Canned vs. Carton Coconut Milk – Which is Better?

Musings on Conscientious Consumer Choices With Our Favorite Vacation Fruit



f your third-eye is full of too much coconut water lately, then join me on a journey into the world of coconut milk. Coconut milk is the older sister to the younger, greener coconut water. It’s made from the flesh of mature coconuts, whereas coconut water is the liquid in the center of young, green coconuts. Had those green coconut younglings not been cracked open for your post-yoga enjoyment, they would have developed into the older variety, used to make the milk, creams, oils, and fibers that we all can’t seem to get enough of today.


I certainly can’t get enough of it. No other scent says “vacation” like coconut does. A single whiff takes you back to happier times when you were perhaps vacationing in some tropical locale with turquoise water and not a care in the world. Day-drinking was appropriate then, and the aroma of coconut-y sunscreen could take you from day to evening wear without smelling weird at all. For me, the aroma of coconut brings me back even further, to my barefoot childhood in the islands. My sister and I were feral little children who didn’t operate with very many rules, but we did know two very important things: Never stand under a coconut tree when it’s windy, less one falls and cracks open your noggin. And never mess with a coconut crab. Coconut crabs are the biggest, scariest crabs around. They have one big pincher that makes their other pincher look like a T-Rex arm, and my mom would scare us with the story about the little boy who lost his forearm to a coconut crab with one mighty snap. We took note of this warning, and the nearest we’d get to them was with a fork and knife, at the table. And we loved it. Coconut crabs eat coconuts. Their meat is a delicacy that tastes a lot like a regular crab, except way better, tasting as if the crab bathed in coconut milk before making its way to our plate.

If eating coconut crab meat sounds amazing to you, then likely you’re a big fan of coconut. You’re likely to have a jar of Trader Joe’s Coconut Oil in your pantry (or bathroom, if you’re the groovy type who hails coconut oil as the one-stop-shop for all beauty needs.) You probably have a couple of different kinds of coconut milk in your pantry; A light version from that one time you were trying to be healthy. Perhaps a can of delicious Coco Lopez from when you tried to host a luau, complete with umbrella garnishments. You might also have a full-fat version of coconut milk, with labels written in Thai, from that time you attempted to make authentic Tom Kha Gai at home.

If you nod your head in agreement to any of that, then congratulations, you know your coconut milk! You rejoice in its creamy flavor that tastes so good that it seems unhealthy, but alas, you know that it’s fattiness is good fat, like avocado-good-fat. But do you know the difference between coconut milk in a can and coconut milk in a box? If you don’t, no problem, I researched for you, and it may lead you to make healthier choices on what type of coconut product you put in your body.

First, let’s agree on one thing; we’re talking about the difference between coconut milk in a can vs. box (generally Tetra-Pak(ed)) not to be confused with coconut milk in a carton. If you know your coconut milk than you know that coconut milk in a carton is labeled as a “beverage.” Find it in the refrigerated section next to other non-dairy milk alternatives, sandwiched in between the ever-so-popular almond milk and growingly popular cashew milk. It is indeed similar to coconut milk in a can; it’s just a watery, diluted version with only a hint of coconut flavor. Pair it with your morning muesli, but that’s about it.

Coconut milk in a can, on the other hand, has become a staple in the modern American pantry. It’s an easy way to make an average weekday dinner a little bit more exotic. Add a couple of cans and a few dashes of curry to ordinary carrot soup, and you have something unique, perhaps even reminiscent of that vacation you took.

Your average neighborhood grocery store probably doesn’t provide you with many options for coconut milk, so you may not even know that it’s available in a box. You’ll likely see the Thai Kitchen brand, and that’s about it. Go to an Asian grocery store, and the options may overwhelm you. You’ll see varieties in a can and box, some labeled coconut cream, some labeled milk. Note: Coconut cream and Coconut milk are made in the same process where coconut flesh is grated, then the liquid extracted. Like dairy milk from cows, the cream is thicker with higher fat content.

Coconut milk in a box is increasingly more popular due to concerns of BPA contamination. BPA stands for bisphenol A. It’s a resin that coats the inside of cans and is thought to leach into food when exposed to heat for too long. Although unsupported by the FDA, some research shows that BPA can affect the endocrine system, including functions in the brain and the development of the prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children. The Mayo Clinic advises that if you’re concerned, limit your consumption of canned food.

Luckily, we have options. Coconut milk in a box is packaged using aseptic packaging technology where the package and product are sterilized separately, unlike the canning process where the product is combined with the package and sterilized together. BPA is not used.

I prefer my coconut milk without a side of possible chemical contamination, but does it taste as good as the canned varieties I normally use? I compared two common coconut milk brands; Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk in a can and Aroy-D Coconut Milk in a box.

Here’s what I discovered:

Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk is the easiest brand to find if you don’t have time to shop in more niche markets like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Although made from organic coconuts, it’s also packaged in a non-BPA free can. The ingredients listed include water and guar gum, making it not 100% coconut milk. The taste, however, is good. It’s not too grainy, and you can find it in unsweetened or sweetened varieties to cater to different recipes. For instance, use the unsweetened type for curries and the sweetened type for desserts.

In Asian markets, Aroy-D owns the shelf space. Offered in both a can and box, the can is beneficial if you only need a small quantity for your recipe, but it’s non-BPA free. The boxed variety is BPA free but contains 33.8 fluid ounces compared to 13.66 fluid ounces in the can. Because it does not contain preservatives and guar gum, it won’t last opened in your fridge for too long. However, I like that it doesn’t contain guar gum (used as a stabilizer and thickener) because it can be irritating to the stomach. The ingredients list 100% coconut milk, however, everything else is written in Thai, so you aren’t entirely confident that there aren’t more hidden additives. But nothing beats the taste. Its taste is creamy and balanced, and you don’t need to add much salt to your recipe to bring out the coconut flavor.

Conclusion? Go with the boxed variety to ensure a BPA-free experience and always read the labels. Or get creative and make homemade coconut milk. You’ll wonder why you wasted so much time trying to be a conscientious consumer when you discover how easy it is to make coconut milk at home. Click here for a tutorial, and bring a little bit of that vacation vibe back into your kitchen.

Related Posts