Is Coconut Water Really “Nature’s Sports Drink”?

By Perrin Braun, August 1, 2022


These days, coconut water is an increasingly popular sports beverage. Store displays and advertisements tout its benefits over plain water and traditional sports drinks. But does coconut water actually live up to all the health hype?image

What is coconut water?

Coconut water and coconut milk are frequently confused.  Coconut milk is the thicker, whiter liquid produced from pressing the grated meat of a mature coconut. A common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, the rich color and taste of coconut milk come partly from its high saturated fat content. On the other hand, coconut water is the non-fat, sweet liquid that forms naturally inside the shell of an immature coconut. Roughly 94% water, coconut water is comprised of easily digested carbohydrates in the form of sugar and electrolytes. Coconut water contains B vitamins, potassium, various plant hormones, enzymes, and amino acids.

If you’re interested in learning more about how the specific nutrients in coconut water, InsideTracker can provide you with the information that you need to make an informed diet choice!

Coconut water claims

Traditionally a popular drink in the Caribbean and in Southeast Asia, coconut water has only recently been thrust into the spotlight by food and beverage marketers who trumpet its many purported health benefits. Marketers have nicknamed coconut water as “nature’s sports drink,” claiming that coconut water is a natural substitute for manufactured beverages because it contains as many healing properties as other sports drinks. Food manufacturers have claimed that coconut water can do the following: prevent hangovers, regulate blood pressure, promote smoother skin, break up kidney stones, assist with digestion, and even slow the aging process. While there is little scientific evidence available to support these claims, there are benefits for coconut water.

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One of most prominent claims for coconut water is that it beats plain water or sports drinks when it comes to nutritional value. With about 60 calories in an 11-ounce serving, unflavored coconut water contains fewer calories and less sugar than many juices, sports drinks, and sodas. However, many varieties of coconut water have added juice or flavorings that may make them just as caloric as sports drinks or other sugar-sweetened beverages.

The hydration debate

Hydration is necessary to maintain peak performance. Water regulates your body temperature, lubricates your joints, and transports nutrients throughout your body. Staying hydrated is particularly important during exercise because you lose water through sweat. The longer and more intensely you work out, the more necessary it becomes to get fluid into your body. When you don’t replenish your fluids, it becomes harder for your heart to circulate blood.  A decrease in blood and plasma volume can contribute to muscle cramps, dizziness, fatigue, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion.

Your body loses electrolytes when it sweats. Chloride, potassium, and sodium are major electrolytes, which are minerals in your blood, urine, and bodily fluids that contain an electric charge. Your body’s cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses throughout your body. These electrical charges help your cells communicate with each other and give you the ability to taste, see, smell, touch, and hear.  Many health experts say that after about an hour of strenuous exercise, you need to increase your intake of both electrolytes and fluids.

Manufacturers of coconut water claim that their beverage rehydrates you better than plain water or sports drinks. But is this true? While coconut water is high in potassium, it is has fewer carbohydrates and less sodium than traditional sports drinks. These two nutrients are essential for athletes who participate in endurance sports or prolonged aerobic workouts. Sports drinks, plain water, and coconut water will all keep you hydrated if you engage in light exercise. However, if you are working out strenuously in the heat or are exercising for more than three consecutive hours, your body requires more carbohydrates and electrolytes than coconut water alone can provide. If you find that you are sweating a lot, supplementing your fluid intake with a banana or a handful of pretzels will help prevent you from feeling lethargic after a workout.

Many celebrity athletes have endorsed coconut water and claim that it does the best job of keeping them hydrated.  A 2010 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that coconut water replenishes bodily fluids as well as leading sports drinks and slightly better than water – but most of the athletes surveyed preferred the taste of sports drinks. A 2007 study showed that coconut water enhanced with sodium performed as well as a commercial sports drink on a post-exercise rehydration test. So, while coconut water may be a good source of hydration for people who enjoy the taste, plain water suits most recreational athletes just fine!

Coconut water and potassium

Because Americans generally don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, potassium is frequently lacking in the typical diet. Like sodium, potassium is an electrolyte that is essential for nerve and muscle function, and is similarly excreted from the body when you sweat.

Marketers of coconut water claim that a single serving of their product contains more potassium than a banana. A single-serving container of one of the leading brands of coconut water provides 670mg of potassium, while a medium-sized banana has 422mg. In a 2009 article U.S. News health writer Katherine Hobson did an ounce-by-ounce comparison of Gatorade and Zico, a brand of coconut water. While Zico contains more than fifteen times the potassium of Gatorade, the sports drink contains more than twice as much sodium as coconut water. So, when it comes to restoring electrolyte balance after exercise, sports drinks may come out on top.

Of course, your body needs more than electrolytes to optimally function during exercise—it also needs energy and fluids. If you enjoy the taste of coconut water (and don’t mind the $2-$3 price tag per container!), it can fulfill those needs.  But if your workouts exceed 90 minutes, you may need to supplement your beverage with additional nutrients. Remember, one product alone cannot serve as a panacea for all your health needs, and InsideTracker can provide you with the information that you need to get the most nutritional punch from your diet.

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