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Top Pick Of The Week

August 9 , 2011

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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.

 

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Page 3: Coconut Water Health Benefits

 

Nutritiondata.com lists 252 mg of sodium, 57.6 mg of calcium, 60 mg of magnesium, 48 mg of phosphorus, and 600 mg of potassium in one cup of coconut water.

  • These figures differ significantly between brands. Most of the coconut waters I saw contained much less sodium, for starters.
  • If these measures are accurate, though, based on recommended daily allowances for adults 18 and over, coconut water could be a good source of magnesium, potassium and sodium, depending upon varying needs.

Be sure to check out the important section on electrolytes on the bottom half of the page.


What About All The Health Claims?

As is typical of an “of the moment” food or beverage these days, coconut water is being touted for its many health benefits. And more than a few of them are not backed by any medical studies or FDA endorsements.

  • More Hydrating Than Water? The O.N.E. website states that “coconut water…has been proven more effective than hydrating with plain water,” and that “coconut water contains all five of the essential electrolytes (calcium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and sodium) needed for effective rehydration.” Zico calls coconut water “the ultimate rehydration drink” and notes that it’s lower in acidity than sports drinks and juices.
  • Boosts Your Immune System? Taste Nirvana goes even further, claiming that coconut water boosts your immune system, balances your pH, raises your metabolism, boosts circulation, promotes weight loss and cleanses your digestive tract, among other attributes.
  • Removes Wrinkles? More than one coconut water source states that the product gets rid of wrinkles. One book on the topic cites the curing of cataracts.
  • Hangover Cure? My favorite claim, one I’ve seen all over the internet, is that coconut water is an unequaled hangover cure. (No, I will not be testing that claim in this article.)

Are any of these claims meaningful? As is often the case in this Age of [Too Much] Information, the answers are going to depend on your source. And then, you have to believe your source.

What To Believe?

The worst half-truth I’ve seen about coconut water is declared boldly on a number of websites I deem both irresponsible and unreliable. I don’t know who first put this online, but if you look around you can find this:

“..the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States has approved coconut water to carry the claim that it may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.”

This is NOT true, period! The FDA has NOT reviewed or approved coconut water to carry this claim.

But I think I know how it got started.

Continued below. If you don’t want to drill down into this discussion, continue to the next page, coconut water nutrition and calories.

     

INDEX OF REVIEW

This is Page 3 of a seven-page article. Click on the black links to visit related pages:

MORE TO DISCOVER

Claim No. 1: The FDA Has Approved The Claim That Coconut Water May Reduce The Risk Of High Blood Pressure & Stroke

This is erroneous; the FDA has approved no such claim. But here’s what the FDA did say, which some coconut water producers have adapted to their ends:

  • There is a Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) health claim for potassium and reduced risk of stroke and high blood pressure. To qualify, 8 ounces (1 cup) of any beverage must contain at least 350 mg of potassium and 140 mg or less of sodium. That amount of the beverage must also contain 3 grams or less of total fat, 1 gram or less of saturated fatty acids, not more than 15% of calories from saturated fatty acids, and 20 mg or less of cholesterol.
  • Based on the values listed for “liquid from coconuts” in the USDA database, coconut water doesn’t meet these standards; it’s too high in sodium.
 

Taste Nirvana Coconut Water

You may be able to taste nirvana with these coconut waters...but will it boost your immune and circulation systems, balance your pH, raise your metabolism, promote weight loss and cleanse your digestive tract? Photo courtesy TasteNirvana.com.

  • However, some of the coconut waters I tested were significantly lower in sodium than the USDA database indicates, and they would meet these standards (although most of the sports drinks with coconut water are too high in sodium, too low in potassium, or both).
  • Nonetheless, at this writing, coconut water does not have FDA approval to carry this claim.

 

Claim No. 2: Coconut Water Has All 5 Electrolytes Needed To Replenish The Body’s  Fluids

The claim is accurate: If you power walk or jog or run or otherwise do a cardio workout 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 some other 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. Lifting weights or spending a half hour on an elliptical machine doesn’t put you in the electrolyte-needy category.

