Why Coconut Water Is Overrated

By Dennis Buckley

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Let me ask you a quick question: why do you drink coconut water?

If your answer is anything other than, “well, I drink it because it tastes good”, I have news for you...

You’re wrong.

You see, coconut water is one of the few persistent health fads that has long overstayed its welcome.

On the one hand, there’s nothing remarkably unhealthy about it. At a modest 60 calories per serving and just shy of 10 grams of sugar, there’s no doubt you should sooner reach for a tetra pak of coconut water over a sports drink or can of soda.

But on the other hand, is it really as deserving of all the praise, media attention, and elevated cultural poise? 

What's so great about coconut water anyway?

In this article I’ll answer those questions, so when you ask yourself again:

Why DO I drink coconut water?”.

You’ll have the right answer.

The Nutritional Benefits of Coconut Water

If you think coconut water is old news, then you’d actually be right.

Zico, one of the pioneers in the coconut water industry, was founded in 2004, and now, 13 years later, there are more than 18 companies competing on the global market.

Collectively, coconut water is a billion dollar industry.

Proponents of the drink tout it as a miracle elixir used to treat everything from obesity and dehydration to stroke and heart disease. 

With such a swath of supposed health benefits, what’s actually in the stuff?

Here’s a generic nutritional label for a standard serving of unsweetened coconut water:

Now, here’s a chart depicting the micronutrient content of that same 8 oz serving:

 

  • From a macronutrition perspective, the beverage is little more than a small dose of carbohydrate in the form of sugar water.
  • From a micronutrition perspective, unless you’re having multiple servings of coconut water per day, you’re not getting anywhere near the DRI for any of the above nutrients and minerals.

Now that you have a snapshot of the nutritional profile of the beverage, let’s dive into some of the popular health claims being made.

Here are the two biggest offenders:

Claim 1: Coconut Water Is More Hydrating

More hydrating than what, you ask?

Well, according to one study, coconut water actually was found to be more hydrating than water after exercise, but not any better than a commercial sports drink [1].

Then again, two other studies found no significant difference in re-hydration between coconut water and plain water [1, 2].

There have been few studies to date with coconut water in general, with most of them looking at the hydrating effects after exercise, but one single study looked at its effects during exercise. In looking at markers like heart rate, sweat rate, urine osmolality, blood glucose, blood lactate, among other performance markers, researchers concluded that there there were no significant differences between the coconut water group and the control group [3].

In other words, coconut water was found to be no better than plain water for improving exercise performance or hydration [3].

Claim 2: Coconut Water Is The Ideal Post Exercise Drink

When you hear people talk about coconut water, electrolytes are bound to come up in the same sentence.

The mentality usually goes something like this: 

When we exercise, we lose valuable electrolytes through sweat, and coconut water is a good source of electrolytes, thus coconut water is the perfect vehicle to replenish electrolyte stores.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main electrolytes and their main functions in the body:

  • Calcium: aids in muscle contraction, healthy cell division, nerve signalling, blood clotting, and bone health.

  • Magnesium: needed for muscle contractions, nerve-functioning, proper heart rhythms, and strength.

  • Potassium: involved in keeping blood pressure normalized, regulates heart contractions, and helps with muscle functioning.

  • Sodium: helps maintain fluid balance, nerve signaling, and is needed for muscle contractions.

Though you need adequate amounts of every electrolyte, potassium garners all the attention in coconut water.

A standard 8 oz glass of coconut water contains approximately 600 mg of potassium (17 percent DV), versus a banana which has about 480 mg (14 percent DV).

For reference, here are some other good sources of potassium:

  • Avocado: 1 whole: 1,067 mg (30 percent DV)

  • Acorn Squash: 1 cup: 896 mg (26 percent DV)

  • Spinach: 1 cup cooked: 839 mg (24 percent DV)

  • Sweet Potato: 1 large: 855 mg (24 percent DV)

  • Wild-Caught Salmon: ½ fillet: 772 mg (22 percent DV)

One study (which unfortunately did not include coconut water) concluded that electrolyte content was one of the biggest factors to influence hydration status at rest [4].

Now, considering coconut water has a large amount of potassium, one would assume the drink would have greater re-hydrating properties after a workout than plain water.

Consider This:

Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost during exercise, not potassium.

Potassium is the major electrolyte in cells, but isn’t lost in appreciable amounts through sweat at all. So while coconut water may have a large amount of potassium, it has a middling amount of sodium, at less than 3% of the recommended daily intake.

Possibly even less if you work out and sweat regularly.

So, when thinking about coconut water as a post-workout beverage, most people have it backwards, either incorrectly attributing the benefit of electrolyte repletion to potassium, or simply lumping all electrolytes together. 

The fact is, the research shows the optimal sports drink should contain sodium primarily, with potassium being an optional addition [5]. Plus, having some magnesium in the post-workout period can help aid recovery to get you ready for your next workout. Especially since as high as 80% of the population may be deficient in this important mineral.

Conclusion

There isn’t really anything special about coconut water. Sure, it’s a good way to increase your potassium intake for the day if you want a semi-sweet way to bump up your levels, and it has a humble amount of trace minerals and nutrients, that in the context of a varied diet can help you reach your daily intake. 

Ultimately, a pinch of salt added to a glass of water would be more useful in replenishing electrolytes lost during exercise. And if you're training with heavy weights, adding some protein to your post-workout beverage would be superior yet.

So why do you drink coconut water? 

It's no unicorn, but if you happen to like coconut water, go ahead and drink it.

Just don’t pretend like it has any profound hydrating, replenishing, or unique post-workout nutrition properties. 

References

  1. Ismail, I., Singh, R., & Sirisinghe, R. G. (2007). Rehydration with sodium-enriched coconut water after exercise-induced dehydration.
  2. Pérez-Idárraga, A., & Aragón-Vargas, L. F. (2014). Postexercise rehydration: potassium-rich drinks versus water and a sports drinkApplied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism39(10), 1167-1174.
  3. Peart, D. J., Hensby, A., & Shaw, M. P. (2016). Coconut water does not improve markers of hydration during sub-maximal exercise and performance in a subsequent time trial compared to water aloneInternational Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1-19.
  4. Maughan, R. J., Watson, P., Cordery, P. A., Walsh, N. P., Oliver, S. J., Dolci, A., ... & Galloway, S. D. (2016). A randomized trial to assess the potential of different beverages to affect hydration status: development of a beverage hydration index. The American journal of clinical nutrition103(3), 717-723.
  5. Shirreffs, S. M. (2003). The optimal sports drinkSchweizerische zeitschrift fur sportmedizin und sporttraumatologie51(1), 25-30.

 

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