Coconut water is packed with nutrients (see the next page). But what about all the “health claims?” Photo by DreamFoto2010 | Fotolia.
|WHAT IT IS: Liquid from the interior of immature (green) coconuts.
|WHY IT’S DIFFERENT: The terms “coconut water” and “coconut juice” are used interchangeably for a watery liquid that is about 46 calories a cup (varies by brand; flavored waters are higher). Much higher-calorie products are coconut nectar, a sap from the tree (analogous to maple syrup); coconut milk, pressed from the dried meat of the mature coconut; and coconut cream, a thicker version of coconut milk (less moisture).
WHY WE LOVE IT: Another option for a refreshing drink that’s low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals.
|WHERE TO BUY IT: At retailers nationwide.
Page 3b: Coconut Water & Electrolytes
Professionals Discuss Electrolytes In Coconut Water
Dawn Weatherwax, R.D.
Dawn Weatherwax is a registered dietitian and the founder of Sports Nutrition 2Go (SN2G). Ms. Weatherwax believes that coconut water is an effective rehydrator because it’s a liquid that contains electrolytes, but she affirms that any fruit juice is an electrolyte-containing liquid. So technically either could rehydrate effectively. However, she prefers no-sugar-added coconut water over juice, because natural coconut water won’t spike blood sugar as juice can.
Ms. Weatherwax comments that a carbohydrate solution of more than 5% or 6% can be problematic when used for rehydration. It stays in the stomach for too long and can cause an upset stomach. No-sugar-added coconut water is typically between 4 and 6% carbohydrates, so this isn’t usually an issue. Promoters of coconut water frequently cite its high potassium content, but Ms. Weatherwax regards the high level of potassium content relative to sodium content as a negative. She avers that sodium is a more important loss when people sweat; sodium helps both to hold on to water and to bring water into muscle cells. She concedes, though, that sodium replenishment needn’t be through rehydrating fluid, and that “it’s not a big deal for most people if they eat something salty fairly soon.” She emphasizes the necessity of doing label comparisons.
Look at the composition of the coconut water you’re consuming; think about the calories, as well as the amounts of protein and carbohydrates (fat isn’t a concern with most coconut water). If you exercise, she believes that a glass of coconut water after exercising is probably fine—but calories and product composition may become factors for some individuals if they ingest a lot of coconut water.
Douglas S. Kalman, MS, Ph.D, RD, FACN
Dr. Doug Kalman is a co-founder of The International Society of Sports Nutrition and the Sports Nutritionist for the Florida International University Athletic Department, among a long string of credentials. He is also a consultant to Vita Coco; their PR information includes a four-page handout he authored.
Dr. Kalman describes coconut water as “the ideal, natural beverage for the athletic and physically active person,” adding that “plain water [does not] provide your body with electrolytes and carbohydrates and great taste to satisfy your energy and hydration needs like coconut water can.”
Dr. Kalman goes on to explain that “research has shown coconut water is better than leading sports drinks for aiding in performance, rehydration and tolerance for consumption in large quantities,” citing articles from a 2002 edition of Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science and a 2007 edition of Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health.
I looked up the abstracts for both articles. The research published in 2002 does indeed support the “tolerance for consumption in large quantities” claim. The researchers found that, while coconut water was significantly sweeter than either plain water or a “carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage” (read: sports drink), it caused less nausea and fullness, no stomach upset, and proved easier to consume in a large amount compared to the other two beverages.
- However, various measurements used to indicate degree of hydration/rehydration did not differ significantly, whether subjects had drunk coconut water, plain water or the carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage.
- It’s also worth noting that there was a grand total of eight subjects for this study—all young men, all of whom exercised intensively in heat (about 88°F, with 51.4% relative humidity). Can the results of such a specific test with eight male subjects be extrapolated to the general population?
- The 2007 article compared the effects of plain water, a sports drink, coconut water and sodium-enriched coconut water on ten young men, who exercised for 90 minutes in 89.7°F heat with a relative humidity level over 53%, to lose three percent of their body weight. (There’s a reason I’m listing the exercise conditions and factors so carefully; keep reading!) For the sodium-enriched coconut water, enough sodium chloride (table salt) was added to plain coconut water so that the sodium concentration was similar to that found in the sports drink used.
