With so many plant-based milks available in the grocery store, it can be difficult to know whether you’re making the best choice for you and your family. Ever stood with the refrigerated doors open for far too long, trying to decide between oat milk vs. coconut milk? You’re not alone!
Oat milk and coconut milk are both popular choices for vegans and people looking to avoid or reduce their dairy intake. When choosing between them, it’s important to consider their nutrition content, health implications, and culinary uses.
I’ll discuss all of these factors so that you can decide between these two non-dairy milk options with confidence!
What is oat milk?
Oat milk is a non-dairy milk alternative made from oats, the classic breakfast whole grain. Oat milk is made by1 mixing oats with water to soften them, adding enzymes to break the natural carbohydrates down into smaller sugars (a process called “hydrolysis”), adding vitamins and minerals, and using heat to kill any bacteria.
The process may vary slightly depending on the brand. For example, not all brands fortify their oat milk with additional vitamins and minerals or use hydrolysis to break the carbohydrates down into simpler sugars.
What is coconut milk?
Coconut milk is made from a mixture of fresh coconut meat and water. Coconut milk can come either in a can or a refrigerated carton, with the production method differing for each.
To make canned coconut milk, the white coconut flesh is grated, combined with water, and filtered to remove the coconut pulp, leaving thick coconut cream. This coconut cream is further pressed in order to produce coconut milk, which has a much thinner consistency.
Coconut milk sold in cartons is made by blending traditionally processed coconut milk with extra water, turning it into a drinkable beverage. As with oat milk, vitamins and minerals may be added to improve its nutrition profile and provide certain nutrients you would find in dairy milk.
Carton coconut milk is much thinner than the canned version, so food additives such as guar gum are often used to give it a creamier texture. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll be discussing coconut milk sold in cartons rather than in cans as canned coconut is used mainly for cooking, not as a milk alternative.
Oat milk vs. coconut milk nutrition
Oat milk and coconut milk are both used as vegan, dairy-free alternatives to cow’s milk, but they have some important differences in their nutrition content.
To demonstrate how oat milk and coconut milk stack up nutritionally, let’s compare two popular brands: Oatly Original Oatmilk and Silk Unsweet Coconutmilk.
An 8-ounce serving of oat milk is higher in calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber compared to the same amount of carton coconut milk. Coconut milk contains more saturated fat, with 100% of its fat being saturated. Oat milk and coconut milk are about equal in total fat and are low in iron.
Calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12 are often added to both oat and coconut milk. The amounts will vary based on how much a brand decides to add to its products, so be sure to read the nutrition facts label for each non-dairy milk.
Unfortunately, neither oat milk nor coconut milk are very good sources of protein. Soy milk, pea milk, and non-dairy milks with added pea protein are the best high-protein plant-based milks, so I recommend that vegans use one of these as their primary non-dairy milk.
You may have noticed that Oatly Original Oatmilk contains 7 grams of added sugars, but there aren’t any sweeteners listed in the ingredients. Why is this?
Some oat milk is made by using enzymes to break oats down into smaller carbohydrate bits during the production process, usually to provide a thicker texture to the final product. These smaller pieces of carbohydrate effectively act the same way that sugar does in the body and provide sweetness to the final product without the addition of sweeteners like sugar, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup.
So even though there may not be any sugar in the ingredients, Oatly labels their hydrolyzed “oat base” as added sugar as required by the FDA2. Examples of other products that use hydrolysis include:
- Oatly Original Oatmilk
- Planet Oat Original Oatmilk
- Silk Original Oatmilk
- Pacific Foods Organic Oat Original Beverage
- RISE Brewing Co. Original Oat Milk
Some brands don’t hydrolyze their oats and have zero grams of added sugar. Examples include:
- Silk 0g Sugar Unsweet Oat Milk
- Chobani Oat Zero Sugar
- Califia Farms Zero Sugar Oatmilk
- Planet Oat Unsweetened Original Oatmilk
Vitamins and minerals
Many varieties of oat milk and coconut milk are fortified with vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 in order to better match the nutrition profile of dairy milk and to better meet the needs of vegans and other individuals who avoid dairy.
