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Coconut Water: Myth or Miracle Sports Drink?

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If you’re like me, coconut conjures the taste of tropical drinks, Thai food, and, of course, the almighty Mounds bar. Health-food drink? Not so much. Until recently, that is.


Lately, it seems that Hollywood has swapped its Smartwaters for the newest beverage du jour: it’s low-calorie, fat-free, cholesterol-free, über-hydrating, and rife with electrolytes, and it’s called coconut water. Producers are marketing the drink as both a “life-enhancer” and “nature’s sports drink.” Health foodies tout it for helping them with everything from weight loss to athletic performance and heart and kidney function.


After I heard all these lofty claims, my hype detector started buzzing a bit. “It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Marcia Cross, a Los Angeles–based nutritionist, “but many marketers’ claims lack scientific evidence.” So let’s take a closer look at this so-called “miracle liquid” to see what’s behind all its purported benefits. Could the drink truly be all it’s cracked up to be?


Sudden Popularity
We can thank a potent combination of celebrity endorsements and big bucks for the drink’s recent surge in popularity. Celebs like Anna Paquin and Kara DioGuardi have been photographed with the drink. On top of that, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola both decided that the drink was worth their dollars in 2009, forecasting it as wholesome-food trends’ antidote to processed, sugary sports and vitamin drinks. Coca-Cola invested in a coconut water company, Zico, just weeks after PepsiCo acquired Amacoco, a Brazilian maker of coconut beverages. Ever since, the brands have been building up demand for the liquid, pushing it in natural-foods markets, yoga studios, and gyms.


Raw coconut juice contains the liquid from an unripe coconut. And the stuff is natural—most brands are not processed (but check the label for added preservatives and sweeteners, to be sure). The water is simply the fluid that sits in the cavity of an unripe coconut (as it ripens, the fruit absorbs this juice).


Proven Benefits
To start, I browsed some of the newly popular beverages’ websites while drinking some of the stuff, of course (gotta say, not quite as scrumptious as the fruit itself). Marketers list bevies of incredible benefits, including improved muscle performance, heightened energy, weight loss, increased heart health, stress reduction, kidney cleansing, and less vicious hangovers; some even claim coconut water helps fight diabetes and cancer. However, of these proud claims, only a handful have actual scientific backing. Here’s a breakdown of the facts versus the fiction.


Improved Athletic Performance
Companies are quick to tag coconut water as an all-natural sports drink, since it contains carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes. (One cup of the drink boasts around 200 mg of potassium, 25 mg of sodium, 5 mg of natural sugar, and 118 mg of chloride, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Great, but could we also get these minerals from water and another energy source, like whole-wheat pretzels or a banana? “Absolutely,” says Cross. “It just comes down to personal preference.” And for people looking to replace their conventional sports drinks with coconut water, she points out a discrepancy in the electrolyte content: sports drinks contain more sodium, while coconut water contains more potassium. “Sodium is more important than potassium for athletes who are really losing a lot of sweat,” she says. However, if you’re looking for some simple, nonwater hydration without the added sugar, coconut water’s short list of ingredients makes it a more wholesome choice. (Just coconuts—love that.)


Weight Loss
Adding a bottle of coconut water to my daily diet is all I have to do to slim down? Wouldn’t that be nice. True, the drink is far lower in added sugar and contains slightly fewer calories than, say, Gatorade (with around forty calories per eight-ounce serving), but the drink itself isn’t likely to cause a noticeable reduction in weight—unless you happen to have a five-soda-per-day habit and decide to swap them all for lower-calorie and less sugary coconut water. That said, as a flavored-drink alternative, it’s most definitely a low-cal, natural choice.


Heart Health
Coconut water contains an ample, naturally occurring dose of potassium (equivalent to about two bananas’ worth), easily comparable to, say, that of a vitamin-infused drink, says Cross. People who get enough potassium in their diets have a lower stroke risk, according to the University of Maryland’s medical center.


Less Painful Hangovers
What on earth makes us wake up feeling so far from human after a night out? Extreme dehydration. Since alcohol is a diuretic, it flushes our body of its fluids, leaving our brains aching for liquid. This is just the ailment that electrolyte-infused coconut water combats. By rehydrating and furnishing our systems with minerals, our parched bodies will stop screaming at us (or at least quiet down a bit).


The Best Times to Imbibe
Some times more than others, coconut water is just the thing you need for a pick-me-up—whether you decide to guzzle a bottle of it after a long run or drink it to perk up after a night filled with a few too many margaritas.


After a Workout
For athletic purposes, coconut water is most effective directly after an intense sweating session. However, if your workout is longer than an hour or happens in extreme heat, chugging some while you exercise will help you replenish the fluids and minerals you’ve lost, therefore helping you fight fatigue.


When Feeling Hungover
Drinking coconut water before falling asleep after a night of drinking will help counteract the onset of a hangover in the first place, says Cross. And if the thought doesn’t cross your mind, having some right after waking up will still help as well.


When Looking for a Little Flavor
At those times when you’re craving a little liquid flavor, reaching for a wholesome, low-calorie drink is always a sound nutritional investment.


Okay, okay, so there really is some legitimacy to back all those claims about coconut water’s greatness. Still, call me old-fashioned, but I’ll probably save the $2 I’d spend per bottle and continue getting my vitamins from local, seasonal fruit and hydrating with water postworkout. How about you?


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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