- The results of this study showed that the sodium-enriched coconut water “was as good as ingesting a commercial sports drink for whole body rehydration after exercise-induced dehydration but with better fluid tolerance.” Since the coconut water was better-tolerated, I suppose you could say that it was better at rehydrating than a sports drink. But think about this: Here you have ten subjects, all young men within certain physical parameters who exercised heavily in high heat and humidity, and a result for sodium-enriched coconut water. Again, can one reasonably expand these results to all coconut water and the general population?
I have no quarrels with many of Dr. Kalman’s other assertions.
- Unflavored coconut water, at least, is not especially high in sugars/carbohydrates (he states that it’s around 4% sugar; I’ve seen estimates ranging from 4% to 6%).
- Coconut water is, as he notes, widely consumed around the world. In extreme situations, coconut water has indeed been used as an intravenous infusion in hospitalized patients as he notes, albeit on a short-term basis.
But Dr. Kalman’s apparently boundless enthusiasm for coconut water makes it sound like some sort of miracle elixir. I’m a big believer in the adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Devon Golem, R.D.
In the Department of Exercise Science and Sports studies at Rutgers University, Devon Golem works as a registered dietitian (she’s also a Ph.D candidate). I inquired about the coconut water claims I’d seen online, and the section of her response that particularly stands out is this:
- “A healthy diet with adequate water consumption should be the primary source of hydration and nutrition.” Like Ms. Weatherwax, Ms. Golem noted that sodium aids in the absorption of fluid, so coconut water’s lower level of sodium (compared to sports drinks) can be something of a minus.
- She adds that this is only a concern if the exercise is prolonged and vigorous, saying, “Coconut water and other sports drinks should be reserved for times of high physical activity.” Ms. Golem further points out that, if such “power” rehydration is necessary (that’s my term, not hers), “it may be more economical to purchase sports drinks or consider the use of less processed products to refuel and rehydrate.”
She has a good point. In a local market, I found a one gallon bottle of Gatorade PerformO2 priced at $3.99, or about 3.1 cents per ounce. An 8-pack of the same company’s G2 (20 ounces per bottle, or 160 ounces total) cost $4.99, which works out to about the same price per ounce. There was also a one quart bottle for 99 cents, still roughly the same cost per fluid ounce.
In the same market, on the same day, the largest container of coconut water I could find was from Vita Coco. Their 33.8 ounce container cost $4.49, which is roughly 13.3 cents per ounce. A 14 ounce container of Zico coconut water was priced at $2.25, or about 16.1 cents per ounce. The most economical coconut water I found was from Goya; their 11.8 ounce can cost 99 cents, or just about 8.4 cents per ounce, still over two and a half times as expensive as Gatorade. (Note that dehydrated coconut water is not sold in this market, so I couldn’t price it in comparison.)
Although there’s some disagreement in their opinions about coconut water, the three professionals have one critical detail in common: All work with either professional or collegiate-level athletes (or both).
- These athletes work out intensively for longer periods of time and more often than the average American.
- Because of their frequent, prolonged, hardcore exercise, they require more fluid and probably some electrolyte replacement after a workout, so coconut water might be genuinely useful for athletes (most Americans don’t exercise heavily enough to render electrolyte replacement necessary).
- They’re also able to take in more calories than most of us (as long as they eat a good overall diet), so any calories associated with coconut water (especially flavored coconut water) will likely affect them minimally, if at all.
Now, think about your exercise habits and your diet. How often, and how vigorously, do you exercise? If you power walk or jog or run or otherwise work out for an hour or more a day, coconut water can be a great way to rehydrate. Of course, so can plain water, a piece of fruit and perhaps a food with a little salt in it. But the overwhelming majority of Americans are not in dire need of immediate and serious rehydration and/or replenishment of electrolytes.
Continue To Page 4: Coconut Water Nutrition
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