Calcium and vitamin D are important for maintaining strong bones and preventing osteoporosis, while added vitamin B12 can help vegans avoid the severe neurological impairments that can result from a B12 deficiency.
Interestingly, it appears that oat milk is fortified more frequently with calcium and vitamins A, D, E, and B12 than coconut milk is. On the other hand, oat milk also tends to contain more added sugars and sodium. These were the findings of a November 2022 study3 that analyzed over 1000 plant-based milk products listed in the USDA’s nutrient database.
Of course, vitamin and mineral fortification will vary based on the brand and product. In the previous study, it wasn’t clear if any of the coconut milk products analyzed were canned, which could have skewed the data. Canned coconut milk isn’t treated like a milk alternative for drinking and usually isn’t fortified.
All in all, the best thing to do is to check the nutrition label on any oat milk or coconut milk product you’re considering and make sure they’ve been fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 at a minimum.
Oat milk may be better than coconut milk for heart health thanks to its fiber content and fat profile.
Oats contain a specific dietary fiber called beta-glucan, which remains in small amounts in oat milk. Beta-glucan is known for its ability to lower cholesterol levels and support heart health. While a cup of oat milk only contains 2 grams or so of fiber, this can add up and contribute to your total fiber intake if you drink it often.
Three disadvantages of using coconut milk as your primary non-dairy milk are that it contains no fiber or protein and is higher in saturated fat than other plant-based milks. These issues may not be a big deal unless you’re drinking multiple glasses of coconut milk every day, but they’re worth mentioning.
Prevention of kidney stones
Oat milk may offer better protection against kidney stones than coconut milk, according to a May 2022 study4 in the Journal of Renal Nutrition. This is because the oat milk tested by researchers was higher in calcium than coconut milk while being low in oxalates.
Good for lactose intolerance
Oat milk and coconut milk are both lactose-free, making them excellent choices for people with lactose intolerance.
Oat milk and coconut milk (in cartons, not canned) both have a creamy texture and mild flavor, making them great choices for:
- Adding to tea or coffee
- Using in place of dairy milk in baked goods
- Mixing in oatmeal
- Blending in smoothies
- Pouring over cereal
- Waffle & pancake batter
Coconut milk sold in cartons does have a mild coconut flavor, although it’s not as strong as the canned variety. Oat milk may taste a little sweeter compared to coconut milk (even when both varieties are unsweetened) since oats are a carbohydrate-rich food.
A major reason people are looking for alternatives to milk is its negative impact on the environment.
Fortunately, all non-dairy milks have less of an impact than dairy milk on the environment when considering factors like greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use, so both oat milk and coconut milk are good choices.
If basing your choice mainly on sustainability, oat milk might be the plant-based milk for you. According to a 2022 study published in Public Health Nutrition5, the greenhouse gas emissions in gram carbon dioxide equivalents associated with the production of a 6.8-ounce glass of oat milk, coconut milk, and cow’s milk are as follows:
- Oat milk: 60 CO2 equivalents
- Coconut milk: 101 CO2 equivalents
- Dairy milk: 213 CO2 equivalents
Oat milk has the advantage over coconut milk when it comes to its carbon footprint, but you can rest assured that both beverages fare better than dairy for the environment.
How to choose between oat milk vs. coconut milk
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to whether oat milk or coconut milk is the better choice for you. I recommend thinking about the following factors when choosing between them:
- Fortified with calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Choosing fortified non-dairy milk is one of the easiest ways for vegans to get enough calcium and vitamin D to support bone health and enough B12 to prevent neurological issues.
- Added sugars. If you can, choose unsweetened or “zero sugar” varieties. A small amount of added sugar in the context of an overall healthy diet isn’t a big problem, but it can add up throughout the day.
- Sustainability. While both oat and coconut milk are more environmentally friendly than dairy milk, the production of oat milk has less of a carbon footprint than coconut. This may influence your choice depending on how highly you prioritize sustainability.
- Blood sugar management. If you struggle to manage your blood sugar even with a balanced diet, unsweetened coconut milk may be a better choice for you than oat milk. For most people, however, the carbohydrate content of oat milk shouldn’t pose a problem, especially if choosing “zero sugar” varieties.
