heat-pressing (which utilizes high heat as the method to extract the oil), but maintain their nutrients and antioxidants better compared to using heat. Because the yield isn’t as high with cold pressing and expeller pressing, these types of coconut oils tend to be more expensive than some other plant oils.
Some refined coconut oils are then further processed, including neutralizing and deodorizing, but these types don’t tend to be as popular among coconut oil enthusiasts.
Coconut milk: Coconut milk is made by heating coconut pulp in hot water and 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.
What are the differences between refined and unrefined coconut oil?
Refined coconut oil
- Made from dried coconut flesh (copra) in a “dry” process
- Less intense coconut flavor
- Impurities are removed during the process of refining
- Higher smoke point (can be heated to a higher temperature before it smokes) thanks to fewer impurities
Unrefined coconut oil
- Made from fresh coconut flesh in a “wet” process
- Stronger coconut flavor
- Lower smoke point
- Thought to contain more nutrients compared to refined coconut oil, but this claim is lacking scientific evidence
More on refined vs. unrefined coconut oil.
Ingredients in coconut oil vs. coconut milk
Coconut oil: coconut oil, either refined or unrefined
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
Key nutritional differences: coconut oil vs. carton coconut milk
Below we’ll compare the nutritional information for unrefined coconut oil vs. carton coconut milk.
|One tablespoon serving – organic, unrefined cold-pressed coconut oil1
|One cup serving – carton coconut milk (unsweetened)2
|Yes, when unsweetened
Sources: USDA, So Delicious Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk product page
Coconut oil is 100% fat, so is much higher in fat compared to carton coconut milk. Because coconut oil is primarily saturated fat, it’s solid at room temperature compared to liquid coconut milk.
Due to its high-fat content, coconut oil is much higher in calories than carton coconut milk; Fat is more calorie dense than carbohydrates or protein.
Although many people with tree nut allergies can safely eat coconut, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists coconuts as tree nuts. As a result, coconut oil and coconut milk are considered allergenic.
Is coconut milk healthier than coconut oil?
Coconut milk isn’t necessarily healthier than coconut oil, it’s just very different. Coconut milk is lower in fat than coconut oil, making it more suitable if you’re trying to limit your caloric intake or fat content. Coconut oil is beneficial if you’re wanting to add fat and calories to your diet, or if you want to replace animal-based fats with plant-based ones.
The healthfulness of coconut oil is a hot debate topic in the nutrition world. Compared to most plant-based oils (olive oil, canola oil, etc.), coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. Saturated fat has previously been linked to an increased risk of heart disease by promoting high cholesterol levels. However, more recent research suggests that your overall diet and lifestyle play more of a role in your heart disease risk and that saturated fat might not be all to blame.
Coconut oil isn’t an ideal substitute for coconut milk in most instances because it has a much different texture and fat content. You might be able to replace canned coconut milk with coconut oil in small amounts.
Coconut oil is popular for hair care because of its natural moisturizing effects. Coconut milk is lower in these moisturizing fatty acids than coconut oil, so isn’t meant to be used on your hair.
Carton coconut milk and canned coconut milk contain fat from the coconut pulp, but don’t technically contain coconut oil. Coconuts are pressed in a specific way to make coconut oil, and the process to make coconut milk is different from oil pressing.
It’s difficult to make homogenous liquid coconut milk from coconut oil, mainly because coconut oil is solid at lower temperatures. You can try heating coconut oil and mixing it with a liquid, but if you don’t use it immediately the fat will separate from the liquid.