What Are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are certain inorganic compounds—mainly calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium—that become ions in solution (liquid) and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Sodium is the major positive ion found in fluid outside of cells, while potassium is the major positive ion found in fluid within them.*

Like the sports drinks on the market, coconut water contains all five essential electrolytes and is an ideal drink to replenish the body’s fluids after a strenuous workout.

  • Electrolytes are vital to the human system. Your cells (especially nerve, muscle and heart) use electrolytes to maintain voltage across their membranes and to carry electrical impulses (allowing nerve impulses and muscle contractions) across themselves and to other cells.
  • Heavy exercise means that you’ll lose electrolytes, most notably sodium and potassium, in your sweat. They must be replenished via your food and fluid intake. What kind of electrolyte content are we talking about? Nutritiondata.com lists 252 mg of sodium, 57.6 mg of calcium, 60 mg of magnesium, 48 mg of phosphorus, and 600 mg of potassium in one cup of coconut water. These figures differ significantly between brands, of course (most of the coconut waters I saw contained much less sodium, for starters).

In doing research for this article, I read information from, and spoke with, several registered dietitians and/or sports nutritionists. Their thoughts on coconut water were far from identical. See them on the next page, Page 3b, a continuation of this discussion.

*This information comes from the Discovery Fit & Health website and Medicinenet.

 

Medical Studies With Promise

Regarding other health claims for coconut water, some studies have shown great promise. For instance:

  • A 2003 study in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition showed that coconut water was effective at preventing the induction of heart attack in rats, and, despite induction attempts, damage to the heart was limited in rats who had been fed coconut water. Remember, though, that this study involved rats, not people. The researchers speculated that the beneficial effects of coconut water might be due to the potassium, calcium, magnesium and amino acid L-arginine that are present in coconut water.
  • A 2002 study published in the journal Leukemia concluded that a plant cytokinin analog (that is, a chemically-similar substance) had an antiproliferative effect and induced apoptosis (normal, pre-programmed cell death) in tumor cells. This means that this analog (and perhaps the cytokinin itself) may one day play a role in fighting cancer.

While these findings can inspire hope, they don’t demonstrate conclusively that coconut water can have these effects on the human system. And as far as lowering cholesterol, regulating blood pressure, dissolving kidney stones or curing digestive ills, the American Institute for Cancer Research explains that no major human-based studies have produced any definitive evidence that coconut water can do these things. Again, if it sounds too good to be true....


More Claims

What about the adage I’ve heard for years, that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated, especially because so many of us drink so many caffeinated beverages? Do a Google search on this topic and you’ll find it on more sites than you believed possible.

  • Americans are dehydrated: NO. According to the myth- and rumor-busting site Snopes.com, it’s just not true. Most healthy adults do not require the “at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day” you’ve been hearing about for decades, and people who regularly ingest caffeinated drinks become accustomed to the caffeine and don’t lose more systemic water because of it.
  • Coconut water is more nutritious than whole milk: MAYBE. You have to define what you mean by “more nutritious.” Whole milk undoubtedly has more calories, fat and cholesterol than an identical amount of coconut water; but it also has more protein, more vitamins and more minerals (and greater amounts of some of those nutrients, as well), not to mention more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Coconut water is better for you than sports drinks and juice: MAYBE. Coconut water is indeed lower in acidity than most (if not all) sports drinks and juices: a good choice for individuals whose digestive systems cannot readily handle beverages that are high in acid. There is also a school of thought which says that our diets are too acidic these days, and that we need to counter that through what we ingest. If you have faith in this philosophy, coconut water might be a good choice for you.
  • The pH of coconut water. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that good-quality, unflavored coconut water will have a pH in the 5.0 to 5.4 range, which is somewhat acidic. By contrast, according to a 2009 article, Gatorade has a pH of between 2.9 and 3.2, which means that it’s roughly one hundred times more acidic. Orange juice has a pH of roughly 3.3 to 4.15, as listed in several sources, so it’s also much more acidic.
  • The cytokinins in coconut water combat wrinkles: NOT LIKELY. One or two websites I’ve seen maintain that coconut water contains plant growth hormones called cytokinins, which combat wrinkles. Cytokinins are phytohormones “active in the promotion of cellular division, they slow down the aging of tissues and act together with (other phytohormones) stimulating plant growth,” according to Biology-questions-and-answers.com. Multiple websites have statements to the effect that cells treated with cytokinins remain less damaged and more functional throughout their life span, instead of undergoing the serious degenerative changes seen in cells not treated. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any reputable information on the level of cytokinins in coconut juice, nor can I discover the level of cytokinins necessary to combat wrinkles in human skin, if indeed they do so.
  • Coconut water is an isotonic beverage: YES. An isotonic beverage contains the same level of electrolytes that are present in human blood plasma. Coconut water, it turns out, is naturally isotonic. Isotonic beverages can be drunk to replace fluid and electrolytes lost due to physical activity. However, as has been discussed, those can easily be replaced in other ways. (We’ve seen claims that coconut water is such a medical miracle that it can substitute for blood plasma. It has been used this way under emergency conditions, but only until real plasma can be obtained.)

