Several years ago we were jogging along New York City’s West Side Highway alongside the Hudson River. Within blocks of each other, ambassadors from two different brands of coconut water were handing out sample beverages to bikers and runners, touting its superior hydrating ability. It was one of the first times we had heard of (and tried!) coconut water, and in the ensuing years sales have exploded. In fact, according to the Beverage Industry, coconut water sales continue to rise in 2015. If you’re wondering if you should join the coconut water believers, here are some facts to consider.
What exactly is coconut water?
Coconut water is the mildly sweet and nutty-flavored clear liquid found in the center of young, green coconuts. It contains approximately 40 calories per cup, less than half the calories found in the same amount of unsweetened fruit juices. It’s also low in fat, cholesterol-free and high in potassium. In fact, some of the companies that sell coconut water tout that an 8-ounce serving contains more potassium than a banana.
Dishes like Thai green coconut curry with chicken, coconut soup, coconut pudding and coconut sticky rice are actually made with coconut milk, which is both high in fat and calories and looks more like cow’s milk. You also don’t want to confuse coconut water with coconut cream, which is used in cocktails like piña coladas, or with coconut oil, which comes from the meat of the coconut.
What are the claims?
Marketers call coconut water “Mother Nature’s sports drink” and promise that it can help you stay hydrated and fight a hangover. Proponents also claim that because coconut water is high in potassium, which is believed to regulate blood pressure and is important for heart health, it can help prevent strokes and heart attacks. Others say coconut water has anti-aging properties and can help fight cancer and kidney stones, as well.
Does coconut water prevent strokes and heart attacks and live up to the other claims?
While potassium is important for heart health, coconut water isn’t magical—potassium is in many foods, including bananas, potatoes, beans, lentils, spinach and yogurt. And simply drinking coconut water on its own won’t magically prevent a stroke. Many of these other benefits are little more than unproven claims.
Does coconut water live up to the claim that it is “Mother Nature’s sports drink”?
Unlike most conventional sports drinks, unsweetened coconut water is a more natural way to replenish electrolytes because it is free of the sugar, artificial sweeteners and dyes. It's also high in potassium and magnesium, which are two nutrients the body needs for overall health and good performance.
However, sports drinks are only necessary when exercising intensely for longer than an hour—water is sufficient for shorter workouts. If you have a hard time drinking water when trying to hydrate, coconut water may be a good way to help you to drink more fluid (if you enjoy the taste, that is). Just keep in mind that it does contain calories. And because many people exercise to help control or lose weight, drinking back the calories they burn off isn’t ideal.
When you exercise intensely for longer than an hour, a sports drink helps provide the body with both sodium (the main electrolyte lost through sweat) and carbohydrates (which help refuel the body's energy stores). Compared to sports drinks, coconut water has fewer of these key nutrients. If you’re a fan of coconut water and exercise intensely for about an hour, you can benefit from the electrolytes, but you won’t be relying on it for carbs and sodium—and the calories won’t get as high as they could with other beverages.
How does coconut water compare to sports drinks, juice and soda in terms of sugar content?
An 8-ounce carton of unsweetened coconut water has about 40 calories and 9 grams of sugar, while 8 ounces of Gatorade contains approximately 50 calories and 14 grams of sugar. If you’re lowering your sugar intake, coconut water could be a good option if you don’t mix it with juice.
As a sports drink replacement (potassium and sodium):
Potassium: If you eat a nutrient-rich diet, it’s fairly easy to get enough potassium from the food you eat—plus, you’ll also get important vitamins, minerals and fiber along with the food. Potassium is found in unprocessed meats, milk, and fruits and vegetables such as leafy greens, fruit from vines and citrus fruits. While it seems like it would be easy to consume plenty of potassium, many Americans don’t get enough, so coconut water can boost intake a bit.
Sodium: Most people don’t work out long or hard enough to need an electrolyte replacement drink. If you’re not working out intensely for 60 to 90 minutes or more, you simply don’t need one. Water will keep you hydrated without any extra calories. If you are working out exceptionally long and hard, the mineral that you need the most of is actually sodium, and coconut water is fairly low in sodium.
The bottom line…
The main benefits of coconut water are that it’s a natural fluid and an excellent source of potassium (430 milligrams per 8-ounce serving), and many of us don't take in anywhere close to the recommended daily amount of 4700 milligrams. And, if you have a tough time consuming enough fluids because you don’t like the flavor of water, coconut water can help you to stay hydrated.