Some people love the taste, and some hate it. But there is no debate that coconut water has boomed in popularity over the past decade.
Coconut water is a liquid that is drained from the center of coconuts and then packaged and sold in stores. Some companies add fruit juice or coffee to it.
So what is the truth about this trendy beverage, often marketed for its hydrating benefits and praised as a hangover cure?
Let’s take a look at what the experts had to say.
Is it more hydrating than water or a sports drink?
The research says no. Two studies showed that coconut water on its own provided a minimal difference in hydration in humans, compared with water and sports drinks.
Lisa Drayer, a registered dietitian, agrees with the research. But she said it’s important to consider that the first study was funded by VitaCoco, a coconut water brand, so it was in the best interest of the company.
Also, although this study showed that some participants experienced bloating and an upset stomach from the beverage, the other study’s participants did not have these side effects. If there are negative effects, it’s probably on an individual basis, Drayer said.
“My advice would be to try coconut water before you use it for exercise,” she said.
In terms of helping with hangovers, Drayer said, there is no valuable research that suggests it is any more beneficial than drinking water.
Does it have benefits during pregnancy?
Some websites tout the advantages of drinking coconut water while pregnant. If you’re a rat, it might help protect you against high-fat-diet-induced changes, one study says. But if you’re a pregnant human, you probably shouldn’t use it as a replacement for other foods, Drayer said.
“When I look at the nutritional profile for coconut water, it basically has no iron, no protein, hardly any calcium, no omega-3s because it’s fat-free, and no folic acid,” she said. “It’s not a good source of important pregnancy nutrients.”
It’s important for pregnant women to stay hydrated, Drayer said, so if coconut water is going to help them get more fluids, she would recommend it.
Although coconut water doesn’t yield a lot of calcium, eating an entire raw coconut could provide a good amount of the nutrient. But it’s still no comparison to a cup of milk, which has six times as much calcium as a whole coconut and more protein, she said.
What about weight loss?
“I don’t think there’s anything special about coconut water that will help boost your metabolism. If you’re dehydrated, that might slow your metabolism,” Drayer said. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for weight loss. In fact, it has more calories than water.”
Coconut waters typically have 5 to 7 calories and 1 gram of sugar per ounce. A lot of people who are watching their weight may not want to drink their calories, Drayer said. But for those who are exercising and feel like they can afford the calories, it shouldn’t be an issue.
There has been some talk on the Internet that drinking coconut water on an empty stomach in the morning can stimulate metabolism, as well as boost immunity and reduce bad cholesterol. Jason Ewoldt, registered dietitian and wellness dietitian at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, said the research would not support this.
“It seems like there’s always some new breaking thing that you have to eat in the morning on an empty stomach to help with weight loss or energy or what have you,” Ewoldt said. “There’s nothing special about coconut water. It’s essentially water with some electrolytes, which you could do in the morning by drinking a glass of water and having a banana.”
Potassium is a mineral that plays a key role in maintaining the body’s heartbeat, muscle contractions, cholesterol and nerve impulses. Coconut water has more potassium than a medium banana.
“When I look at coconut water, the biggest benefit is coming from the fact that it’s a high or nice source of potassium,” Ewoldt said. “But we can do the same thing by eating foods that have a high source of potassium, like potatoes or kidney beans or spinach. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper, and ultimately, we’d be getting a lot more nutrition that just with potassium.”
If you want to kill two birds with one stone nutritionally, coconut water is probably not the way to go.
What about coconut oil and coconut milk?
Coconut oil had a healthy image among “foodies” for a while, often as a central cooking ingredient. A recent report by the American Heart Association shut this down, stating that coconut oil has a higher percentage of saturated fat than butter, palm oil and lard. It referenced multiple studies finding that the oil increases LDL — also known as “bad” cholesterol — which causes heart disease.
Ewoldt agrees with the association’s conclusion and is unsure why some consider coconut oil to be a health food, he said. But he doesn’t think extreme caution needs to be taken. It can be eaten in moderation as an addition to a healthy diet, he said. “Should we be eating it thinking it’s healthy? No.”
People are better off eating foods with unsaturated fats, like avocados and olive oil, he said. Unsaturated fats have been shown to have cardiovascular protective effects.
Coconut milk is also higher in saturated fat and calories, he said. It has much less potassium than coconut water and very little fiber. However, it makes a nice substitution for people who are lactose intolerant, he said.
The verdict on coconut water
Drayer said coconut water has hydrating benefits, but she saw nothing special about it nutritionally, compared with whole foods.
“It can help to hydrate you and make sure you’re meeting your fluid needs,” Drayer said. “But I don’t think there’s anything magical about it. I don’t think there’s anything that you wouldn’t find in whole foods that it contains. And the studies that link it to various health claims certainly haven’t been rigorous enough.”
Ewoldt warned against any assumptions that coconut water may have special health properties, especially if it’s leading to heavy spending.
“Overall, I would say if you’re looking for a different beverage to help with hydration, coconut water can be that beverage. Is it better than drinking water or eating fruits and vegetables? Absolutely not,” he said. “If you’re aware of the amount you’re drinking coconut water and you’re having a healthy balanced diet, it can be an addition to a diet as anything can. But if you’re looking at it from the point of ‘it’s a magical elixir,’ you’re spending a lot of money on something that’s doing very little.”