Don’t you hate it when something you like on its own merits becomes trendy? I fell in love with coconut water on a 2010 trip to Thailand. The most refreshing and delicious drink I’d ever tasted, the water inside immature coconuts was sold on the streets for the equivalent of about 50 cents. But coconut water has become big business here in the United States, and not all brands do the delicious juice justice.
Too busy to read the whole article? [2800 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:
- Coconut water has grown exponentialy in the United States recently and is poised to continue growing, due to marketing pressure and growers catching up to demand.
- Coconut water’s health powers include decreasing blood pressure, preventing heart attack, and smoothing skin, among others—but all these benefits rely on tiny amounts of compounds found in fresh juice that may not survive industrial processing.
- Multiple sources show that coconut water is better (though marginally) than both traditional sports drinks and plain water for rehydration during and after exercise.
- Fresh coconut water tastes way better than any packaged variety we tried, but a few brands were worth buying; only one was a complete throwaway.
When I got home I found packaged juices in the “natural” section of my grocery store and at Whole Foods. I started drinking them for an energy boost when I worked out. Before long, it seemed like coconut juice was everywhere—the cheerful little packages even became a staple at gas stations. Celebrities showed up, making coconut water sexy. Exuberant health claims were made. All the buzz almost annoyed me enough to stop drinking it. Almost. I like coconut water too much to give it up, and aside from bourbon, it’s generally the only thing I drink besides water.
I wanted to get behind the hype and find out the true story behind coconut water. So I grilled some experts, read some papers, and did a taste test. Here’s what I learned.
Why the sudden boom in coconut water sales? In a word, marketing.
Coconut juice is big business. “It’s grown exponentially” in recent years, says David Hollister, sales manager for Amy & Brian—one of the first brands to sell coconut juice here in the United States. David sent me to the Wall Street Journal for industry numbers where I found it “has roughly doubled its revenue each year since 2005,” with U.S. sales in 2011 hitting $400 million.1 That’s a lot of cash courtesy of a humble street fare beverage.
Why so big, so fast? After all, “I suspect people have been using coconuts for a hundred thousand years going back to our primate ancestors,” food anthropologist Richard Wilk told me. And it’s only now catching on here?
“Sometimes we have to understand the marketers create a need,” sports nutritionist Doug Kalman says. David agrees. “Nobody buys anything in America without someone telling them to do it,” he says. And what have the big companies* been saying? “They’re overdoing it with the hype,” nutritionist Larisa Alonso told me. “And the coconut water companies are taking advantage of the American lust for healthy beverages.”
This isn’t the first time tropical products have come to us with such a marketing blitz. “A few tropical items … started as fads but stabilized and stayed,” Richard says. “Citrus—orange juice for breakfast. That was entirely a product of nutritionists and government and orange growers working together. They convinced everyone in America that drinking a glass of OJ in the morning was good for you. Bananas—the same thing. You have very strong companies, a government telling everyone that bananas were a perfect health food…those go back to the great age of colonialism when governments were looking for markets for tropical produce.”
*U.S.- No. 2 coconut water brand Zico is mostly owned by Coke, while O.N.E. And Naked are backed by PepsiCo.
The economics of coconut water
Part of the reason major companies are willing to invest in coconut water lies in profits. Depending on the brand, a single container of the elixir can cost several dollars at retail, well above the price of other juices or sports drinks.
How is it that something so cheap on the streets of Asian and Caribbean countries can run as much as a cocktail? “I don’t think the average person in America understands how their food arrives on their plate,” David says. “It takes an awful lot. There’s roughly two coconuts per can. … there’s multiple layers of distribution … it goes from the farmer to the consolidator to the factory to be produced, it goes into a can, into a case, into a pallet, into a container, shipped to the U.S. to a warehouse and sold to the distributor and then on to retailer and everybody is taking a markup along the way. When you see it on the shelf at $2.99 there’s not a lot of fluff in there because so much is built in.”
The boom has actually caused a shortage in some areas. Right now, “everybody is fighting for raw materials,” David says. And that means that producers will continue to have an incentive to promote coconut juice, regardless of what science might reveal about its nutritional value. “It takes five years for [growers] to try to respond [to demand] …people will plant lots and lots,” says Richard. “Then there will be a glut, prices will collapse. Smaller people will go bankrupt and only the bigger people will survive. We’ve seen it with almost every tree crop.”
Is coconut water actually healthy for you?
“For me as a nutritionist it’s all about relativity,” Larisa says. “How is it compared to other beverages Americans like to drink? In a lot of ways it can be better than soda or juice but does that mean it’s nectar from the gods? Absolutely not.”
