A coconut next to glass jars of milk and shaved coconut

Coconut Milk Vs. Coconut Cream, Water and Oil

I love coconut in all of its forms, but seriously… I’ve hardly ever met a more confusing food! Sure, we all know what a coconut is, and odds are you’ve cracked one open and eaten the white meat inside. Coconut chips aren’t really a mystery, either; they’re just shaved, baked strips of coconut. But beyond that point, it starts to get murky.

What’s the difference between canned and refrigerated coconut milk? Between coconut milk and coconut cream? Between cream of coconut and creamed coconut? If all this has you baffled, I understand—and I’m here to help. Here’s a quick look at the different forms of coconut you’ll come across at the grocery store or health food store.

Coconut milk in a can.

Canned coconut milk starts out as the flesh of the coconut. It’s finely grated, steeped in hot water, and finally squeezed through cheesecloth to reach its final form. It has much the same consistency as cow’s milk, and It’s great in soups, smoothies, shakes, and curries. It also makes a terrific coffee creamer. When recipes call for coconut milk and don’t specify which type, go with the canned version.

Also, whether a recipe calls for full-fat or low-fat coconut milk, always reach for full-fat; it tastes better, and it’s better for you. Canned coconut milk typically separates in the can, creating a thick layer of cream on top and a thinner layer of milk on the bottom. That’s why it’s a good idea to shake the can vigorously before you open it. By the way, full-fat canned coconut milk is a “yes” fat on either of my diets; count one-third to one-half of a can as a serving of fat.

Refrigerated coconut milk.

This is a thin liquid that contains very little fat. You can’t substitute it for canned coconut milk, but it’s a nice swap for milk in a smoothie. If you buy refrigerated coconut milk, make sure it’s free of added sugars and carrageenan, an additive that’s highly inflammatory. You don’t need to count refrigerated coconut milk as a fat on your diet.

Coconut cream in a can.

Coconut cream is much like canned coconut milk, but it’s thicker and contains less water.  You can substitute it for dairy cream or half-and-half in many recipes—but if you’re doing one of my diets, stick to coconut milk until you’re done. If you’re shopping for coconut cream, be sure you don’t buy cream of coconut instead. This is coconut cream mixed with lots of sugar—the coconut version of condensed milk.

Coconut water.

This is a clear liquid drained from young green coconuts. It’s rich in potassium and lower in sugar than sodas and some fruit juices, but it’s still carby and it lacks the healthy fats of other coconut products. This is one coconut product to use sparingly.

Creamed coconut.

Creamed coconut is ground, dehydrated coconut meat that’s compressed into a block. It’s rich, creamy, and a little sweet, and it’s one of my favorite new foods. Creamed coconut is different from coconut oil (see below). It’s also different from coconut milk or coconut cream, because it’s solid—but you can actually turn creamed coconut into coconut milk or coconut cream just by mixing it with water, so it’s very versatile.

Coconut oil.

This is oil pressed from the coconut. It’s great for cooking and baking, and it’s rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) that stimulate your metabolism so you burn fat faster. You can buy virgin or refined coconut oil. The virgin version has more nutrients, while the refined version has no coconut taste or aroma.

Whew—does it all make sense now? I hope so… and I hope that you’ll make coconut a regular part of your diet, because it’s a superfood that smooths your skin, nourishes your cells, and helps you lose weight. To help you get started, here’s an easy, delicious recipe from my new book, The 10-Day Belly Slimdown.


Red bell pepper soup in a yellow bowl


Prep Time: 15 Minutes • Cook Time: 25 Minutes • Makes 4 to 6 Servings

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 4 cups chicken bone broth
  • ½ cup full-fat coconut milk
  • 2 cups jarred roasted red peppers, pureed in a blender or food processor
  • 3 cups roughly chopped chard or baby spinach
  • ½ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Celtic or pink Himalayan salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large stockpot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and onion and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring, for 6 to 8 minutes, until softened. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the broth, coconut milk, and pureed peppers. When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add the chard or spinach, basil, salt, and pepper and simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes. Serve warm.