Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 6, 2021

It may come as a surprise, but coconut milk is not always vegan.

Just because a product is plant-based, it doesn’t mean that it’s free from animal ingredients, or animal labor in this case.

Just like in the dairy or meat industry, animals can also be exploited in the production of foods that are commonly considered vegan-friendly.

After several days of research, I’ve gathered all the important facts into one place. Here’s what you should know before purchasing your next can of coconut milk.

How is Coconut Milk Made?

Coconut milk on a bottle and coconut crumbs

This versatile plant-based milk is extracted from the grated pulp of coconuts that grow on tropical palm trees.

The pulp is mixed with water and pureed to obtain milk-like consistency.

Depending on the fat content, coconut milk can be divided into three subtypes: coconut cream (which has the highest amount of fat), coconut milk (with a maximum of around 20% fat), and coconut skim milk with a very small amount of fat.

Coconut milk is then used as an ingredient in a variety of coconut products.

It is also often added to other types of milk, like soy milk, to enhance the flavor and nutrition value.

But, before you go ahead and grab that can of rich, creamy liquid for your vegan coco curry, let’ go back to the beginning of the production process.

What Makes It Non-Vegan?

Coconut milk on a glass with one and a half coconuts

In its essence, this non-dairy milk is vegan unless animals are used in its production.

According to PETA’s investigation, most producers often use macaque monkeys to pick coconuts from the high canopies of palm trees.

This is especially present in some Asian countries, like Thailand, where animal welfare laws are not strictly enforced [1].

‘’According to the National Primate Research Center of the University of Wisconsin, a macaque can pick between 500 and 1000 coconuts per day, while humans can only get around 80 in a day. By using animals, a farmer can harvest coconuts much faster and also get a much bigger harvest. As monkeys don’t need to be paid wages, this also saves a lot of labor costs.’’ - Eliza Barclay, npr.org

Monkeys that are trained to pick coconuts are usually chained and forced to live in small cages where they’re deprived of social contact with their species.

But it’s not just animal abuse that causes concern to many vegans.

The environmental impact of the growing coconut demand is another thing to consider when deciding to purchase any coconut products.

Coconut palm plantations cause major deforestation problems in countries like Myanmar and Indonesia.

Also Read:

How to Avoid Unethical Products?

A woman holding two coconuts

The PETA’s investigation report specifically mentions two major Thai coconut producers: Chaokoh and Aroy-D.

They also compiled a complete list of cruelty-free brands that you can find on their official website.

Here are some tips on how to avoid unethical products when purchasing coconut milk:

  1. Stay informed and know exactly which products to boycott by following the updates from PETA and other animal welfare organizations
  2. Stick to retailers with a clear stance against such unethical practices
  3. Contact manufacturers directly if you’re not sure
  4. Avoid coconut products altogether and replace them with other kinds of plant-based goods

Remember that refusing to finance the unethical practices can provide a glimmer of hope for the monkeys abused in this industry.

3 Best Cruelty-Free Brands

A group of different coconut milk brands

So, just like the dairy industry (ab)uses cows, coconut production is unfortunately also not-cruelty free.

However, there are some reliable companies whose products are ethically-sourced.

If you refuse to finance unethical practices, this doesn't mean you have to give up your favorite vegan ice cream recipe.

There are more than enough ethical companies that offer not only milk but a variety of high-quality coconut-based products.

Whether you’re hooked on canned coconut milk, coconut water, or coconut flakes, or you heavily rely on coconut products in cooking, there are some brands you can feel good about: 

  1. So Delicious
  2. Nature’s Charm
  3. Trader Joe’s

How to Use Coconut Milk?

If you like coconut or use dairy-free products for health reasons, there are numerous ways to include them in your vegan diet.

After you make sure your coconut milk is cruelty-free, you can add it to a variety of recipes, from lactose-free coffee creamer to plant-based substitute in baking - the possibilities are countless with this versatile product.

It works great for both sweet and savory dishes, and you even make insanely-delicious ice cream or yogurt out of it.

So, is Coconut Milk Vegan-Friendly?

So, is coconut milk vegan? It’s a yes, but only if it comes from ethically-sourced coconuts.

Think about it this way; replacing dairy products that use and mistreat cows, with coconut milk that may involve the abuse of monkeys, is not exactly the point of being vegan. But, at the end of the day, it’s your call.

Being a vegan doesn’t just boil down to skipping animal-derived ingredients, but also avoiding any products that involve animal suffering.

Although coconut milk is a wonderful vegan ingredient and an excellent dairy replacement that can make vegan recipes extra-delicious, it can come with a cost.

Is it really worth all the suffering? Let us know your opinion in the comments below.


References:

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/19/448960760/monkeys-pick-coconuts-in-thailand-are-they-abused-or-working-animals

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