Coconut Cream: What Is It? Is It The Same As Coconut Milk?

It’s easy to get confused when you’re researching keto or other low-carb diets. If you want to lose fat, you eat more fat? Total carbs are different than net carbs? 

It can be just as confusing when you’re simply trying to eat healthy. Are eggs good or bad for you? What about potatoes? Are carbs or fat better for you?

And should I cut down on dairy products?

If you’ve ever thought about changing your eating habits, you’ve probably heard that milk is good for you – and that milk is bad for you. And you’ve heard about supposedly-healthier alternatives like soy milk, almond milk, oat milk and coconut milk.

But when looking at keto-friendly or healthy recipes, you might see something different in the ingredient list: coconut cream.

What is coconut cream? Is it the same as coconut milk? Or cream of coconut? Is it good for you?

Wow, you have a lot of questions. Thankfully, we have a lot of answers.

What Is Coconut Cream?

It’s the non-dairy equivalent of heavy cream, derived from the meat of coconuts.

Heavy whipping cream is essentially the fat that collects at the top of milk before it’s homogenized. Coconut cream is the thicker liquid that rises to the top when coconut milk is made.

So even though coconut milk is not the same as coconut cream, it helps to understand how full-fat coconut milk is produced. (We’re not talking about light coconut milk; full-fat coconut milk contains more cream and less water.)

Meat is harvested from mature coconuts, and the fluid it contains is mechanically extracted; water may also be added. When left to sit, the liquid will separate into thinner coconut milk at the bottom and thicker coconut cream at the top.

You can do essentially the same thing to create homemade coconut cream, by simmering shredded coconut meat in water and then straining the liquid through cheesecloth. The coconut cream available in stores may have one other added ingredient: guar gum, which chemically stabilizes the mixture and ensures better consistency.

Coconut milk and cream each taste like coconut, of course. But even though it’s unsweetened, coconut cream contains more carbohydrates, fat and calories than coconut milk.

(If you’re wondering about coconut water, it’s a different product. It’s the liquid found inside a young, green coconut. And cream of coconut is also different; it’s processed coconut cream with a syrupy texture similar to condensed milk.)

Since coconut cream is plant-based, it’s great for use in vegan recipes. It’s dairy-free, gluten-free and keto-friendly (within reason). It’s also delicious.

Coconut Cream, Nutrition and Health

All of those attributes don’t necessarily mean coconut cream is good for your health. Just as with any food or beverage (with the possible exception of water and leafy green vegetables), there are nutritional pros and cons to consider.

Pros of Coconut Cream

Coconut cream is a godsend for vegans and those who are lactose-intolerant. It’s also a good choice for those who are allergic to nuts and/or soy since most alternatives to dairy milk and cream are sourced from one of those foods.

More big pluses: coconut cream contains no cholesterol, and it’s rich in potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium and zinc. You can get a little protein from this beverage as well.

Coconut appears to provide numerous health benefits, too. Most studies have focused on coconut oil, but the potential benefits include antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-fungal effects, and improved blood sugar and triglyceride levels. It may also help with weight loss.

Finally, there’s the question of carbs. Coconut cream is one of the foods that are considered keto-friendly, but only when talking about a small serving size. A tablespoon contains just one net carb, but about half a cup (90 grams) contains about 4.6 net carbs (plus 2.2 grams of fiber). 

So coconut cream is fine to add to a recipe, but it can be more problematic if you drink lots of coffee with cream every day.

Cons of Coconut Cream

Fat and calories. Those are the obvious drawbacks that jump out at you when you look at coconut cream’s nutritional information.

One half-cup of the cream contains 35 grams of total fat, which is 53% of the recommended maximum amount a healthy adult should consume per day. Even worse, almost all of that fat is saturated fat, constituting 154% of the recommended daily value for a normal diet.

The news isn’t all bad, though. Most of the fat in coconut cream is what’s called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. As keto dieters know, MCTs are the easiest fat for the body to break down and turn into the ketones it uses for fuel during ketosis. That’s a big reason why coconut cream is considered keto-friendly despite its carb content, and why coconut oil is favored in keto recipes.

Calories aren’t as easy to “explain away.” There are 327 calories in just half a cup of coconut cream; that can make a big dent in an average daily diet of 2,000 calories.

Several studies claim coconut oil may increase “bad” cholesterol levels and affect heart health, but that research is preliminary and did not look specifically at other coconut products.

