It’s been touted as the hip new health drink, promising everything from weight loss to lower blood pressure, but is coconut water all it’s cracked up to be, asks Peta Bee
As a new year begins, we’re all searching for the next healthy trend to help us meet our resolutions and, extracted from the centre of young, green coconuts, coconut water is being touted as the hip new health drink. It was most often found, until recently, on tropical beaches, so few of us had come across it, yet its popularity with the likes of Sienna Miller, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer and Lady Gaga has sent its profile soaring. Victoria Beckham says she drinks it to stay hydrated, and Rihanna is the face of the bestselling Vita Coco brand. Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Demi Moore like it so much, they have reportedly invested money in coconut-water brands.
What sets it apart from other drinks, claim proponents, is its purity. Apparently, it is an unadulterated source of electrolytes— which are essential for health— including sodium, potassium, magnesium and phosphate. The nut-flavoured juice is 94% water, but it also contains plant hormones, enzymes and B vitamins. There are claims that drinking it regularly can improve blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease, aid weight loss, boost the immune system and even prevent acne. Since it contains the same roster of salts and minerals lost through sweat, it has become particularly popular among gym junkies looking for a natural means of rehydration, free from garish colours and artificial preservatives. Bikram Choudhury, the hot-yoga guru, has embraced coconut water in a big way, selling it at his studios, and Tracy Anderson, the celebrity personal trainer who advises Gwyneth Paltrow, claims: “It’s the best thing when you are training.”
Its commercial appeal has even sparked a coconut-water war among drinks manufacturers. There are tens of brands on the market-across the world and sales of Vita Coco, the biggest name, grew by 136 per cent last year, making it the fastest-growing soft drink. Yet our thirst for it could be tempered by suggestions that coconut water is not all it is cracked up to be.
What rankles with exercise scientists and nutritionists is that few of the claims made by manufacturers are substantiated, and the evidence for its benefits is mostly anecdotal. Studies on coconut water are small, sparse and often industry-funded. Of those that are published, results do not support the hype, particularly when linked to cancer prevention, anti-ageing and boosted immunity. “A lot of excitement has arisen from a few insignificant studies,” says Nicole Rothband, of the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Eight years ago, one such paper in the West Indian Medical Journal reported that a small group of men with hypertension who drank 300ml of coconut water a day for two weeks experienced improvements in their blood pressure. Researchers put it down to the drink’s high potassium content. “Potassium does help to regulate blood pressure,” Rothband says, “but you get almost as much in a banana, and other fruits are good sources, as is dairy food. Its potassium content is not so staggering that it makes it unique.”
As a fitness drink, it also lacks convincing scientific backup. Last year, a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported little difference between bottled water, sports drinks and two varieties of coconut water when it came
to boosting exercise performance or hydration. In another, presented to the American Chemical Society, Dr Chhandashri Bhattacharya of Indiana University compared the nutritional make-up of coconut water with that of Gatorade and Powerade. Her findings showed that the coconut drink contained 1,500mg of potassium per litre, five times more than the sports drinks. However, it fell short on levels of sodium, lost in sweat, containing 400mg per litre, whereas the energy drinks had 600mg per litre, so serious exercisers who sweat a lot would need to add salt to their coconut drink to make it effective. For that reason, says Linia Patel, a sports dietician with the BDA, it is not the best drink to sip after a hard workout such as Bikram yoga or a run. “In addition to fluid, what is needed when you work out with intensity is carbohydrate in the form of sugars to replenish energy stores, and some sodium to enhance fluid absorption and replace sweat losses. Coconut water has some, but not in the optimum ratio to support intense activity.”
Many commercial coconut drinks contain less sodium than is found in juice sipped straight from the coconut or in a regular sports drink. In 2011, an analysis by the independent product-testing company ConsumerLab. com found that two of the three most popular brands of coconut water contained far fewer electrolytes than indicated on their labels. One brand had only 18 per cent of the promised level of sodium, leading ConsumerLab’s Dr Tod Cooperman, who headed the trial, to warn: “People shouldn’t count on coconut water for serious rehydration.”
And what of suggestions that it will help with weight loss by boosting metabolism and curbing appetite? Rothband says they are far-fetched. Although there is evidence that taking fluids before a meal can lead to the consumption of fewer calories, water does the job perfectly. And coconut water is not sugar-free; rather, it provides 45-60 calories in a carton or bottle, more in flavoured products. “A few of those a day would soon add up and be reflected in weight gain unless other diet changes were made,” says Rothband. “And don’t be fooled by the ‘natural’ tag. The sugar it contains is as damaging as any other form of additional sugar in the diet.”
What is the manufacturers’ response to these accusations? “While there have been some negative studies, there have also been positive studies, and a lot
At the moment, coconut water’s only solid claim to boosting health is based on hype
of highly credible sportspeople and nutritionists choose to back our products,” says Giles Brook, the CEO of Vita Coco Europe. “We believe Vita Coco is a great natural alternative to traditional sports drinks, but ... would never recommend Vita Coco as a straight alternative for water.”
Not that we should ignore its allure altogether. While it’s not a panacea, it is nutritionally superior (and less harmful to the waistline) than many soft drinks. Just don’t expect miracles. “At the moment, its only solid claim to boosting health is based on hype,” Rothband says. “A few nuggets of research have been expanded out of proportion to create this level of overexcitement about coconut water. Until science proves otherwise, it is just another drink.”
According to an expert, coconut water may not be the best
drink to sip after a strenuous workout such as Bikram yoga or a run