Coconut Water: Health Drink or Hype?

 Coconut water is the trendy new health drink. You’ve probably seen these bottles of coconut water everywhere. It’s sold in my gym and the café at the hospital where I work. Giselle drinks it. Everyone was drinking it at the Gold Coast triathalon I did this Sunday (Zico was a sponsor).  So what’s the deal with coconut water? Is it a health drink or marketing hype?

What is coconut water?
Initially when I heard “coconut water”, I had assumed it would be like coconut milk – loaded with calories and fat (much of it saturated fat). However, there is a big difference… coconut milk comes from the pulp of the fruit, whereas coconut water comes from the inside of green or young coconuts. Coconut water is low in calories and relatively high in electrolytes. Here are some of the claims of coconut water:

– In times of famine and war, coconut water has been used as an intravenous fluid and saved many lives. It’s the only natural substance that can be safely injected into the human blood stream. (Hmmm… I don’t think New York Presbyterian Hospital- where I work – will start running IV’s with coconut water!)- Now modern science has validated its effectiveness, especially as a natural sports drink.

– Contains the five essential electrolytes your body needs to keep nerves firing, muscles moving and to help manage stress.

– One serving (11 oz) has more potassium than a banana  and 15 times more than most sports drinks – to prevent cramping.

– Drink coconut water before or during a workout for the natural energy you need for optimal performance.

– After a workout, it replenishes and re-hydrates you to speed recovery.

 Nutritional breakdown of Coconut water (brands include Zico, O.N.E., Naked)
Serving size: 11 oz
Calories: 60
Carbohydrate: 15 gm
Sodium: 60 mg   (compared to sports drinks which has135 mg)
Potassium: 550 – 670 mg (compared to sports drinks which has 39 mg)
Fat and cholesterol: 0 mg

My thoughts on coconut water:
As a sports beverage:
1. If you are exercising less than 60 minutes, water is a perfect beverage.

2. However, once you are exercising longer than this, you need additional carbohydrates for fuel and electrolytes to replace what you are losing in sweat.
– Coconut water does contain a fair amount of potassium, which can be lost in sweat. However, we lose a lot more sodium as compared to potassium in sweat. The sodium content of coconut water (60 mg) is actually quite low – less than 1/2 of what is found in a sports drinks such as Gatorade (135 mg).
– For people exercising over 60 minutes, coconut water is not the sports drink of choice as it doesn’t contain adequate carbs. You need approximately 30-60 grams of carbs/hr. Compare 8 oz of a sports drink (15 gm carbs) to 11 oz of coconut water (15 gm)

3. It’s claimed that coconut water replenishes and re-hydrates you after a workout. Yes, it may rehydrate you, however it will not “replenish” you (i.e. replete your glycogen stores).  The best way to replenish your energy stores is to eat a carbohydrate rich meal/snack that includes some protein. There is no protein in coconut water and minimal carbs.

4. I also haven’t come across any good studies that have validated the effectiveness of coconut water as a sports drink. (Studies have validated the effectiveness of individual electrolytes such as potassium and sodium but not coconut water)

In general:
1. It is all natural, relatively low in calories and is a much healthier choice than soda or some of the sweetened waters.

2. I’m not aware that the average person is deficient in potassium. We can easily meet our potassium needs through food (most fruits, veggies and whole grains contain large amounts of potassium) and don’t NEED a beverage that is loaded with potassium.

3. So how does it taste? In my opinion, it  has a kind of salty sweet taste  – but not so great that I’d seek it out. Personally, I prefer water … but that’s just my opinion!

Bottom line, as this point, I don’t believe all the claims of coconut water. If you are athlete looking for the competitive edge, I’d wait to see what the research shows. But keep in mind that you need adequate carbs and sodium to perform at your best. If you are a more casual exerciser and like the way coconut water tastes, go for it!

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