Coconut water is everywhere in a variety of healthy beverages, but does it live up to the hype surrounding it?
What is coconut water?
Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside a young, green coconut that is usually about the size of a basketball. Ideally, young coconuts are harvested at 5-7 months of age, to contain the most water.
As the coconut matures, the liquid is replaced with coconut “meat”. The greatest nutrient health benefits of coconut water comes from drinking the water of the young coconut, not the mature coconut milk, which is generally lower in nutrients. Coconut water has been consumed for centuries in tropical countries and is believed to treat a variety of health-related ailments.
In certain emergency situations, coconut water has been used for IV hydration due to its high electrolyte content and the fact that it is sterile if used directly from the inside of the coconut. People all over the world enjoy coconut water for its multiple benefits and sweet taste. Marketers have called it “nature’s sports drink”.
Coconut Water Nutrition Facts
The liquid inside the coconut contains approximately 46 calories per cup, 10 grams of natural sugar, with little protein and it is fat free. It contains multiple vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are ideal for human health. (1)
The primary nutrient in coconut water is potassium. It contains approximately 600 mg (12% DV) making it a high electrolyte beverage. Coconut water also contains a small amount of sodium, about 40mg and up to 10% of your daily calcium and magnesium needs. (2)
Electrolytes are critical to maintain blood volume, heart health, and well as to prevent dehydration. Maintaining electrolyte levels can help reduce fatigue, stress, and help maintain muscle relaxation.
There has also been some interesting research regarding the cytokinin content of coconut water that in the future may show some anti-cancer properties. Cytokinins are naturally occurring plant hormones that may help reduce the growth of cancer cells, although more research is needed at this time. (3)
With these nutrition benefits, coconut water can be a low-calorie, low-sugar alternative to soda. It is refreshing to consume on a hot day, to help re-hydrate.
Other health benefits of coconut water include:
Coconut water is a safe, healthy beverage for most people. Those with kidney disease should limit consumption foods that are too high in potassium, including coconut water.
Electrolyte Replacement: Coconut Water vs. Gatorade
Because coconut water is high in potassium, and such a great electrolyte replacement, it has even been used for IV hydration in certain emergency situations. (4)
It is also lower in carbohydrates compared to other sports drinks. Coconut water is only about 4.5% carbohydrates whereas other sports drinks can contain 6-8% carbohydrate concentration. This is good for athletes trying to watch their sugar intake and hydrate after an event. For most casual exercisers coconut water is a great low-sugar hydration choice for after a workout.
A 2002 study, compared water, coconut water, and standard sports beverages to determine which beverage was best for post-exercise hydration. The eight subjects exercised in the heat and then were rehydrated with water, coconut water, or a sports drink.
Researchers found that there was no difference in sodium levels, urine output, or fluid balance between the three beverages, meaning all three beverages were equally hydrating. But, there was significantly less nausea or fullness with the coconut water allowing the participants to drink more of the beverage. (5)
Overall, coconut water can be an alternative to sports drinks, but it may depend on the type of sport and the intensity. Some long-distance endurance athletes may need more specialized products that contain more sodium and carbohydrates. But, for most casual exercisers, coconut water is a great option.
Lower blood pressure
A 2005 study found that when subjects were given coconut water for two weeks, their systolic blood pressure was 71% lower and their diastolic blood pressure was 29% lower than those who drank plain water.
The high potassium content of coconut water has led researchers to investigate the potential benefits for reducing cardiovascular disease risk. Potassium counteracts the effect of sodium in the body, helping lower blood pressure. (6, 7)
Lower cholesterol and triglycerides
A 2006 study found that rats given coconut water had a decreased chance of having a heart attack. The coconut water helped decrease their total cholesterol triglyceride levels, and LDL cholesterol, specifically the cholesterol found in the heart. Additionally, the health benefits of coconut water helped the rats recover faster if they did have a heart attack. Researchers believe that the benefit may be related to the potassium, calcium, and magnesium content in the water, all electrolytes that play a role in helping maintain heart health. (8, 9)
Cleansing / Detox
Our bodies have an amazing natural ability to cleanse and detox on their own, if provided the correct nutrients and hydration. Inadequate hydration leads to the build-up of toxins in our bodies because the liver and kidneys, the detoxifying organs, are unable to function properly without adequate water.
Dehydration resulting from water or electrolyte loss leads to fatigue, irritability, confusion, and extreme thirst. These symptoms result from the inability for the kidney to adequately flush toxins out of the system. Adequate fluid intake, ideally 8-10 cups per day, can help prevent dehydration and maintain the body’s natural detoxification ability. Although water is great, during very hot weather or strenuous exercise, more than just plain water may be necessary.
Coconut water contains a similar electrolyte profile to human blood, making it an ideal beverage to replace fluids and help remove toxins from the body. The electrolyte potassium, specifically, can help counteract some of the negative effects of a high sodium processed diet.