Coconut Cream vs. Heavy Cream

For those who can’t consume heavy cream, coconut cream is a sensible alternative. But what about everyone else? Is coconut cream a better everyday choice than heavy cream?

In some ways, the two are comparable. For example, heavy cream contains 340 calories in half a cup, while coconut cream contains slightly less, 330 calories. Heavy cream contributes 3.2 grams of protein to a diet, and coconut cream contributes 3.6 grams, slightly more.

Now, let’s talk about fat content. There are 43 grams of total fat in half a cup of heavy cream, compared to 35 grams in coconut cream which would seem to have an edge. That doesn’t tell the entire story, though.

Coconut cream contains 34% more saturated fat than its dairy counterpart. On the other hand, heavy cream contains 1.2 grams of unhealthy trans fat per half-cup, while coconut cup contains virtually no trans fat. That last comparison is similar to the cholesterol numbers; heavy cream contains a ton of cholesterol, 137mg in half a cup, but there’s no cholesterol in coconut cream.

There’s one more important nutritional comparison. Heavy cream contributes 3 grams of net carbs (and no fiber) to a diet, fewer than coconut cream at 4.6 grams of net carbs (and 2.2 grams of fiber).

One last little bit of information: heavy cream is much richer in a wide assortment of vitamins, especially B vitamins, than coconut cream. The latter only contains vitamin B12, although in higher amounts than heavy cream. Surprisingly, coconut milk is much higher in calcium than heavy cream, despite the reputation of dairy products as a key source of the mineral.

There’s no clear winner, so we’ll leave it to you to judge which is a better choice depending on your dietary preferences and needs.

Don’t decide without considering one other factor, though: coconut cream gives food a different and slightly-exotic taste, whether you want to add coconut flavor to a favorite recipe, or simply kick a cup of coffee up a notch.

What Can You Do With Coconut Cream?

How much time do you have?

There are an incredible number of recipes that utilize coconut cream to thicken their texture, as a flavoring, or both. It’s also an ideal replacement for heavy cream; you can substitute an equal amount of full-fat coconut cream for the amount of heavy cream in almost any recipe.

Some of the best uses for coconut cream are in soups, sauces, and curries. It’s often used as a key ingredient in dishes like Thai green curry, because it balances the level of the curry’s spices and contributes a richer taste than heavy cream, along with a smooth texture.

Coconut cream is also a terrific ingredient when it’s time to make dessert. Its consistency makes it a perfect substitute for heavy cream, meaning it’s perfect for dressing up a dish with homemade coconut whipped cream.

It’s great for making ice cream and smoothies (we’ll have recipes shortly). And it provides a tasty twist on traditional desserts like chocolate mousse and coconut cream pie.

Finally, we don’t want to forget tropical drinks like piña coladas or coconut rum punch. They’re usually made with cream of coconut, but it’s easy to make them with coconut cream instead. You’ll be avoiding the added sugar that’s in cream of coconut, allowing you to savor the full taste of coconut.

Where Do You Buy Coconut Cream?

It’s easy to find coconut cream. Your local grocery stores will probably carry several brands like Thai Kitchen and Native Forest, and you can easily find an assortment of brands online.

Just be careful; it’s easy to grab a can of coconut milk or cream of coconut by mistake when you’re shopping for coconut cream. They’re similar, but not the same.

Sample Coconut Cream Recipes

Here are two of our favorites, courtesy of MinimalistBaker.com and Yummly.com.

Vanilla Coconut Ice Cream

This can be made in any ice cream maker.

  1. Combine one 14-ounce of unsweetened coconut cream, ¼ cup sugar, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and a pinch of sea salt in a blender.
  2. Blend at high speed for 1-2 minutes, until smooth and creamy.
  3. Churn in ice cream maker according to manufacturer directions, until it has the consistency of soft-serve ice cream.
  4. Freeze for 4-6 hours. Serve.

The ice cream will keep for 7-10 days in the freezer. You’ll love it.

Strawberry-Banana Cream Smoothie

This recipe makes a delicious vegan smoothie.

  1. Blend 1½ cup fresh strawberries, ½ of a frozen banana, ½ cup unsweetened coconut milk, ¼ cup coconut cream, and one teaspoon vanilla extract with three ice cubes.
  2. Serve over ice.

If you want the smoothie to be sweeter, you can add two tablespoons of maple syrup. You can also use frozen strawberries, but in that case, omit the ice cubes.

Written by Ben Knox

10 min read

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