Coconut water is being marketed as a ‘super hydration’ fluid, but does it measure up? Photo by Chip Scheuer.
Standing in Whole Foods yesterday, I confronted the large swath of juice aisle containing 13 different brands of coconut water, and knew it was time to write this article.
A decade ago, coconut water was a refreshment unique to the planet’s tropical belt; something plucked from a tree or purchased from a street stall near the equator, and sucked through a hole punched in the young green fruit. Today, it makes up the fastest growing category of the world’s beverage industry, and demand continues to grow. Since 2008, the number of product introductions has ballooned 540 percent, according to a May report by consumer research group Mintel, and global sales are expected to reach $1 billion in a few short years.
Riding a wave of celebrity endorsements, including Rihanna and Madonna, the sweet, nutty beverage enjoys a reputation for delivering “super hydration,” which, if you’ve just run five sweaty miles in the heat, is slightly true.
“Coconut water and sports drinks have osmolalities close to the concentration of our blood, so they are absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream more quickly,” says Dr. Randy Baker of Holistic Family Medicine in Soquel.
The hydration factor has to do with the electrolytes, really a fancy word for potassium and salts, says Baker.
“Many people have had the experience of drinking a lot of water and quickly peeing it out while still having a dry mouth and feeling dehydrated,” he says. “This is because the water did not get into their cells… Adequate electrolytes help the water to cross the cell membrane and thus improve cellular hydration.”
The main electrolytes in coconut water are potassium plus small amounts of magnesium and calcium. With 61 mg of potassium per ounce, that’s seven ounces to equal the potassium in a banana. Impressive, but….
“A potato has 925 mg, tomatoes 955 mg per cup, avocado 708 mg per cup, soybeans 885 mg per cup, spinach 838 mg per cup…. basically all fruits and vegetables have potassium,” says Baker.
Studies comparing coconut water to sports drinks found that they both hydrate slightly better than plain water—and a large amount of coconut water does not result in an upset stomach like the others may.
“But if one is using it for that purpose, coconut water with extra salt added seems to work better than regular coconut water,” says Baker.
But really, how many people are using it for that purpose? If you’re already hydrated, you may be spending a lot of money for a beverage that is, after all, 97 percent water.
And, along with the naturally occurring potassium in coconut water is naturally occurring sugar—about one teaspoon per ounce. Worlds better than high fructose corn syrup and processed sugar, but sugar all the same.
Unfortunately, the fancy packaging and slick marketing may be more than a little deceiving. The term “Bio-Active” that sold me on a coconut water in Whole Foods turned out to mean “of or relating to a substance that has an effect on living tissue,” a claim that could pertain to any and all substances we put into our bodies. And in 2011, ConsumerLab.com tested the three top brands of coconut water—Zico Natural (owned by Coca-Cola), Vita Coco (distributed by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group) and O.N.E. (owned by PepsiCo)—and found that only Zico, which comes from concentrate, contained the stated amount of sodium and magnesium—the others were up to 82 and 35 percent lower, respectively.
Still, with a burgeoning of new products, there must be some brands we can trust, and reading the label seems ever important if you do catch the coco-craze. “Raw coconut water is a better choice than pasteurized due to the presence of enzymes and other nutrients like Vitamin C that are damaged by pasteurization,” says Baker.
As for anti-aging and anti-cancer properties, it does contain antioxidants and “cytokinins” which promote cell division in plants, but there is not yet substantial evidence indicating a benefit to human cells.
And while Baker recommends coconut water over sports drinks that often contain high-fructose corn syrup from GMO sources, he points out that the cans are still coated with BPA, or Bisphenol A, which the FDA warns can be hazardous to fetuses, infants and young children.
“Cartons made by Tetra Pak or SIG Combibloc do not contain BPA,” says Baker. “Look for those names on the bottom of the carton.”