Going Nuts for Coconuts – Uncovering the hype about coconut water

Elevate’s dietitian Robbie Clark talks about the latest superfood trend – COCONUTS, or coconut water to be exact.

Research shows that coconut water can improve blood circulation, lower elevated blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Every few months there tends to be another new health fad. They come and go, but sometimes they hang around. So move over chia seeds, goji berries, acai and vitamin water, this town has a new boss – COCONUTS, or coconut water to be exact. Not to be confused with coconut milk, which comes from the grated flesh of a coconut and is high in fat, coconut water is the clear liquid contained inside young, green coconuts.

Coconut water has been enjoyed in many parts of the world for thousands of years (particularly in South-East Asia), but recent celebrity and athlete endorsements, and attractive marketing campaigns have seen it rise to the status of “Superfood”. Although pure coconut water has been available fresh from health food outlets and in pre-packaged form in Asian supermarkets for years, it has only recently made its debut into Australian general supermarkets in the past year. Whilst the value of the industry in Australia has not yet been calculated, in the US the estimated sales value of coconut water for 2012 was $350 million with the value predicted to double this year. It is however, forecasted to be one of Australia’s fastest-selling new products with more than 15 new brands already on our supermarket shelves. As tends to be the case with ‘superfoods’, coconut water is promoted as something of a miracle drink. Not only is it considered “Mother Nature’s sports drink”, but marketers have claimed the health benefits also include helping you lose weight, slowing down the ageing process, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and even curing your hangover. So is this miracle drink a nutritional goldmine? Or is this pricey, trendy beverage all hype?

Let’s break it down and explore the health claims of coconut water:

It’s better than a sports drink
Staying hydrated is one of the most important things for recreational and professional athletes, particularly in warmer weather conditions. Dubbed “nature’s Gatorade”, coconut water is a natural isotonic drink that provides many of the same benefits as formulated sports drinks, including the electrolytes calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium and potassium, but in their natural form. While the word “natural” is considered advantageous to marketers, the truth of the matter is that our body does not distinguish the difference between the electrolytes coming from coconut water or from a sports drink.

Although it does provide electrolytes and a little bit of carbohydrate, coconut water won’t rehydrate the body unless you can drink plenty of it. A sports drink, on the other hand is specifically formulated for athletes so the electrolyte and carbohydrate content are at the right level and are designed to replace fluids, supply energy, and replace sodium and potassium lost through perspiration. Also, coconut water is low in carbohydrates and sodium and rich in potassium, which is not exactly what athletes need when exercising rigorously. However, you’d have to drink a litre and a half of coconut water to get your daily amount of potassium. If the taste of coconut water helps you drink plenty of fluids, it is a fine choice for most people but may not be for those in prolonged physical activity. The rest of the general population get all the hydration and electrolytes we need from a healthy diet.

Bottom line
For the average light-to-moderate exercise enthusiast, if you’re consuming enough fluids and eating healthfully throughout the day, having coconut water after a workout is not going to significantly benefit you any more than hydrating with water. Whether you choose a sports drink, coconut water, or plain water, they all work to keep your body hydrated. The challenge is when you exercise strenuously for more than three hours in the heat and lose lots of body fluids, you need easily absorbed carbohydrates for quick energy and to replace lost electrolytes such as sodium and potassium.

It’s a low-fat health drink
Coconut water is seen to be a healthier alternative to soft drinks and some fruit juices that can be packed full of sugar and kilojoules. Plain and natural coconut water (from the coconut itself) contains no artificial additives or sweeteners and is cholesterol free, 99 per cent fat free, low in carbohydrates and has naturally occurring sugars and has less than 100 kilojoules per 100ml (most flavoured varieties use 100 per cent fruit extracts) and thus, could be a better choice for adults and kids looking for a beverage that is less sweet and better form them.