Luckily, most giddy health claims have died down following a barrage of lawsuits. “Every company in the industry got hit or threatened with lawsuits because of claims on the packaging,” David says. But the juice is still a media darling, touted as bursting with potassium and electrolytes, beloved for its phenomenal rehydration abilities.
Doug took the question to the lab with a study for the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:“Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men.”2
What did he learn? First, he says, “the science is pretty deep. You can go back to medical literature, to pre-World War 2 in the United States where it was used in IV hydration. … In India coconut water is used to rehydrate babies that suffer from diarrhea-induced dehydration.” But for this study, he wanted to look at coconut juice’s effect in the gym on rehydration and performance.
“We evaluated coconut water [in comparison] to different sports drinks … after the person exercised in an environmentally controlled room that’s like running in Florida outdoors until they’re dehydrated—until they lost 2-3% of body weight,” he explained. He and his fellow researchers measured how fast participants could rehydrate by looking at markers in blood and urine.
The findings? “We found no difference in sports drinks and coconut water on impacting sports performance,” Doug says. “Coconut water is just as effective as your typical sports drinks at supporting rehydration and performance. What’s surprising is coconut water is able to do this with less calories and less sodium than sports drinks.” Besides its rehydration potential, Doug likes coconut water for its potassium. “So many people don’t get enough potassium in their diet,” he says. “DASH diet studies show that when you increase potassium through adding fruit and vegetables—including coconut water—you have lower blood pressure, [better] quality of life, and reduced medical issues.”3
“Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”
That sounded like a cautious thumbs up. And yes, “including it can be a good strategy,” Doug says. However, he adds a caveat: “Because we have such a problem in this country where 60-70% of Americans are overweight or obese, if we’re making recommendations about hydration we need to know that lower calorie beverages will rehydrate just as well as high calorie beverages.” His lab-tested advice? “Include noncaloric water for (the first) 75 minutes.” If you’re working out longer, “having coconut water with its potassium helps with metabolic reactions in body.”
How about outside the lab? CrossFit trainer Allison Bojarski says “Lots of athletes show up to a workout at least a little dehydrated, so drinking anything that is hydrating is a good thing pre-workout, during workout, and post-workout. If coconut water’s tastiness will make athletes more likely to drink something, that’s a good thing.”
And that’s what the research found too. When we dug deeper we found one more study that showed that coconut water hydrates better than other options, while another study found it hydrated about as well, but was more palatable and so resulted in less nausea and stomach upset than plain water.4,5 Regardless of the reasoning, both studies recommended coconut water for hydration.
Beyond rehydration: do cytokinins, peptides, or vitamins matter?
So, we’ve established that coconut water can make an effective hydration aid. What about all those other health claims? The scientific literature has explored everything from using coconut water to control hypertension (high blood pressure)6 to its use in preventing myocardial infarction (heart attacks).7
The research on the health benefits of coconut water falls into two categories: (1) studies of the effects of fresh coconut juice from whole young coconuts and (2) studies of the effects of specific compounds extracted from coconuts. Both these types of studies have reported positive effects. However, we were unable to find any research on the effects of processed coconut water.
Here’s why this matters: the most important health benefits of coconut water appear to be derived from cytokinins (a type of hormone found in plants) and peptides (the building blocks of proteins).8,9 Although coconut water does contain a complex of B vitamins and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, an important dietary antioxidant), both these vitamins are often found in other foods, so are not what makes coconut water uniquely healthy.
Without testing each brand of commercial coconut water individually, we have no way of knowing which cytokinins and peptides made the transition from fruit to can. First off, the chemical composition of coconuts can vary widely based on variety, age, and origin. Quality is most typically judged on taste, not health benefits. Second, processing can drastically change the composition of juice, regardless of source. Commercial juices are often filtered, heated, centrifuged, or pressed. Both cytokinins and peptides occur in very small concentrations as compared to carbohydrates and minerals found in coconut water; they could easily be stripped from the juice or altered in such a way that they no longer do anything for health.
Taking all that into account, I did my best to choose the best option available.
Testing brands of coconut water by taste and nutrition
If you’re going to join the coconut fan club, the options can be overwhelming—-and it’s not all good. “There was a point where people thought they could put coconut anything in a can and sell it,” David told me. “A lot of them frankly were putting something horrible in a can.” And the product can come from any number of sources. Amy & Brian source from Thailand but have looked elsewhere. “I’ve been to Sri Lanka and Cambodia, looking to see if we can source product and we have not found the right quality,” David says. “Sourcing is a big deal right now. Vita Coco is sourcing from four countries.” Some companies, David told me, use the byproduct of more mature coconuts harvested for milk—later filtering and pasteurizing the water that runs out of the nut onto the factory floor. It’s products like that, he thinks, that make some people think they don’t like coconut juice.
