Upon first thought, the difference between coconut water and coconut milk is as clear as, well, milk. But don't fret, you're not the only one who ponders the logistics of a lactating coconut. Coconut milk and coconut water are, in fact, two different beverages. They grace us with their tropical presence in everything from ice cream to curries, and it's time I set the record straight about the difference between coconut milk vs coconut water.

Coconut Water

ice, soda
Gabby Phi

Coconut water is the clear liquid found in the center of a green, young coconut. It's slightly sweet, rich in nutrients, and lower in calories than its canned coconut milk cousin. Before it became a health craze in the United States, people all over the tropics enjoyed the tasty beverage for many centuries.

A single cup of coconut water contains more potassium than a large banana, so many gym-goers drink it with the intention of replacing electrolyte losses during a sweaty workout. There are even documented cases of remote doctors in the tropics using coconut water instead of saline in IV bags to keep their patients hydrated.

Despite its high potassium content, registered dietitians seem to agree that getting potassium from food sources, like bananas and potatoes, and rehydrating with water is a better option. Regardless, coconut water a refreshing beverage that provides a quick tropical escape from intense uphill climbs on the treadmill.

There are many brands of coconut water on the grocery store shelf. Some are plain and some are flavored with other fruit juices. Pure coconut water has the least calories and sugar out of any form, but some people prefer the taste of the mixed fruit juices. 

Coconut Milk

milk, tea, water
Alex Frank

Coconut milk is made from the white meat of a mature, brown coconut. The fruit is shredded and simmered in water and left to soak. After the flavors from the coconut seep into the water, the mixture is strained to separate the coconut and the white, opaque milk. Using a small amount of water in the recipe yields coconut cream: a thick, whipping cream-like substance skimmed off the top of the boiled liquid. Using a larger amount of water yields the coconut milk found in large cartons at the grocery store. Canned coconut milk falls somewhere between the two. It has more water than coconut cream, but less than carton coconut milk. 

Generally, coconut milk has more calories than coconut water. With regards to coconut milk, the less water in the recipe, the higher the calories and fat content. Brands like SoDelicious, Califia, and Silk have an unsweetened, low-fat coconut milk option that's a great dairy alternative for cereal, coffee, and even baking. 

Bottom Line

tonic, soda, sweet, water, ice, milk
Gabby Phi

Bottom line of the coconut milk vs coconut water confusion: coconut milk is white, coconut water is clear, and both are delicious in their own way. They have completely different taste profiles; coconut milk is creamy and coconut water is slightly sweet and salty. The first is great as a dairy alternative in ice cream, yogurts, and coffee, and the latter is great as a grab-and-go hydration beverage. Try sipping an ice cold coconut water cocktail on a hot day or a Starbucks coconut milk latte on a cold day. You cannot go wrong.