Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Trendy Bytes: Coconut water

Photo credit: L*u*z*A (Flickr)

I had my first sip of coconut water several years ago on the beautiful Saona Island in the Dominican Republic. My friend and I were hanging out on the beach when we noticed a vendor selling fresh-from-the-coconut water. My friend couldn't believe I hadn't tried it before, so she persuaded me to give it a go. My hopes were high for the stuff, but unfortunately, I was let down because it did not taste that great to me. I've tried it on a few occasions since wondering if I had it all wrong, and I must admit that I'm still not a convert. Still, coconut water is now taking the world by storm! I swear that nearly every grocery store I walk into lately has a special display of coconut water. I even noticed a very subtle product placement on the Top Chef finale for a particular brand of coconut water, which sparked my interest in writing this blog post.

So, why all the hype? Coconut water is natural, and that is a big draw for people when it comes to food and beverages today. It also has a long history, and people value that now, too. In fact, it's been used as a rehydration solution (think Pedialyte or IV fluids) in some parts of the world for years. It also might not hurt that celebrities, like Madonna, are going cuckoo over coconut water, too. Do a quick Google search for coconut water, and you'll probably see some recurring themes on the claims that are made for it. So let's wade through some of these claims and see if they make the cut.

Is it the best hydration beverage? Yes, coconut water can hydrate, but for most people, plain water is still a great thirst quencher for a lot less moola! The average 8-11 ounce container of coconut water costs about $2-3. To put that into perspective, that's approximately $32/gallon! A gallon of organic milk is about $6 and a gallon of gas averages about $2.75 in the U.S. In addition, plain water is calorie-free while 8 ounces of coconut water contains 46 calories, most of them from naturally-occurring plant sugars. But beware because some coconut waters actually have sugar added to them. So if you're looking to steer clear of those drinkable calories, you may want to reconsider the coconut water. You'll also find a good amount of sodium in coconut water, 252 mg per cup to be exact. So, if you're watching your sodium intake, you may not want to guzzle this stuff.

Touted as "nature's sports drink", companies selling coconut water also flaunt the fact that it has a nutrient profile similar to that of commercial sport beverages, such as Gatorade. Coconut water and sports drinks contain similar amounts of carbohydrate, so it could serve as a fuel source during activity. Coconut water also contains key electrolytes, especially potassium and sodium, that are essential for optimal physical performance and hydration during and after exercise. However, evidence suggests that coconut water is not necessarily more effective at rehydration than commercial sports drinks. Although coconut water companies praise their products for containing "15 times the amount of potassium for most sports drinks" or "more potassium than a banana", potassium is not the likely culprit for problems, such as muscle cramping, during activity. Sodium or water are really your guys there. Plus, I prefer to recommend consuming a variety of vegetables and fruits for potassium because you'll get that and a host of other important nutrients, such as fiber. For some competitive athletes with significant sweat losses during activity, the sodium content of coconut water may even be inadequate. For most individuals participating in low to moderate intensity physical activity for less than 60 minutes, water is a perfectly suitable choice before, during, and after the activity.

Will it boost immunity
? While a couple of studies have found antimicrobial and antifungal compounds in coconut water, I wouldn't rely on a daily dose of coconut water alone to avoid infectious or fungal illnesses for now.

Will it improve gastrointestinal health?
You may be surprised to find that a cup of coconut water actually contains about 2.6 g of fiber, which could add to your daily fiber intake and promote GI health. However, unless you get your coconut water fresh from the coconut, you probably won't get the fiber benefit given that commercial coconut waters do not contain fiber -- at least from what I've found. On the other hand, some preliminary research, in rats mind you, suggests that coconut water may have protective effects on stomach ulcers.

Does it promote cardiovascular health?
A couple of studies in rats found that supplementation with coconut water may have a cardioprotective effect by reducing total and LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels while raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Keep in mind that these studies were performed on rats, and there's still much to explore in terms of the effects on humans. In another small, short-term study, individuals with high blood pressure who drank two 300 mL servings of coconut water daily experienced some significant improvements in blood pressure. For now, there are plenty of other very effective, well-researched natural remedies, such as regular physical activity, for promoting heart health.

What's the bottom line?
Coconut water may not necessarily be as miraculous as the beverage companies that sell them would like you to believe. For most people, all-natural water remains a good hydration beverage for everyday activity as well as for physical activity. If you're going to do some moderate to vigorous exercise for more than an hour and prefer a natural source of sugar and electrolytes, then coconut water may work just as well as commercial sports drinks. There are obviously some possible health benefits associated with coconut water, but again, there are plenty of other foods that will also accomplish the same goals without the significant expense. If you enjoy coconut water, then it certainly is something that can be consumed as part of an overall nutritious diet.

Are you cuckoo for coconut water? What do you think of it?


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