Coconut water is showing up everywhere. People drink it at the gym, the beach, on hiking trails, even while just taking a stroll or sitting at their desks. It’s touted by athletes and celebrities such as Alex Rodriguez, Matthew McConaughey and Madonna, some of whom have a financial stake in products. No question, this tropical tonic is healthful and hydrating. But sold as a “functional beverage,” it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Coconut water is the thin liquid inside young green coconuts—not to be confused with creamier coconut milk, which is made by grating and squeezing the white flesh of older coconuts (the water is absorbed into the flesh as the coconut ripens). It provides lots of potassium (about 550 milligrams per 8 ounces, more than a banana), along with other electrolytes—sodium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. Some brands are fortified with extra nutrients, like vitamin C. Pure coconut water, with a mildly sweet flavor from natural sugars, is virtually fat-free and low in calories—though some products have more due to added sugars and/or fruit purée.
Better than Gatorade?
Coconut water is widely promoted as a natural sports drink because of its electrolytes. A Malaysian study in 2002 found that it was as good as a carbohydrate-based sports drink for rehydration and restoring blood sugar levels after exercise, plus it caused no stomach upset and was easier to drink in large quantities.
Coconut water generally has much more potassium and less sodium than traditional sports drinks. Commercial brands typically have 60 milligrams of sodium or less per eight ounces, compared to about 100 milligrams in sports drinks. A recent analysis from Consumerlab.com, however, found that two out of three popular coconut water brands contained even less sodium and magnesium than their labels claimed. One had just 11 milligrams of sodium (not 60 as listed).
Keep in mind, though, that unless you work out intensely for more than an hour, you don’t need any sports drink or extra sodium—plain water is just fine.
Calling all claims
Because coconut water has an electrolyte balance similar to that of blood, it has been called “the fluid of life.” During World War II, it was used as a substitute for intravenous plasma. Some preliminary research suggests it may have positive effects on blood pressure (due, in part, to its potassium) and cholesterol. And it may be helpful in cases of mild diarrhea. But don’t believe claims that it can control diabetes, fight viruses, speed metabolism, treat kidney stones, smooth your skin, stop dandruff or prevent cancer.
Bottom line: Drink coconut water if you find it refreshing or want to replenish electrolytes after a long workout. It’s a good source of potassium, which most of us could use more of. And it’s better for you than soda or other sugary beverages. But don’t buy into the hype that it has special healing properties.