Coconut Water – The truth in a nutshell

Whether you’ve tried coconut water or not, you have to admit, this beverage has been riding a tremendous tidal wave of sales.   The growth of coconut water consumers has been no less than outstanding as this drink, referred to by Hawaiians as “dew from the heavens,” has been soaking up a sales growth of 30% annually.  It shows no signs of slowing down and its popularity continues to crack wide open.

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Just so we’re all on the same page, coconut water is not the same thing as coconut milk.  Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside young green coconuts whereas coconut milk is made from the inside coconut meat along with water.  Coconut water has no fat and minimal calories compared to coconut milk which has a lot of saturated fat and is much higher in calories.

The main driver of this coco-nutty craze seems to be the associated health benefits it boasts - from its potassium power to its performance in aiding hydration.  What is the truth in regards to the health claims – does it live up to its marketing tactic as “nature’s sports drink” while it seems to effortlessly freefall from grocery store shelves into consumers shopping carts?  Let’s explore this coconut water craze and see where the truth lies. 

Is it true – Is coconut water low in sodium but high in potassium?

Yes on potassium and maybe on sodium.  An 8 ounce serving of coconut water contains 600 mg out of the 4700 mg of potassium recommended daily for both males and females from age 14 and up.  In comparison, a medium banana, which is often suggested as a good source of potassium, has 422 mg of potassium.  So if you are someone who regularly doesn’t eat enough potassium-rich foods like fruits and vegetable, coconut water can be a very good alternative.   However, there are other rich food sources of potassium such as potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, orange juice, spinach and strawberries that should also be part of a healthy diet.

The sodium content of coconut water will vary amongst brand names.  Read the nutrition facts panel to see how many milligrams of sodium a serving contains to get the real picture of its sodium content.  Try to choose coconut water that has less than 200 mg of sodium, particularly if you have high blood pressure.  If you choose plain water, it has very negligible amounts of sodium. 

Is it true – Can coconut water be substituted for a sports drink for hydration?

What matters is how long and strenuous the workout is.  If you are more of a recreational exerciser who is working out less than 60 minutes a day without working up much of a sweat, coconut water can be a refreshing beverage to choose as it has a light nutty flavor, does provide an excellent supply of potassium and tends to have fewer calories than most sports drinks.  But plain water would also suffice.

But if you are working out at a higher intensity and longer duration more than 60 minutes a day, then coconut water is not your beverage of choice as a post-exercise drink.  Athletes working out at a higher level need a recovery drink that will replace electrolytes lost in sweat such as potassium and sodium.  Coconut water is low in sodium yet high in potassium which is not the right ratio of what athletes need.  Athletes require a beverage with sufficient sodium, potassium and carbs to replenish what their bodies have lost during the workout.  This is where the better beverage choice would be a sports drink.  However, a person could drink coconut water along with eating a salty food such as pretzels to make up for the lack of sodium in the coconut water. 

Is it true – Is coconut water better for you than drinking fruit juice?

Depending on what nutritional value you are looking for, it could be.  As an example, if you do a side-by-side comparison of coconut water to orange juice, this is what you get:

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As you can see, coconut water has less calories, less sugar and more potassium than orange juice but orange juice has more vitamin C, more calcium (if calcium fortified) and no sodium.  So it really boils down to what nutrients you value – if you’re watching your calorie and sugar intake and you already get in sufficient amounts of vitamin C and calcium from other foods, then coconut water may be for you.  But if you aren’t worried about calories and you don’t eat enough food sources of vitamin C and calcium, then orange juice may be the better beverage. 

Is it true – Does coconut water hydrate you better than water?

Here the answer is no.  Unless you have been exercising and working up a sweat for more than 60 minutes, there is no better beverage to hydrate you than water.  Water has no calories while coconut water has 46 calories in one cup. Since there is nothing to break down or digest in water, it rapidly leaves the digestive tract and enters into the body tissues quicker thus minimizing dehydration.  

Is it true – Is coconut water beneficial for preventing heart disease?

Coconut water is rich in potassium which is why it has been noted for possibly helping prevent heart attacks and strokes.  The mineral potassium doesn’t treat heart disease but it does aid the heart by regulating blood pressure and plays a role in allowing the heart to squeeze blood throughout the body.  Drinking coconut water along with consuming other good sources of potassium will all help improve the chance of lowering your risk of developing heart disease. 

Is it true – Can coconut water help cure a hangover?

Possibly.  Alcohol dehydrates the body of fluids so the more fluids you drink that contain primarily water, the quicker you recover and the better you will feel.  Coconut water won’t do as good of a job as drinking just plain water but if you want something with flavor and a high water content, then coconut water can be an acceptable alternative for rehydrating yourself after a night of imbibing. 

Is it true – Are there drawbacks to coconut water?

Just like with any food or beverage, if coconut water is consumed in moderation, it should be fine.  Because of its high potassium content, overconsuming could lead to a potassium toxicity particularly in people with renal disease. 

The price tag of coconut water can be another drawback as it tends to be more costly than other beverages. 

There are numerous health claims associated with coconut water but at this time the research is not there to support many of the claims and until more research is conducted,  any health claims are speculative. 

Read labels carefully as coconut water that is flavored and has added sugar will have more calories possibly leading to weight gain.    

Is it true – Is coconut water a good beverage choice?

Overall, coconut water in moderation can be part of a healthy diet and incorporated into recipes as long as it doesn’t completely replace regular water for hydration or replace eating other potassium rich foods.  It’s not a miracle beverage but it can certainly be enjoyed for its unique flavor and some of the health benefits it may provide.  


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ABOUT CHERYL MUSSATTO

REGISTERED DIETITIAN

Cheryl Mussatto has over 30 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and has worked in a variety of settings that cover a wide span of nutrition experience.  Currently she works as an adjunct professor for two community colleges, Allen Community College in Burlingame and Butler Community College in Council Grove, Kansas teaching two courses, Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition. Cheryl also is a contributing author for osagecountyonline.com, an online newspaper and Edietitians, a global free nutritional and health magazine. Her articles for both publications pertain to nutrition topics that cover a diversity of health and nutrition interests for the general public.  She is also certified as a health and wellness coach.