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Sweetened vs Unsweetened Coconut in Baking Recipes

I am a big fan of coconut and use it in recipes whenever I can. I use coconut milk, coconut cream and shredded coconut on a regular basis. Shredded coconut is probably the most commonly used type of coconut when it comes to baking, both because it is widely available and easy to use. There are two types of shredded coconut out there: sweetened and unsweetened. The sweetened coconut has sugar added to it before the fresh coconut is dried, so it is fairly moist and quite sweet, with a strong coconut flavor. Unsweetened coconut is simply dried coconut and it tends to be a bit drier than its sweetened counterpart, as well as milder in flavor.

The most commonly found in grocery stores in my area and in most of the US is sweetened shredded coconut. If a recipe calls for “shredded coconut,” it is safe to assume that they expect you to use sweetened, shredded coconut. That being said, unsweetened coconut is becoming more and more widely available and I often am asked which is better for baking , or whether the two types of coconut can be substituted for one another

The simple answer is that the two are pretty much identical in how they behave in recipes, mixing in easily and adding a nice, chewy texture. You can use these two types of coconut interchangeably in a recipe and get good results. In the event that a specific type is called for in a recipe, I would try to stick with it because the two coconuts taste a bit different and the recipe may very well have taken that into account with the amount of sugar, etc. that is included in the formula. The sweetened coconut has sugar added to it before drying, so it tends to be a bit more moist from the outset, while unsweetened coconut is drier and slightly chewier. There is a small chance that sweetened might be slightly too sweet in a recipe that specifically calls for unsweetened, but the amount of sugar that is in sweetened coconut is unlikely to have a major impact on the overall sweetness of a recipe. If no specific type is called for, you can certainly use what you have on hand or whichever type you personally prefer to work with.

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17 Comments
  • Heidi
    November 5, 2009

    I have never once been able to find unsweetened coconut in a store around here (I live in the Denver area), yet every recipe I’ve ever made that called for coconut specified unsweetened. Wonder where the recipe-writers are finding it?

  • LaChelle @ Sugar Duchess
    November 5, 2009

    I had no idea the two were so similar! I’ve never been able to find unsweetened coconut around here, so this is good to know. Thanks 🙂

  • Confectionate
    November 5, 2009

    I LOVE coconut! In all forms. I made an amazing coconut cake, which might just be the best thing I have ever made/tasted!! It was a recipe adapted from a Martha Stewart Recipe. I highly recommend you try it!!http://confectionate.blogspot.com/2009/03/delicious-coconut-layer-cake.html

  • hotspot shield
    November 5, 2009

    Gerry, a very interesting post thanks for writing it!

  • Nutmeg Nanny
    November 5, 2009

    Great info! I know I usually have an easier time finding sweetened but have found natural stores and sometimes ethnic markets is where I find unsweetened.

  • iphone
    November 9, 2009

    That’s something,That’s what I was thinking.Brilliant idea.

  • Laura
    April 13, 2011

    Trader Joe’s sells unsweetened cocoanut and you can buy it online at King Arthur Flour.
    http://www.kingarthurflour.com/

  • Jenny
    June 2, 2011

    Bob’s Red Mill flour also sells unsweetened coconut and its available at grocery stores like QFC.

  • Lyn
    July 17, 2011

    I had never heard of sweetened coconut until today when looking for a recipe for coconut macaroons. How much extra sugar would I need to add to unsweetened cocnut to get the same sweetness level in my baking?

  • Jo Alice
    June 14, 2012

    Fresh frozen unsweetened coconut can often be found in the frozen food section of the grocery store…it’s in with the other frozen fruit.

  • Sherri
    June 30, 2012

    Thank you, Jo Alice. My son was recently diagnosed as pre-diabetic and we have been scrambling to convert our recipes so that he can eat them. I have not been able to find unsweetened coconut but never thought to look in the frozen section. Thanks!

  • Deborah
    November 13, 2012

    Interesting – i just posted a recipe that calls for unsweetened coconut – and people are asking me where to get it. I don’t think I really paid attention that what I was buying in the grocery store was NOT unsweetened. I did find it on Amazon 🙂

  • Susan
    June 1, 2013

    Vitamin Cottage (Natural Grocers) and King Soopers in Boulder, CO carry unsweetened. In K.S. it is in the “natural foods” and organic section. Perhaps by now other grocery stores in other parts of the country carry it, too.

  • Nancy
    July 30, 2015

    My question is this. Recipes don’t specify which coconut to use. They simply say 1 cup shredded Coconut, and maybe a tbs.of sugar. When I see this should I assume as a general rule that if it doesn’t say Sweetened to use Unsweetened?
    Thanks, hoping to clarify.
    Nancy B Brismeur
    July 30, 2015

  • Nicole
    July 30, 2015

    Nancy – In a recipe that does not specify, it is safe to assume that you are expected to use sweetened coconut. It is still much more common than unsweetened coconut and is generally the “default” coconut for baking. That said, you will be able to interchange them in almost all recipes without difficulty if you don’t happen to have sweetened coconut on hand.

  • Gaby
    December 21, 2016

    I always knew there was sweetened and unsweetened coconut but never knew when to use which. This was extremely helpful, thank you!

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