The problem lies in the commercially packaged coconut waters with added flavours to enhance the appeal and extend the line of the product. These can be high in sugar – and therefore kilojoules, especially if they contain added fruit. For example, Vita Coco (endorsed by pop star Rhianna) has 15g of sugar per 330ml carton — nearly a sixth of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for a woman — and almost 70 calories. Varieties mixed with fruit juice can contain even more. Worse, the levels of electrolytes in commercial coconut water aren’t that high. In regards to potassium content, 100ml of Vita Coco contains 195mg of potassium — this is only 10 per cent of your RDA. As a comparison, a baked potato has 553mg.

Bottom line
Coconut water is marketed as a good source of minerals, but it contains only small amounts of these. In fact, five portions of fruit and vegetables a day will give you the daily requirement of these minerals. It’s important to be mindful about choosing plain coconut water as there may be nasty additives. Reading the nutrition information panel and ingredients list is a much smarter way of knowing what you are about to consume rather than relying on the health claim. If you’re looking for a drink with some flavour but want to save on calories, coconut water can be a better choice than juice; fruit juice often has double the calories of coconut water. Coconut water may have more potassium than many types of fruit juice as well. Just be sure to opt for unflavoured coconut water and avoid those with added sugar or juices, which are no different from other sugary beverages. As a rule of thumb, choose drinks with less than 5g of sugar per 100ml.

Coconut water has anti-aging properties
Advocates for this miracle liquid claim that it can slow down the ageing process by promoting smoother, more youthful-looking skin. This is due to it being a natural source of cytokinins, a group of plant growth hormones that help regulate cell growth, development and ageing. Rich in potassium, antioxidants and lauric acid, cytokinins are said to balance pH levels, strengthen and hydrate connective tissues and even reduce the risk of age-related diseases. If applied to the skin you may also be able to reduce acne, cellulite, eczema, stretch marks, wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin. As attractive as this may sound, there is no scientific studies to back any of this up.

Bottom line
Being well-hydrated does help you look and feel better, but water works just as well for this. In regards to the online claim that coconut water “significantly increases plant cell proliferation without increasing the number of undesirable mutations,” and as a result protects your cells—there’s been no research to show that this plant-specific action makes any difference in an actual human being. Regulates blood pressure and cholesterol Research shows that coconut water can improve blood circulation, lower elevated blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes as proclaimed by Dr Bruce Fife, director of the Coconut Research Center and author of Coconut Water for Health and Healing. Advocates also claim it helps increase HDL (good) cholesterol, reduces plaque formation, moderates sugar absorption and improves insulin sensitivity. It is true that people at risk of high blood pressure and stroke require more potassium and less sodium, but there needs to be more studies carried out on coconut water and the effects on cholesterol and diabetes.

Overall verdict
There are some health benefits to consuming coconut water. It’s a natural way to hydrate, reduce sodium, and add potassium to your diet if it’s required. A lot of Australians may not get enough potassium in their diets because they do not consume enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy, so coconut water may help fill the nutritional gap in this sense. But if you’re eating five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day (as recommended), plus a couple of serves of wholegrain foods, then you’re going to get enough potassium for general good health. That’s where the buck stops. Beyond this, the scientific literature does not support the hype of the above health claims. Coconut water is unlikely to be harmful, but it does not have a high nutrient content and can be expensive. So what’s my recommendation for a miracle drink? Good old fashioned plain water. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend water as the best drink. It contains no kilojoules and is the best fluid for hydrating the body. And the best part is that in most cases, it’s FREE! An added bonus is that plain water is free of packaging.

People are always looking for a quick fix with their health and if they can consume something in the form of a pill or a drink, thinking it will improve their health then nine times out of ten they will do it and unfortunately, spending money on new health trends (such as coconut water) often means people have less money available to spend on healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, which provide additional benefits, such as fibre. The claims for coconut water seem to be overrated. If you like the taste of coconut water and are happy to pay for it, there’s nothing harmful about drinking it. But if you’re drinking it for the claimed health benefits, you’re better off drinking water and eating a good range of fruit and vegetables.

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