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Canned vs. Carton Coconut Milk: Which is better? A breakdown of ingredients and packaging in terms of health and eco-friendliness.
What's the Difference Between Canned and Carton Coconut Milk?
Coconut milk is the super delicious liquid that comes from the meat of a coconut. (Coconut water, on the other hand, is what you find in the middle of a young coconut.) To make coconut milk, the meat is blended up or grated and the liquid is extracted typically via a cheesecloth.
Though lately this type of milk is marketed as a "dairy alternative", coconut milk stands on it's own. It is traditionally used in many cuisines, such as Indian, Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese.
If you've ever hit the supermarket in search of coconut milk, you may have noticed there are generally two types you can buy: canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk. Though both are technically coconut milk, they are considerably different in their nutritional content and how they are processed.
In this comparison, I'll start with the coconut milk you can find in a carton.
Carton Coconut Milk Ingredients
If you look at the ingredients of a carton coconut milk, you'll find a lot more than just "coconut milk" is listed. For example, on the back of a carton of Silk Original Coconutmilk, the following ingredients are listed:
Coconutmilk (Filtered Water, Coconut Cream), Cane Sugar, Contains 2% oR less of: Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D2), Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Sunflower Lecithin, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum
Here are the ingredients for another popular brand of coconut milk, So Delicious:
ORGANIC COCONUTMILK (FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC COCONUT CREAM) ORGANIC CANE SUGAR, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: VITAMIN AND MINERAL BLEND (CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, MAGNESIUM PHOSPHATE, L-SELENOMETHIONINE [SELENIUM], VITAMIN A ACETATE, VITAMIN D2, ZINC OXIDE, VITAMIN B12), SEA SALT, ORGANIC SUNFLOWER LECITHIN, ORGANIC LOCUST BEAN GUM, GELLAN GUM.
You'll see right off the bat that carton coconut milk contains processed added sugar (a healthier option that some brands offer is unsweetened coconut milk).
Also added in are synthetic vitamins, which are chemically processed and can be hard on your liver. Vitamin A Palminate has been found to accelerate cancer in laboratory studies.
Another ingredient further down the list is "natural flavor". Unfortunately, this is an area where brands don't have to disclose what "flavors", exactly, they are using - and a lot of the the time, these "flavors" are chemically processed and contain preservatives. If you eat a vegan diet, natural flavors may be an ingredient you want to avoid because these "flavors" are sometimes made of animal byproducts.
Thankfully, the two brands above do not add carrageenan to their coconut milk, but some brands do (like the kind Starbucks uses and Simple Truth by Kroger), so keep an eye out. Carrageenan is an additive that some choose to avoid because it can be harmful to your digestive system and may even be a carcinogen - read more about carrageenan here.
Canned Coconut Milk Ingredients
More simply than a carton of coconut milk, canned coconut milk (Native Forest brand) contains:
Organic Coconut Milk (organic coconut, water, organic guar gum).
These ingredients are also true of every other brand of canned coconut milk I have encountered, such as Thai Kitchen, 365, and Trader Joe's Light Coconutmilk.
No added processed sugar or preservatives are required to make canned coconut milk shelf-stable, unlike coconut milk in a carton. Without additives, the taste of the coconut milk remains authentic.
Cans Containing BPA and Health Concerns
A concern that many health-conscious people have about canned products is the use of BPA. According to EWG.org:
"BPA is a synthetic estrogen that can disrupt the endocrine system, even in small amounts. It has been linked to a wide variety of ills, including infertility, breast and reproductive system cancer, obesity, diabetes, early puberty, behavioral changes in children and resistance to chemotherapy treatments."
Many companies have removed BPA from their packaging, but some still use it.
Brands Still Using BPA: A popular brand of canned coconut milk found in almost every grocery store, Thai Kitchen, does still use BPA.
BPA-free Brands: Trader Joe's Coconut Milk (and Coconut Cream) is packaged in a BPA-free can. Coconut milk also in BPA-free cans: 365 and Native Forest.
For a rundown on what brands do and don't use BPA, refer here. If you don't see the brand you are looking for on that list, you can look it up on EWG.org.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some companies are replacing BPA with equally as harmful chemicals. I will update this post if more information surfaces about the chemicals these brands are now using in their cans.
Is Carton Packaging Safe?
While there is not much information regarding what chemicals are found in cardboard carton packaging, they are BPA-free.
Plus, just like cans, cartons are recyclable in most areas. You can check your location here to see if carton recycling is available.
What About Homemade Coconut Milk?
I'm glad you asked! (Or did you...? ;)) You can definitely make homemade coconut milk! This will ensure no added preservatives, processed sugar, or toxic packaging. You can control exactly what goes into it!
Here are some recipes for homemade coconut milk:
Are all canned/carton coconut milk brands made alike? Nope - for example, you very well might find a carton coconut milk with minimal added ingredients, which is fantastic!
Where can I find coconut milk? You can find coconut milk in groceries stores in the International aisle - specifically the Asian section. You might find an even better deal on coconut milk in your local Asian grocery store.
Does coconut milk taste like coconut? Yes, it does. Coconut milk in a carton is a bit milder since it's more diluted.
What is the best brand of coconut milk? Well, this is subjective. My personal favorite brands of canned coconut milk are Thai Kitchen and Trader Joe's. My favorite carton coconut milk is a tie between Silk and So Delicious.
What's the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream? Coconut cream is JUST the fat, coconut milk has a higher water content. You can refrigerate a can of coconut milk and the fat will settle & harden at the top if you want to extract it.
Can you substitute carton coconut milk for canned? In some recipes, absolutely! However, in recipes where a higher fat content is needed (like to make coconut whipped cream), you need to use canned coconut milk.
Now that you know the pros and cons of canned and carton coconut milk, which will you choose next time you go to the grocery store? (Personally, I stick to the cans due to the simple ingredients!)