Coconut water: A health drink that’s all it’s cracked up to be?
March 06, 2011 – By Elena Conis, Special to the Los Angeles Times
A roster of minerals has made it popular among fitness junkies looking for a natural alternative to sports drinks without artificial colors or preservatives. But it’s not necessarily right for all athletes.
Sometimes billed as nature’s sports drink, the slightly sour beverage has also acquired a reputation for being able to improve circulation, slow aging, fight viruses, boost immunity, and reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. It’s also fat-free, cholesterol-free, low in calories and chock-full of electrolytes.
But there’s news for people looking for a tropical shortcut to good health: On closer inspection, coconut water isn’t the cure-all it’s cracked up to be. “There’s nothing magical about coconut water,” says Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis.
Coconut water is the juice found in young, green coconuts. On the beaches of Brazil and in other places, people often drink it through a straw stuck straight into the fruit. Unlike coconut milk, which is a high-fat emulsion of mature coconut meat, coconut water is, well, mostly water — about 95% water, in fact.
It also contains the electrolytes sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphate as well as small amounts of many essential amino acids. That roster of minerals has made it popular among fitness junkies looking for a natural alternative to sports drinks without artificial colors or preservatives, Applegate says.
But though coconut water is fine for “the typical working-out person,” she says, it’s not for athletes engaged in intensive training, because compared with some commercial sports drinks, it is low in carbohydrates and sodium, which are essential for recovery following hard-core training.
Coconut water also contains very little protein, which is crucial in a true recovery drink, says Becci Twombley, director of sports nutrition at UCLA. She says that after a hard workout, adults need at least 15 to 17 grams of protein; 8 ounces of coconut water contains less than 2 grams of protein, according to an analysis that Singaporean researchers published in 2009.
On the other hand, coconut water contains up to 15 times as much potassium as the average sports drink. Like sodium, potassium is a key electrolyte that gets sweated out during exercise. But because the body loses more sodium than potassium during a workout, all that extra potassium isn’t necessarily important in a sports drink, Applegate says. (There’s certainly no harm in it either, she adds.)
Coconut water is fine for casual athletes and people who just like the taste, Bonci says, but there are much cheaper ways to rehydrate and restore electrolytes. One idea: “How about having a glass of water and a banana?”
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