Coconut Milk vs. Almond Milk: Which Is Healthier?

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When it comes to coconut milk vs. almond milk, which is healthier? An RD reveals the nutrition, calories, and health benefits of each.

Coconut milk vs. almond milk

If you’ve purchased plant-based milk on a recent grocery haul, you’re not alone. According to a Harris Poll conducted for the grocery service Instacart, the number of people who purchased plant-based milk rose by 27 percent in 2020.

The survey found that almond milk is the most popular choice, although coconut milk is the leading pick in the Pacific Northwest. Either way, both plant-based milks are winning over fans.

Just how do these dairy alternatives compare? Read on to learn about the nutritional differences between these two trendy milks.

Who should try almond or coconut milk?

Almond milk, coconut milk, and other plant-based options are suitable for a variety of reasons.

If you’re lactose intolerant or are allergic to cow’s milk, these plant-derived alternatives make for good substitutes in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, coffee, and baked goods without producing any troubling effects.

These kinds of milk can also help you reduce your consumption of animal foods, something many people are striving to do. The reality is that even dairy drinkers consume alternative milk sometimes.

According to an International Food Information Council (IFIC) report, about one in four milk drinkers chose a plant-based alternative at times.

Both coconut milk and almond milk are considered nut milks, so those with nut allergies are better off with something like soy milk, oat milk, or hemp milk.

Young man at home drinking a glass of milkEva-Katalin/Getty Images

Coconut milk

How it’s made

There’s a difference between the coconut milk sold in cans and the stuff sold in cartons.

The former is made from grated and squeezed coconut meat and is a higher-fat, thicker blend most commonly used for cooking. The latter has been diluted with water, so it more closely resembles the consistency of low-fat milk.

Coconut milk isn’t always just a carton of coconut and water. It may also contain gums, which are used as thickeners, and vitamins and minerals among the ingredients. Most thickening agents are fine, but carrageenan has been tied to gut inflammation, so you may want to avoid it.

Many kinds of plant-based milk, including coconut milk, are sweetened with added sugar.

Still, it’s better to consume unsweetened coconut milk since, on average, adults consume roughly 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day—way too much. For perspective, the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting added sugar intake to six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men.

While the nutrients added to enhance coconut milk can vary from brand to brand, it’s ideal to seek a variety that’s fortified to match the calcium and vitamin D content of dairy milk.

If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you may also want to select one that’s fortified with vitamin B12, which is an essential vitamin that’s only found naturally in animal foods.

Benefits of coconut milk

Coconut milk stands out because it’s a source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This type of fat is notable because it potentially increases your metabolism and reduces body fat. (MCT oil may have other benefits as well.)

The science isn’t settled when it comes to the benefit of MCTs in coconut milk. Studies involving MCTs typically use a supplement version.

Since coconut milk has been diluted with water, it doesn’t provide the same amount of these fats. Therefore, it’s hard to say whether you’ll benefit in the same way from MCTs found naturally in coconut milk.

But there are other potentially beneficial components in this milk alternative.

It contains phenol compounds, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Food Science. In theory, these antioxidants protect against the oxidative stress that’s tied to the development of cancer, heart disease, and other conditions, but getting them from coconut milk hasn’t been studied in humans.

Your best bet for protecting your health is to eat primarily whole or minimally processed fruits and vegetables and other plant foods (such as nuts and whole grains).

Coconut milk can certainly be an addition to this eating pattern, but it shouldn’t be considered a sole source of antioxidants.

Coconut milk concerns

The main drawback of coconut milk is its high saturated fat content. That’s the type of fat that’s linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

While there is a lot of confusion over saturated fat, the AHA recommends limiting it to no more than 13 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie diet. That means that if you’re eating fewer calories, your saturated fat intake should be lower.

The AHA  suggest capping saturated fat at no more than 6 percent of your total calories. And, in fact, a 2020 Cochrane Review of 15 studies with over 59,000 participants found that lowering saturated fat intake led to a 21 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

In other words, cutting your saturated fat intake could reduce your chances of a heart attack or stroke.

Also, while ordinary milk has eight grams of protein per cup, coconut milk has almost none. This may not be an issue if you’re consuming it with other sources of protein or you’re careful about making up the protein deficit.

But it’s not ideal for kids.

Since plant-based milk isn’t a nutritional match for cow’s milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages giving anything but dairy milk to young kids unless there’s an allergy or another medical need to replace it.

Almond milk

How it’s made

Almond milk is made from ground almonds that have been soaked and then filtered to separate out the solids. It’s also diluted with water.

