Have You Tried Coconut Water?

It seems like you can’t swing a shopping cart these days without hitting a giant display of coconut water.

And with superstar Rihanna on colorful billboards as the new face/body of Vita Coco water, more consumers than ever are considering guzzling the liquid from this tropical nut. While every brand tastes a bit different, many describe the liquid as slightly sweet, with a (duh!) mild coconut flavor and a smooth, slippery feeling to it.

So, to get the skinny on this hot (but cold!) beverage, I spoke with nutritionist Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D. and asked a few questions:

Q: I’ve heard the claim that coconut water is more hydrating than water. How can this be?

A: Nothing takes the place of water—it’s calorie free, without artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. The claims about hydration stem from the high potassium content in coconut water—potassium and sodium are electrolytes that leave the body when you sweat.  But most exercisers a) don’t sweat out so many electrolytes that they become depleted and b) can easily replenish electrolytes at the next meal.  And I think that more sodium is lost than potassium, so coconut water probably isn’t the ideal re-hydration solution. But, then again, you probably don’t need any special hydration—water is just fine.

That said, if you need a break from water, and can spare the 45 calories per cup of unflavored coconut water (although most packages are at or near 2 cups), it’s a really good choice because it’s so high in potassium.

Potassium helps offset all the sodium in out diet, which, in turn helps reduce blood pressure. Depending on the brand, you get about 325 to 485 mg potassium per cup (8 ounces); by comparison, a banana’s got about 423 mg and a cup of orange juice has about 473 mg.

The only strike against coconut water is that at least one brand I’ve seen contains about 91 mg of sodium per cup—and since most people are already getting too much sodium, why add to the load? When possible, seek out brands with about 30 mg per cup.

And, I’d skip the flavored coconut water unless you count them toward your treat calories—they’re too high in calories.

Q: It’s funny, when some people think of coconuts, they immediately think rich and fattening. How is coconut water different?

A: When you break open a coconut, the liquid sloshing around in the hollow interior is coconut water. The companies selling this water either pasteurize it and package it, or, they dehydrate it, making a “concentrate” and then add back water before packaging. The white coconut meat is where coconut oil and coconut milk come from.  Coconut milk—the thick liquid used in Thai and Indian cooking to make curries—comes from crushing coconut meat, a.k.a. the thick lining just inside the brown exterior. It’s very high in calories—about 500 per half cup, because it’s so high in fat (about 48 g per half cup).  The “light” version is about a fifth as caloric and fatty.

Coconut oil has always been on nutritionist’s “bad fats” list because it’s so high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol.  But now scientists are re-visiting the entire saturated fat/cholesterol/heart disease theory and finding that some types of saturated fat may not be harmful.  So, stay tuned for the verdict on coconut oil!

Have you tried coconut water? What do you think?