The  Future Of Coconut Water

Coconut water’s phenomenal growth in popularity will probably level off sooner or later, especially once The Next Big Thing comes along. But that point hasn’t been reached yet.


Aside from the environmental concerns I’ve already pointed out (the shipping of specialty bottled water halfway around the world being a heavy consumer of natural resources), there are other environmental factors here.

  • Chemical Pesticides. According to Justin Guilbert, co-founder of Harmless Harvest, the most common variety of coconut used to produce coconut water is now a dwarf hybrid, which usually doesn’t grow more than nine feet tall (regular coconut palms can reach eighty or even one hundred feet in height). In order to harvest coconuts from regular trees, people must climb them, so the dwarf coconut palms would be much easier to manage when the coconuts are harvested. This variety has the additional advantage of a high yield of water per nut. These palms are fertilized heavily, and use of chemical pesticides is often heavy as well.
  • Ecosystems. Mature coconuts have long been a cash crop in the tropics. The uses for coconut oil are many, and of course the meat is a great addition to foods sweet and savory. Coir, the fibrous husk of the coconut, ends up in everything from ropes to bristles to matting to mulch. But now, says Mr. Guilbert, entire plantations are being transformed. The burgeoning American demand for coconut water has led to mass planting of the dwarf palms for that specific use. In the words of Josefine Staats, the founder of KULAU Coconut Water,* “Coconut palms are often cultivated in industrial-style monocultures geared towards efficiency. But plantation economies with the sole focus of maximizing their yield often severely damage fragile ecosystems. There are a few (who profit), but many others are left to deal with the ecological consequences.”

I wish to emphasize that not all coconut water companies work within this system, but I believe enough do so that the question of whether this industry is truly sustainable needs to be raised and examined.

*KULAU is not available in the U.S. as of this writing, so it was not included in the taste tests.


Conclusions

Do the inflated claims mean that you shouldn’t drink coconut water? Not at all.

I drink coconut water for the best reason I know: I enjoy it. On a hot day, chilled coconut water, with its light degree of sweetness, can be wonderfully refreshing. It’s a nice change of pace from the plain water I usually drink; and some of the flavor variations are wonderful.

Regarding the multitude of celebrity endorsements and the endless claims of health benefits, though, I’m not buying. Unquestionably, coconut water can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and it has a number of positive attributes. But the hype surrounding this product is out of control. If you like it, drink it—in moderation, as with any juice.


One final note: If you have any dietary concerns, be sure to check the label before you consume any coconut water. I found widely-varying levels of sodium, added sugar, sulfites, preservatives, added vitamins and minerals, caffeine, and/or added amino acids in some brands.


Continue to Page 3b: Coconut Water & Electrolytes

Continue To Page 4: Coconut Water Nutrition

Go To The Article Index Above


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