Coconut Milk vs. Coconut Water: Which One Is Healthier?

Coconut Water Drink with straw

Coconut water | Source: iStock

It used to be that the only thing coconuts were good for was as a vessel for piña coladas during island vacations. But now it seems as if the world, or at least kitchens all across the United States, have been taken over by the coconut. Coconut oil is replacing the olive and vegetable varieties, coconut cream is used in drinks and desserts, and coconut flour is even making an appearance in the baking aisle at the grocery store. But none are quite so popular as coconut water and milk. To the uninformed they might seem like very similar things, but they’re actually quite different, in terms of health benefits and how they’re used.

Starbucks made headlines in mid-July when it launched a new drink with a base made of coconut milk. It’s the first beverage served by the coffee giant that highlights the coconut byproduct, though the chain has offered coconut milk as an alternative to other types of milk for a while. The company said it was a perfect starting point for the new Iced Coconut Milk Mocha Macchiato, since it’s lighter than normal milk and can have a more refreshing flavor.

Ultimately, both have their places in a healthy diet, but in each case moderation is key. When you keep both liquids as pure as possible, without incorporating sugars and other additives, they can be very good for you. If the only thing you know about coconuts is that you’re served fruity drinks with curly straws in them, it’s time to take a closer look. Here’s everything you need to know about coconut milk and coconut water.

Coconut milk

Coconut Milk in a glass with coconut

Coconut milk |

Aside from being the hot ingredient at Starbucks, coconut milk is best known for being used in cooking, particularly in dishes from Thai or other Eastern cuisines. Coconut milk is a mixture of coconut water and coconut milk. As Epicurious explains, it can be made by simmering freshly shredded coconut meat in water to extract the flavor and juices (and later straining out the coconut pieces).

The BBC notes that coconut milk is lactose and nut ingredient free, making it a great alternative for dairy and other nut milks. It can come in cartons when it’s fresh (though it doesn’t last for very long), or more commonly is canned and sold in many grocery stores. The canned versions are less modified, Epicurious reports, and are more commonly used in baking and cooking.

What the experts say about coconut milk

hands showing red heart

Some worry too much fatty coconut milk could lead to heart troubles |

Coconut milk is one of those ingredients that health experts disagree about. It’s a natural substance, but is extremely high in fat, particularly saturated fats. According to Eating Well, one cup of coconut milk typically contains about 445 calories and 48 grams of fat, 43 grams of which are saturated fats. Eating Well suggests using the “lite” versions of coconut milk, which often eliminate two-thirds of the calories and fat.

However, some health experts say that even the full-fat version can be good for you, in small and moderated servings. The saturated fat in coconut milk is something to be careful about, but it’s made up of compounds that raise your HDL (good) cholesterol — not the LDL (“bad”) cholesterol that’s raised when you eat bacon and other animal-based saturated fats. Jo Lewin, a nutritionist and contributor for the BBC, also reports that the saturated fats contain lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted in the body into an antiviral and antibacterial agent, and some experts now believe that coconut milk can help ward off infections.

If you consume limited portions of the milk just one to two times per week (some experts recommend ¼-cup servings of the full-fat versions), the product shouldn’t have any negative effects. Plus, that quarter-cup of milk contains large amounts of manganese, which assists with several vital functions in the body including metabolism, forming connective tissue, and nerve functions. It also contains copper, magnesium, iron, and potassium, among other vitamins and minerals.

Coconut water

coconut water, Jessica Alba

Jessica Alba isn’t the only celebrity enthralled with coconut water | Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for ZICO Premium Coconut Water

As its name implies, coconut water is a clear liquid that comes directly from the middle of young, green coconuts. It has a sweet, nutty taste, WebMD reports, and has been dubbed “nature’s sports drink” (and many variations thereof), thanks to the presence of electrolytes like potassium in the water. It’s also what fills an entire shelf of Tom Haverford’s refrigerator in Parks and Recreation, for those who recall the “girl heaven” apartment tour in Season 4.

Eating Well reports that one cup of coconut water contains 10% of the potassium you need each day, which can help to avoid muscle cramps after exercising. It doesn’t contain high amounts of sodium, however, so experts say it won’t replenish your system in all the ways you need if you’re heavily exerting yourself. Both Epicurious and WebMD say that despite that, the drink has become popular with athletes because of its refreshing properties.

According to one study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, coconut water does have the ability to rehydrate as well as bottled water and sports drinks after 60 minutes of exercise on a treadmill. However, the study was very small and only tested men who were already in shape, so it’s unclear whether those results would be the same across all demographics.

What the experts say about coconut water

Coconut Water

Coconut water |

WebMD reports that coconut water has fewer calories and less sugar than many sports drinks, and definitely most sodas. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a blank check in terms of drinking all the coconut water you want. “One 11-ounce container has 60 calories and if you drink several in one day, the calories can add up quickly,” Registered Dietitian Lilian Cheung told the publication. To reduce the negative impacts, stick with plain versions instead of the flavored (and likely extra-sweetened) varieties.

As long as you drink in moderation, coconut water is likely the better choice for you in terms of fat content and overall benefits. Eating Well provides ideas for incorporating the liquid into smoothies and other recipes, although nothing’s stopping you from drinking it plain, either.

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