Reduce stress and muscle tension
It’s almost as good as a massage! Some of the electrolytes found in coconut water, specifically calcium and magnesium, may help with stress and muscle tension. Many of us are missing these critical minerals in our diets, making stress management even more challenging. Other than maintaining strong teeth and bones, calcium helps with smooth muscle relaxation. Adequate calcium intakes may help keep our all our muscles relaxed, including our heart muscle, lowering the risk of heart attacks. (10)
Magnesium has been nicknamed the “relaxation” mineral. Its primary function is in the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps us relax. It also helps with the formation of serotonin, the feel good hormone. (11)
Magnesium and calcium work together to help maintain muscle relaxation. Coconut water contains both of these minerals, so drink up on a stressful day to help you stay calm and stress-free.
Coconut Water vs. Coconut Milk
Many people confuse coconut water with coconut milk. Higher in fat and calories, coconut milk is extracted from the flesh of the coconut and is thicker, sweeter, and more dense. It also is packed with nutrition and healthy saturated fats, but it is also very high in calories. A cup of coconut milk is about 552 calories compared to a cup of coconut water that is only about 46 calories.
One note too, while it is high in fat it is important to remember that the medium chain fatty acids of the saturated fat in coconut oil and coconut milk are very good for you. Your brain can use the fatty acids without going through your digestive tract and so your body easily accesses them. Because of its great taste and texture it is a great dairy substitute for baking and cooking.
The Best Coconut Water To Buy
If available, look for coconut water in a fresh, green coconut, instead of the packaged variety, it may be difficult to open, but is really fun to drink. It also contains no added sugar, preservatives and is not pasteurized. It is the healthiest and most delicious choice by far.
Fresh coconuts are perishable and you may find them in the refrigerated section of health stores. If they are opened, the coconut water should be kept cold and consumed within 3-5 days.
If you cannot find a fresh, green coconut, your second best choice is cold-pressured coconut water, which is only lightly processed via high pressure processing instead of heat. This exposes the coconut water to high pressure to eliminate bacteria, but maintains a greater level of vitamins and minerals. (12)
If coconut water does not need to be refrigerated, it usually means it has been pasteurized to maintain its freshness. During the pasteurization process, liquids are heated to a high temperature to kill any bacteria, but this also destroys many of the natural vitamins and minerals in the product.
Avoid coconut water that is from concentrate. Generally, if any fruit or vegetable is made into a concentrate, it loses nutrients in the process therefore it is always best to choose options that are not from concentrate.
In order to make coconut water more “flavorful” many companies are adding sweeteners or other flavors to coconuts. Many companies also use flavors to cover up the fact they are not using young coconuts in their coconut water, but instead are using mature coconuts that have a more bitter and acidic taste. (13)
Avoid coconut waters with added flavors or sugar. The primary ingredient should be 100% coconut water, there should not be any added fruit juices, natural or artificial ingredients, or anything that may indicate that the coconut water was modified in any way.
While the best coconut water is straight from a young coconut picked from a tree, these packaged waters below are as close to the real thing as you can get. They don’t use any heat processing or concentrates, so they aren’t cooking your coconut water. Some of them use HPP to kill bacteria, and a couple of these brands serve it up completely raw and unpasteurized.
Harmless Harvest (organic) Harmless Harvest have become a success not because of marketing, but because of their good practices. In fact, they hardly spend any money on marketing at all. They source their young coconuts from small organic agroforestry farms that pay a fair wage to their workers. The coconuts are then frozen and shipped to the U.S. for packaging, after which they use HPP processing to kill bacteria and extend the shelf life to 60 days. Because it’s so minimally processed, some of the waters turn pink when the naturally occurring antioxidants or phenols are exposed to light – and you won’t find this in pasteurized coconut water. You can find this at Whole Foods and most natural food stores in the refrigerator section.
Juice Press (organic) This water is totally raw. It’s not pasteurized or processed with HPP. Their coconuts are shipped frozen to the store and then they ship it fresh to you with a 3 or 4-day shelf life.
Exotic Superfoods (organic) This water is 100% organic and raw. It is not processed with any heat or HPP – but it’s kept frozen to preserve freshness.
Vital Juice (organic) It’s never heated or frozen, and it’s preserved with HPP, 100% organic and non-GMO project verified. It is currently only available at stores in Washington and Oregon with plans of expansion, and you can also order it online on Amazon.
Suja (organic) Suja makes a coconut water blend, Tropicaloe, which is made from freeze-dried coconut water mixed with pineapple, apple, aloe, lime, mint and spinach juices, all preserved with HPP. This juice is exclusively sold at Whole Foods stores.
Taste Nirvana (organic) No concentrates or additives in this brand, and their young coconuts are sustainably grown, harvested and organic (though not labeled as such). It’s packaged in glass bottles and uses a “steam sterilization” process that is a combination of steam and pressure.
Is Coconut Water MOXIE Approved?
YES! Specific varieties of coconut water do live up to the hype, and are MOXIE Approved. So choose wisely, drink up and stay hydrated this summer with coconut water.
US National Library of Medicine; National Institutes of Health
Dr. Axe Food is Medicine