- Kidney stone risk. If you’re at risk for kidney stones, fortified oat milk may be a better choice than coconut milk due to its high calcium content and low oxalates.
If purchasing for your family, keep in mind that neither oat milk nor coconut milk is considered an appropriate milk alternative for toddlers and young children due to their low protein content. Fortified soy milk, pea milk, and non-dairy milk with added pea protein are recommended instead.
Oat milk and coconut milk are both delicious non-dairy alternatives to cow’s milk that are better for the environment and provide helpful nutrients for vegan or dairy-free diets.
If you’re looking for the healthiest choice between oat milk and coconut milk, I give oat milk a slight edge. Oat milk contains more protein and fiber and less saturated fat than coconut milk. In my opinion, the benefits of oat milk outweigh its added sugar content for most people.
However, if you prefer to avoid added sugars or really struggle to manage your blood sugar, unsweetened coconut milk may be a better choice. You can also choose an oat milk with zero grams of added sugar.
Unfortunately, neither oat milk nor coconut milk are great sources of protein. For this reason, I recommend that vegans use soy milk, pea milk, or non-dairy milk with added pea protein that is fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 most often. This can make a meaningful difference in the nutrient density of your diet without much effort.
That said, your choice of non-dairy milk probably won’t make or break the healthfulness of your overall diet, especially if you already get enough protein from food. Fortified oat milk and coconut milk both provide important nutrients for vegan diets and while they aren’t the only way to get important nutrients without dairy, they do make it much easier!
For more in-depth guidance, check out my guide to non-dairy milk!
Oat milk vs. coconut milk – FAQs
Which is healthier: coconut milk or oat milk?
It’s hard to definitively say whether coconut milk or oat milk is healthier since the fortification of calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12 varies by brand. Oat milk may have a slight edge as it is higher in protein and fiber while being lower in saturated fat.
On the other hand, oat milk also tends to have more added sugar. If you prefer to avoid added sugars, choose one with zero grams of added sugar on the nutrition facts label.
Which plant-based milk is healthiest?
The most nutritious plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12. Many non-dairy milks are fortified with these micronutrients, but soy milk, pea milk, and non-dairy milks with added pea protein have the additional benefit of providing 7-10 grams of protein per cup.
For these reasons, soy milk, pea milk, and pea protein-fortified non-dairy milks that are also fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12 are the most nutrient-dense choices.
What is better than coconut milk?
The disadvantages of coconut milk are that it’s higher in saturated fat than other types of non-dairy milk and doesn’t contain any protein or fiber. I recommend soy milk, pea milk, and pea protein-fortified non-dairy milks that are also fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B12 as more nutrient-dense choices.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Oatly, Inc. Our process. https://www.oatly.com/stuff-we-make/our-process. Accessed May 24, 2023.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry: Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels Questions and Answers Related to the Compliance Date, Added Sugars, and Declaration of Quantitative Amounts of Vitamins and Minerals. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-nutrition-and-supplement-facts-labels-questions-and-answers-related-compliance. Accessed May 25, 2023.
- Drewnowski A. Most Plant-Based Milk Alternatives in the USDA Branded Food Products Database Do Not Meet Proposed Nutrient Standards or Score Well on Nutrient Density Metrics. Nutrients. 2022 Nov 11;14(22):4767. doi: 10.3390/nu14224767. PMID: 36432454; PMCID: PMC9695877.
- Borin JF, Knight J, Holmes RP, Joshi S, Goldfarb DS, Loeb S. Plant-Based Milk Alternatives and Risk Factors for Kidney Stones and Chronic Kidney Disease. J Ren Nutr. 2022 May;32(3):363-365. doi: 10.1053/j.jrn.2021.03.011. Epub 2021 May 25. PMID: 34045136; PMCID: PMC8611107.
- Singh-Povel CM, van Gool MP, Gual Rojas AP, Bragt MCE, Kleinnijenhuis AJ, Hettinga KA. Nutritional content, protein quantity, protein quality and carbon footprint of plant-based drinks and semi-skimmed milk in the Netherlands and Europe. Public Health Nutr. 2022 Feb 23;25(5):1-35. doi: 10.1017/S1368980022000453. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35193730; PMCID: PMC9991740.