Fat-free, cholesterol-free, low-calorie, super-hydrating, naturally rich in electrolytes -- the touted benefits of America's latest health craze, coconut water, seem endless. Dubbed "nature's sports drink" and "life-enhancer" by marketers, its no wonder why celebrities have replaced their acai berry drinks and Kabbalah water with a juice box.
But with a price tag of $2-3 for a typical 11 fl. ounce tetra pack (equivalent to about 10 sips), is it really worth paying top dollar for, well, top water?
For the uninitiated, coconut water is the clear, nut-flavored (or "sock-flavored") juice stored inside young coconuts. It has long been a staple liquid of Southeast Asian nations, where the fruit is also harvested for its flesh, oil and milk.
In America, the beverage hit the stands five years ago through the two biggest players: Vita Coco, an independent manufacturer which sold $20 million of the juice in 2009 and expects to double that this year, and Zico, a brand backed by Coca-Cola. As fads go, the coconut water industry has burgeoned: Merrill Lynch notes that within five years, the U.S. coconut water industry went from zero to $35 million.
Coconut water's headiest claim is that it is rich in potassium: a typical serving offers 569 mg, which is almost twice the amount in a banana. This mineral helps regulate blood pressure by counteracting the stimulating effects of sodium, of which it contains only 160 mg, and this in turn helps to prevent related issues like stroke, heart attack and hangovers. Compare this to 14 fl. oz. of Gatorade, which contains 'only' 52.5 mg of potassium and 192.5 mg of sodium.
But nutritionists say you should think twice before chugging the stuff, especially after heavy-duty exercise.
Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis, told Mother Jones that coconut water's high potassium and low sodium combination isn't ideal after strenuous exercise. "Even though the belief is that when you exercise you need a lot of potassium, sodium is more important," she said. "When you sweat, you lose a lot more sodium than potassium."
Applegate says she has never seen any convincing scientific evidence to support anti-aging and kidney health claims. Still, she doesn't dismiss coconut water entirely. "If you like the taste, great," she told MJ. "If you're doing a short workout, great."
"The star behind coconut water is its high potassium content," Andrea Giancoli, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, told Fat Fighter TV. "Most people aren't getting enough potassium because they're not eating enough fruits and vegetables."
"I wouldn't believe all the hype -- that it's going to cure diabetes and cancer and hypertension, etc.," she continued. "Unfortunately, that always ends up being the issue with some of these products -- their actual health benefits get lost in the hype."
In another interview with the Washington Post, Giancoi says salty pretzels might be better for you after a hard workout.
"Most people don't exercise heavily enough to need a sports recovery drink. Water is just fine for most people," she told WaPo.
Australian nutritionist Tania Ferraretto told Fiji Times, "While it's a marketing advantage to say it's natural, in the real world your body doesn't distinguish between the electrolytes coming from coconut water or from a sports drink."
"Although it does provide electrolytes and a little bit of carbohydrate, a sports drink is specifically formulated for athletes and the electrolytes and carbohydrates are at the right level," Ferraretto added.