So how do you know which to buy? As a food writer I’m used to judging the merits of one food over another at competitions like the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship. So I staged my own blind taste test. All together I sampled seven options, including some of the biggest and most easily available brands, making sure to represent coconuts from most of the major producing countries. I also included an actual coconut (from Thailand) and sipped everything at room temperature (the better to detect the taste). I scored each on a scale of 1 to 10 for how coconutty it tasted, sweetness, and Mmmmm factor.
Not surprisingly, the real coconut won by a long shot. Coming in second with the closest taste to the real thing and lots of sweetness was Amy & Brian. Dead last (and the only one I threw away after tasting) was made-from concentrate and revolting Zico.
On nutrition: Nutritionist Larisa told me fresh is best—not just for taste, but also because of the antioxidant properties and cytokinins that may be lost in pasteurization and other processing. Her advice marries up to the research conducted by our independent research team.
If rehydration is the only goal, any coconut water with an adequate blend of potassium and sodium should do, as these appear to be the minerals most responsible for rehydration. Fresh young coconut contains between 200 mg and 300 mg of potassium/100g of liquid and around 100 mg sodium/100 g liquid.9
Cheaper and also good
Realistically though, how many of us are going to chop coconuts every day? Since I couldn’t effectively judge based on nutrition, I continued my judging on taste alone. My runner up was Amy & Brian, which runs about $2.99 for 17.5 ounces. Full disclosure: I did interview an Amy & Brian representative for this article. While I took care to be sure my tasting was conducted blind, I just want to make note of any potential conflicts.
For those of us on a budget, cost needs to factor with taste. The most palatable option, then, for everyday drinking was Whole Foods 365 ($3.59 a liter) followed closely by Trader Joe’s ($2.99 a liter). Vita Coco was the least bad of the remaining options, and if you like your groceries to come to you then you can subscribe to a 12-pack (11.1 ounces each) delivery for $18.83 a month on Amazon.
So: Should you start drinking coconut water?
Fads come and go, and “experts change their minds every few years,” Richard says. It’s tempting to let the coconut frenzy turn you off, to let the product fall victim to its own hype. But for me, at least, I have to think coconut juice is the real deal—a tasty, good for you drink. So I might take all the hyped up health claims with a grain of salt, but I’ll remember what Richard left me with:
“Poor people have always appreciated coconuts. The water is always safe to drink, always pure. When someone was sick you would give them coconut water. Indigenous people all over the world have this incredible base of knowledge that’s come to them from a million and half years of trial and error.”
That’s a pretty strong endorsement, if you ask me.
Your next action: ditch the sports drink, grab some coconut water
- Scientific studies agree that coconut water aids in rehydration during and after exercise, albeit for varying reasons.
- The best coconut water comes straight from a fresh young coconut, but decent processed brands are available and should work for rehydration.
- Prices are a bit steep at the moment, but will likely decrease as growers catch up to demand in the next five years.
- Esterl, Mike. The Beverage Wars Move to Coconuts. Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012.
- Kalman, D.S., et al. Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. JISSN 9:1, 2012.
- “DASH” refers to “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” a series of studies sponsored by the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- Saat, M., et al. Rehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. J Physiol Anthropol Appl Hum Sci, 2002, 21, 93-104
- Ismail, I., Singh, R., and Sirisinghe, R. G. Rehydration with sodium-enriched coconut water after exercise-induced dehydration. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 2007, 38(4), 769-85.
- Alleyne, T., et al. The control of hypertension by use of coconut water and mauby: two tropical food drinks. West Indian med. j, 2005, 54(1).
- Anurag, P. and Rajamohan, T. Cardioprotective effect of tender coconut water in experimental myocardial infarction. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 2003, 58(3), 1-12.
- Prades, A., et al. Coconut water uses, composition and properties: a review. Fruits, Mar 2012, 67(2), 87-107.
- Yong, J., et al. The Chemical Composition and Biological Properties of Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) Water. Molecules, 2009, 14(12), 5144-5164.
- Larisa Alonso, interview. M.S., L.N., R.D.N., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch. Holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Cornell University and a master’s degree in nutrition and immunology from the University of Texas School of Public Health
- Allison Bojarksi, interview. Level-1 certified CrossFit trainer with a strong interest in nutrition’s impact on training, performance, and health
- David Hollister, interview. National sales manager for Amy & Brian
- Douglas Kalman, interview. PhD, R.D., Sports nutritionist and professor at Florida International University and a co-editor of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. A registered dietician, he also holds a doctorate in exercise and nutritional biochemistry.
- Richard Wilk: Provost Professor, interview. Anthropology Department, Indiana University