Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera L.) is a common tree found in the tropics that yields many food and beverage products, including coconut water, oil, milk, and cream.

However, you may wonder what sets apart coconut’s main beverages.

This article explains the differences between coconut water and coconut milk, along with the pros and cons of drinking either.

Two different beverages

The coconut fruit consists of 38% shell, 10% water, and 52% coconut flesh — also called coconut meat (1).

Both coconut water and coconut milk come from the edible part of the fruit, called the endosperm tissue (2).

However, they’re two very different coconut byproducts.

Coconut water

Coconut water is a sweet, translucent fluid that you may drink straight from young green coconuts.

It comes naturally within the fruit and is referred to as the liquid endosperm (2).

Once young coconuts start to mature, coconut water starts to harden to form coconut meat — known as the solid endosperm (2).

However, the maturation process doesn’t fill the entire coconut cavity with the meat, so you may still find some coconut water in mature coconuts.

Coconut water is a refreshing beverage popular for its health-promoting effects.

Coconut milk

Unlike the water, coconut milk is a processed coconut byproduct.

It’s made by grating the flesh of mature, brown coconuts and simmering it in hot water. The mixture is then strained to remove any solid remnants.

The amount of water used to make the milk determines its consistency, which may be either thick or thin (2).

Thin coconut milk is mostly used as a cow’s milk substitute. In contrast, thick coconut milk is usually used as a thickening agent for sauces or traditional recipes in many Indian and Southeast Asian dishes.

Summary

Coconut water and milk are two different coconut beverages. The water is found naturally within the fruit. In contrast, the milk is a processed byproduct made out of coconut meat.

Different nutritional profiles

Being two distinct coconut beverages, coconut water and milk have different nutritional profiles.

Here’s a comparison between 1 cup (240 mL) of coconut water and milk, respectively (3, 4):

Coconut waterCoconut milk
Calories46552
Carbs9 grams13 grams
Sugar6 grams8 grams
Fat0.5 grams57 grams
Protein2 grams5.5 grams
Potassium17%
of the Daily Value (DV)
18% of the DV
Magnesium15% of the DV22% of the DV
Manganese17% of the DV110% of the DV
Sodium11% of the DV1% of the DV
Vitamin C10% of the DV11% of the DV
Folate2% of the DV10% of the DV

As you can see, there are significant differences between them, starting with their calorie content.

Coconut water is a low calorie drink, while coconut milk is a high calorie one — with about a 12 fold higher number.

As for their composition, it’s no surprise that coconut water contains mainly water — about 94% — and carbs while having virtually no fat and proteins.

On the contrary, coconut milk has a lower amount of water — around 50% — with fat being its predominant nutrient (2).

However, they share some similarities when it comes to vitamins and minerals, although coconut milk has a higher folate and manganese content, whereas coconut water is higher in sodium.

Summary

Coconut water and coconut milk have very different nutritional profiles. Coconut water provides mostly carbs and water, while coconut milk provides primarily fat. Still, both are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals.

Pros and cons of drinking coconut water and milk

Coconut water and milk have multiple health benefits to offer. However, you may prefer one over the other depending on your nutritional goals and needs.

Pros

Coconut water has become quite popular among physically active people due to its ability to replenish electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, lost through sweat during exercise (2, 5).

Also, research in rats with diabetes suggests that coconut water may help lower oxidative stress, blood sugar levels, and A1c hemoglobin, an indicator of your blood sugar over the last 3 months (6, 7, 8).

Further research in rats shows that coconut water may support heart health by lowering blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels (9, 10).

Still, research in humans is needed to confirm these claims.

As for coconut milk, while around 89% of its fat content comes from saturated fats, studies show that it doesn’t cause a detrimental effect on blood lipid profiles (4, 11).

This is due to its medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) content, which may even aid weight and fat loss (12, 13).

Cons

Coconut water’s potassium levels may help lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. However, those with kidney disorders may want to limit their intake (14, 15).

An impaired renal function often leads to hyperkalemia — elevated blood potassium levels — due to the kidney’s inability to excrete potassium. Therefore, consuming too much of this mineral may have harmful effects (16, 17).

On the other hand, while coconut milk’s MCT content may have a positive effect on weight loss, it’s still a high calorie beverage. Therefore, try to limit your intake to keep your “calories in versus calories out” equation managed.

Additionally, some experts suggest that since coconut milk is a high FODMAP drink, you should limit its intake if you have a FODMAP intolerance or are following a low FODMAP diet (18, 19).

However, others classify it as a low FODMAP food. Therefore, you may want to assess your own tolerance to it to determine whether you should limit its intake or avoid it altogether (20).

FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols — a group of carbs that may cause abdominal symptoms, such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation, in some people (21).

Also, while coconut allergies are usually rare, coconuts are an emerging allergen in the United States. Thus, you should avoid drinking coconut water and milk if you’re allergic to coconuts (22, 23).

Lastly, whether you choose to drink packaged coconut water or coconut milk, always check the ingredient list and avoid those with added sugars.

Sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to an increased risk of conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes (24).

Summary

Both coconut water and milk offer plenty of health benefits. However, people with kidney disease should limit coconut water, while people with FODMAP intolerance may want to limit coconut milk. Those with coconut allergies should avoid both.

The bottom line

Coconut water and milk are often confused because they’re both popular coconut beverages.

However, they’re two distinct drinks, as coconut water occurs naturally within the fruit, whereas coconut milk is a processed beverage. They also have different nutritional profiles and culinary uses.

Although they both offer multiple health benefits, people with kidney disease may want to avoid drinking coconut water, while people with FODMAP intolerance should limit coconut milk depending on their sensitivities.

Whether you choose coconut water or coconut milk, avoid brands with added sugars to enjoy their benefits.