Much like coconut milk, almond milk is then enhanced with various gums to thicken and stabilize it. Sugar is also commonly added to almond milk, and it may get fortified with nutrients, such as calcium and vitamins D and E.

Benefits of almond milk

Almonds contain prebiotic fiber, which means almond milk has this fiber too, according to a review published in the Journal of Food Science Technology.

Prebiotic fiber (not to be confused with probiotics) is a type of fiber that feeds your good gut bacteria, allowing them to thrive.

But don’t count on almond milk to meet your fiber needs. Overall, it isn’t a good source of fiber. Instead, try to eat about 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day by choosing a variety of fiber-filled plant foods, whether or not you’re drinking almond milk.

Almond milk is low in calories, fat, and carbs, which can be helpful if you’re trying to lose or maintain your weight. It’s also low in saturated fat. The main type of fat in almond milk is monounsaturated fat, which is also found in olive oil.

Several studies indicate that this type of fat may be helpful with weight loss and weight management as well as lowering unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels.

Of course, almond milk won’t deliver these benefits alone. But it can be part of a healthy eating plan that promotes a healthy weight and heart.

Almond milk concerns

Almonds are very nutritious, supplying protein, manganese, magnesium, and copper, among other nutrients and bioactive substances. That said, almond milk is diluted and contains few almonds, so it has relatively low amounts of these compounds.

You don’t need to worry about getting these nutrients from almond milk if you’re eating almonds and other foods that supply them, though.

Similar to coconut milk, almond milk is low in protein and therefore isn’t recommended for young kids. Plus, almond milk can be high in added sugars, which are tied to numerous health problems, from heart disease and high blood pressure to memory problems and vision disorders.

And, as with coconut milk, if you see carrageenan among the ingredients, you may want to steer clear.

Nutrition facts of coconut milk vs. almond milk

When it comes to coconut milk vs. almond milk, their nutrient profile varies. Here are the nutrients and percentages of recommended daily value (DV) in one cup of each:

Coconut milk

Calories: 76

Fat: 5 g (6 percent DV)

Saturated fat: 5 g (25 percent DV)

Sodium: 46 mg (2 percent DV)

Carbohydrates: 7 g (2.5 percent DV)

Fiber: 0 (0 percent DV)

Protein: 0.5 grams (1 percent DV)

Calcium: 459 (35 percent DV)

Vitamin D: 2.44 micrograms (12 percent DV)

Potassium: 46 mg (1 percent DV)

Iron: 0.7 mg (4 percent DV)

Vitamin B12: 1.54 mcg (64 percent DV)

Almond milk

Calories: 37

Fat: 2 g (2.5 percent DV)

Saturated fat: 0.2 g (1 percent DV)

Sodium: 176 mg (8 percent DV)

Carbohydrates: 3 g (1 percent DV)

Fiber: 0.5 g (2 percent DV)

Protein: 1 g (2 percent DV)

Calcium: 449 mg (35 percent DV)

Vitamin D: 2.44 micrograms (12 percent DV)

Potassium: 163 mg (3 percent DV)

Iron: 0.7 mg (4 percent DV)

Vitamin B12: 0 mcg (0 percent DV)

How to use coconut milk vs. almond milk

Both coconut milk and almond milk can be used in ways you traditionally use cow’s milk, such as to lighten coffee, as an ingredient in baked goods, and mixed with cereal or oatmeal.

Coconut milk has a coconutty flavor, which may not pair well with certain recipes.

Unsweetened, plain versions of these milk substitutes also work well in savory recipes. But if a recipe specifies a type of milk, you may want to use that product for the best results.

The cost of coconut milk vs. almond milk

On Amazon, a 64-ounce carton of 365 unsweetened coconut milk sells for around $3, the same price as 64 ounces of 365 unsweetened almond milk.

Of course, the price will vary depending on where you shop and the brand you buy. Don’t be surprised if coconut milk runs a little higher in price.

Which plant-based milk is better?

If you’re seeking plant-based milk because of lactose intolerance, a milk allergy, or concerns for animal welfare, both coconut and almond milk are suitable options.

But if you’re looking for the lowest-calorie option with the healthiest fat profile, almond milk is the winner.

No matter which milk you choose, always select an unsweetened variety and make sure that it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D at levels that are roughly equivalent to cow’s milk.

And plan to eat enough protein from other sources since neither milk has a meaningful amount.

Next, learn how to make cashew milk.

Sources

Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD
Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, is a national nutrition and wellness expert, author, and columnist. Her latest book is "Sugar Shock." You can follow Samantha's practical balanced eating advice on Instagram @nutritionistsam.