The Great Coconut Conundrum

The coconut section in the canned foods aisle of the grocery store is a confusing place. Not because it is hard to find but because there is an array of cans lined up on the shelves that are all seemingly the same.

glasses of coconut milk with whole coconuts


If you don’t know the vernacular or what you are looking for specifically, it can be quite the conundrum.

You’ve got crème de coconut, coconut cream, and coconut milk in a range of fat percentages. For those of you that are as dizzy as I am when it comes to canned coconut products, look no further than this guide. 

First thing to note: these are not the same products and should not be used interchangeably. Second thing to note: always check to see if they are sweetened or unsweetened. Sweetened coconut milk in your curry isn’t going to be ideal.

Here is a breakdown of each type of canned coconut.

What is coconut milk? 

Coconut milk is an amazing ingredient that gives whatever you add it to a dairy like flavor (without the dairy) and a tropical feel. Great in coffee, for yogurt making, in sweet and savory dishes, and as a vegan substitute for many recipes using traditional dairy products. It is known as “vegan milk”.

To make it, they grate the white flesh of ripe coconuts and puree it with water. That is then strained of the solids and there you have it, coconut milk. It’s not really rocket science which is great for all of us at home. 

And while you can make it at home, it is super easy to run to the store to buy cans of the stuff. These can be found in the international food aisle or in specialty grocery stores. In a pinch, the internet will help you out.

When using canned coconut milk, you will notice a solid white “cap” when you open the can. This is known as coconut cream and is very rich and high in fat. This is meant to be used along with the more liquid milk below.

It can be a little tricky to get out of the can, so a good vigorous shake before cracking the can open is something I highly suggest. 

What is coconut cream?

Coconut crème is made from coconut, water, and most often a stabilizer like guar gum. It has far more coconut than coconut milk which gives it a thicker, more rich and luscious texture. 

Coconut crème is not sweetened (for that see cream of coconut below) and is therefore great in both sweet and savory dishes. Think everything from Pina Colada Ice Cream and cocktails to velvety curries and savory chicken casseroles. The sky is the limit! 

This can be found in most grocery stores. Take a second to read all the labels carefully as there are subtle differences all over the place when it comes to this in terms of fat content much like whole milk versus 2%. 

Full fat is thicker in texture and flavor and can be used in cooking or baking. Be mindful to use the fat percentage a recipe calls for.

What is crème de coconut aka cream of coconut? 

Cream of coconut is to coconut milk what condensed milk is to regular milk. The most common brand name is Coco Lopez.

It is a product created by adding a good, healthy heaping of sugar, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t delicious. 

To make it, they make coconut cream and add sugar. There might be some additional stabilizers there but for the most part, it is as simple as that. 

This product is often used for things like tropical drinks, frozen drinks, and even ice cream where intense sweetness and flavor are needed. If you open a can and don’t use it all, try stirring it into your iced or hot coffee in the morning. You won’t be disappointed. 

Friendly Reminder

When you are in the store, and I can’t stress this enough, read those labels carefully. My eyes have played tricks on me more than one time. 

Happy shopping and we would love to hear what product you used for what recipe!

close up of coconut milk
Jessica Formicola in her ktichen

About the Author

Jessica Formicola

Jessica the mom, wife and chef behind Savory Experiments. You might see her on the Emmy- nominated TV show Plate It! or on bookshelves as a cookbook author. Jessica is a Le Cordon Bleu certified recipe developer and regularly contributed to Parade, Better Homes & Gardens, The Daily Meal and more!

Read More About Jessica

Join The Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *