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Crazy for coconut

Coconut everything is in vogue these days—from standbys like coconut cream, coconut milk, coconut oil, and coconut aminos to newer options like coconut vinegar and even coconut chips. And my oh my, are people talking about the "wonders" these foods can employ—some of which are much overrated.

"[People say] that coconut is a weight-loss miracle cure," says Kelsey Lorencz, a Michigan-based registered dietitian nutritionist.

"While coconut oil or full-fat coconut milk can increase satiety and cause you to eat less overall, they do contain a significant amount of calories as they are so high in fats."

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In fact, if you struggle with overeating, mindful eating, or have difficulty honoring your hunger and fullness cues, consuming a lot of high-calorie coconut products could potentially result in weight gain, Lorencz says.

However, coconut-based foods definitely have important nutrients and benefits. That's why we took a look at the differences between coconut cream vs. coconut milk—and when you should reach for one over the other.

a cup of coffee © Olga Gagarova/Getty Images

Coconut cream vs. coconut milk

Is coconut cream the same as coconut milk? Nope. They're alike in the sense that they contain mostly the same ingredients—typically just coconut, water, and often a stabilizer or two such as guar gum.

"Additives like guar gum can be added to some coconut milks to help with emulsification and creaminess," says Lorencz.

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But coconut cream, hence the name, is much thicker than coconut milk. Because of this, it contains more fat and less water.

You'll typically find both coconut cream and coconut milk sold in canned and boxed forms. Coconut cream is good for making everything from vegan whipped cream to cake frosting to ice pops.

"In canned coconut milk, the cream is actually the top layer that often separates from the liquid in the can," says registered dietitian Jennifer Lease, owner of ChefGirl Nutrition in the Denver Metro area.

"You can use this in a pinch. But if you know you'll need coconut cream for a dish, I recommend choosing pure canned coconut cream."

As for coconut milk, the canned type is thicker and a typical ingredient in recipes like curries and vegan ice cream.

On the other hand, the boxed variety is typically what you'd find in a coffee shop as a milk alternative—and it also works well for pineapple smoothies and soup.

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When buying canned coconut milk, you're able to choose either a regular version or a lite coconut milk. The latter has significantly fewer calories and fat.

As for boxed coconut milk, this beverage is in both the refrigerated and unrefrigerated sections, in both sweetened and unsweetened varieties.

Sweetened coconut milk contains added sugar, and both varieties can be fortified with nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin D2, calcium, magnesium, selenium, and zinc.

How to shop for coconut cream and coconut milk

When shopping for coconut milk, look at the ingredient list and select those with little or no added sugar, advises registered dietitian nutritionist Vandana Sheth, author of My Indian Table.

If you like a plant-based milk with a sweeter taste, you can buy vanilla-flavored coconut milk that's naturally flavored and contains no added sugars.

Coconut cream, which may be called creamed coconut or cream of coconut, tends to be void of added sugar—but to be safe, look for the term "unsweetened" on the product's label.

When choosing between a can or a carton of coconut milk, think about how you're going to be using the ingredient.

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"If it will be used for eating or drinking, it's best to choose one in a carton," says Lease. "This will have a thinner consistency.

For cooking purposes, Lease recommends using canned coconut milk, which is much thicker and contains more fat.

Nutritional comparison of coconut cream and coconut milk

The nutritional profiles of coconut cream and coconut milk differ, mainly because coconut cream is a denser product. Let's take a look at the nutritional make-up of each, including daily values (DVs).

Coconut cream

This nutritional information is per 1/4 cup.

Calories: 120

Protein: 1 gram (2 percent DV)

Carbohydrates: 2 grams (1 percent DV)

Fat: 12 grams (15 percent DV)

Saturated fat: 8 grams (40 percent DV)

Fiber: 0 grams (0 percent DV)

Calcium: 0 milligrams (0 percent DV)

Iron: 1 milligram (6 percent DV)

Sodium: 10 milligrams (0 percent DV)

Coconut milk

This nutritional information is per cup.

Calories: 78

Protein: 1 gram (2 percent DV)

Carbohydrates: 7 grams (3 percent DV)

Fat: 5 grams (6 percent DV)

Saturated fat: 5 grams (25 percent DV)

Fiber: 0 grams (0 percent DV)

Calcium: 459 milligrams (35 percent DV)

Iron: 1 milligram (6 percent DV)

Sodium: 46 milligrams (2 percent DV)

Health benefits of coconut cream and coconut milk

When it comes to health benefits, both coconut cream and coconut milk boast nutrients including protein and iron.

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"Coconut cream has a good amount of minerals like iron, magnesium, and phosphorus," says Lease. "It's important to note, though, that coconut cream is typically consumed in small amounts because it's so rich."

So in the amounts people usually consume, it's not going to be a major source of these nutrients in daily diets, Lease explains.

The amount of saturated fat in both coconut cream and coconut milk is on the high side: A quarter-cup serving of coconut cream contains 8 grams, or 40 percent DV, while a one-cup serving of coconut milk has 5 grams, or 25 percent DV. The fat in both coconut cream and coconut milk can help people feel fuller for longer when eaten in moderation.

"Coconut milk can be higher in fat compared to other types of milk, but that's not a bad thing," says Lease. "Fat can make coconut milk a more satisfying choice."

For example, using coconut milk in a fruit smoothie adds fat that helps balance out the sugar in the fruit and can help you feel fuller for longer, according to Lease.

And coconut milk may offer antioxidant benefits, as well.

"Some studies show that coconut milk contains more antioxidants than dairy milk and might help decrease inflammation," says Lease.

In fact, a study in the International Journal of Food Science found that coconut milk contains phenolic compounds that provide antioxidant benefits.

  Coconut Cream vs. Coconut Milk: What’s the Difference? © Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

What to cook with coconut milk or coconut cream

Ready to try coconut milk and coconut cream? Add these tasty coconut recipes to your week.

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Coconut cream recipes

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Coconut milk recipes

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