Coconut Milk vs Coconut Water: What's the Difference?

And how can you support sustainable coconut farming?

Cropped Hand Of Man Pouring Coconut Water In Container
Ravali Kotha / EyeEm / Getty Images

Coconut milk and coconut water are both trendy, naturally sweet beverages. It goes without saying that both come from the coconut fruit—but what distinguishes them from each other?

Here, we review the differences between these drinks and provide our best sustainable shopping tips.

What Is Coconut Milk?

Coconut milk is made from the meat of the coconut. The meat is either mixed with hot water or blended with water, then strained or pressed. The remaining liquid is opaque and sweet with a similar consistency to cow’s milk. 

Thin coconut milk consists of at least 10% fat, while thick coconut milk (or coconut cream) consists of 20% fat. Typically, only mature coconuts are harvested and used for coconut milk because the meat has higher oil content than that of younger coconuts. 

Supermarket coconut milks may include other ingredients such as guar gum, a thickening agent, vitamins and minerals, sugar, natural flavors, and more.

Did You Know?

Coconut-based milk is the fourth-highest seller among plant-based milks in the United States, with almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk taking the first three spots.

What Is Coconut Water?

Unlike coconut milk, coconut water does not need to be prepared. Crack open a coconut and the clear, sweet water inside is ready to drink. It is best to drink the water from a young green coconut versus a mature brown one. 

As for coconut water from stores, similar to coconut milk, some have added ingredients that aid freshness and flavor. We prefer brands that contain 100% coconut water and nothing else, like Harmless Harvest. 

Issues With Coconut Farming

Coconut milk and coconut water are delicious, refreshing, and more popular than ever. However, that popularity is taking a toll on the coconut farmers that are keeping the industry afloat.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization, demand for coconut products—including oil and raw materials in addition to coconut water and milk—is growing about 10% each year. This is a difficult rate for farms to keep up with, especially when accounting for the damaging impacts of climate change.

Even worse, in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India where the majority of the world's coconut farming takes place, many farmers live below the poverty line. Low incomes make it difficult to invest in the farms, creating a cycle of lower-quality crops where productivity is already on the decline.

So what can consumers do about these coconut farming challenges? One of the best ways to help is by choosing coconut-based products wisely. Fair Trade Certified lists certified coconut products that support family farmers and work to revive coconut production in areas that need help.

Treehugger Tips

  • Seek out Fair Trade labels on coconut water or milk products. A Fair Trade label indicates that farmers are paid a decent livable wage and have ethical working conditions.
  • Opt for organic coconut water and milk, another indicator that the coconuts used were farmed more sustainably.
  • Note brands' packaging specifics—whether their bottles or cartons are recyclable, etc.—as well as any sustainability objectives listed on their websites. These details will help you avoid brands that are greenwashing.
Originally written by
Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson is a health and wellness writer with more than two decades of experience. She is the author of Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines.
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