Coconut water isn’t unhealthy, but its health claims are pretty overblown. Let’s look at the truth about this trendy drink.
A lot of folks swear by coconut water for rehydrating after strenuous activity. Back when I was distance running, coconut water was just starting to become popular, and I even made my own sports drink out of it, by blending it up with a few pieces of fresh watermelon. Coconut water is definitely refreshing, but does it hold up to the nutritional hype?
Coconut water is a billion-plus dollar industry. BevNet, a beverage industry news site, reported on coconut water’s market growth in April. Leading coconut water company, VitaCoCo, “estimates that the category is worth about $1.2 billion overall, along with another $650 million in imports.”
COCONUT WATER’S DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING
Before we get to the health claims themselves, we should talk about how marketing plays into our ideas about coconut water’s health benefits.
A 2011 study looked at coconut water’s nutritional content and found that it often didn’t measure up to company claims. A year later, VitaCoCo faced a class action lawsuit for deceptive claims about its product, which it settled for $10 million.
Marion Nestle recently pointed to a new, industry-funded study on coconut water—paid for by VitaCoCo—that compared it to Gatorade. The study found that after a 60 minute treadmill workout, men had similar recovery results from coconut water and Gatorade. Nestle (no relation to the company) says, “VitaCoCo must want to market its product as a sports drink. In this instance, neutral (‘as good as’) results position this drink as an alternative to Gatorade or its equivalent.”
Like any health claims that a company makes, you should take coconut water’s health claims with a grain of salt.
COCONUT WATER VS. SPORTS DRINKS
You really can’t talk about the coconut water craze without talking about sports drinks in general. The truth is, most of us don’t need any kind of fancy drink to hydrate after a workout. If our bodies needed special drinks to bounce back every time we did something strenuous, people would be dropping like flies all over town.
According to the Harvard Medical School, most people can stay hydrated, even during and after a workout, by drinking plain old water when we feel thirsty. If you’re hitting the gym for an hour or less, save a buck and just drink water.
There are times when our bodies need an extra boost of nutrients, like you’d find in sports drinks. If you’re training outside in extreme heat or running a marathon, for example, sports drinks are your friend. Coconut water, though, may not give you everything you need, depending on how hard you worked out.
Coconut water does deliver a good dose of potassium, carbohydrates and fluids, all of which your body needs after strenuous exercise. But coconut water is low in sodium, the other key nutrient that your body loses during a hard workout. Nutritionist Andrea Giancoli, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition, told WebMD, “If you’re exercising more than an hour, coconut water may not be enough [to replace what you've lost].”
WHEN COCONUT WATER IS HANDY
If you’re worried about not getting enough dietary potassium, coconut water can definitely help, just like eating a banana, a potato or any other calcium-rich food. Think of it less as a miracle serum and more as an optional addition to your healthy food and drink arsenal.
Giancoli did have some good things to say about coconut water. A serving before a workout can give you a little boost of sugar to fuel your training, and it contains less sugar than many sports drinks. If you’re replacing a soda or a glass of juice with a serving of coconut water, you’re cutting back on dietary sugar.
The bottom line: if you like coconut water and it fits your grocery budget, drink it! Just make sure you don’t drink too much, and check the ingredients. Many brands of coconut water contain added sugars. Not a fan of coconut water? There are plenty of other ways to meet your potassium needs and to stay hydrated.