How healthy is coconut water – really?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Thursday, 25 July 2013.
Tagged: coconut, drinks, healthy lifestyle, hydration, sugary drinks, vitamins, water, wellness

How healthy is coconut water – really?

What is coconut water? Don't confuse coconut water with coconut milk which is made from the grated flesh of a mature coconut mixed with water. I buy coconut milk or cream in tins to add to my curries. Coconut water is completely different. Coconut water is the fluid inside a young, green coconut, which is said to be the cleanest and safest thing to drink if ever you're marooned on a tropical island. The inside liquid is sterile and has no bacterial count so long as the shell hasn't been cracked.

Fresh coconut water is usually drunk straight from the green immature coconut. It is clear but with a milky appearance and is sweetish, pleasant and refreshing.

Fresh whole coconuts

At my local health food store, I see lots of whole trimmed coconuts for sale. All you do is drill or hack a hole down into the cavity so you can poke in a straw and sip this whitish fluid directly.

Green coconuts are said to be sweeter, fresher tasting and give a greater volume of liquid with easier access through the softer shell, than older, dried, mature coconuts. All of which is true but whether you need some after the gym is debatable.

Nutrition profile of coconut water

Plain coconut water has about 4 to 6 g sugars per 100ml (per cent), which is less than sports drinks (5 to 6 per cent) and around half of a fizzy, sweetened drink. Under half of its sugars are in the form of glucose, but there's fructose and sucrose present too.

At an average of 90 kJ per 100ml, it is quite low in kilojoules. Half that of a soft drink or regular juice which is good if you're trying to lose weight.

There's some vitamin C but it's not in the class of a citrus juice with its power-packed levels e.g. less than 20mg vs 200mg per 100ml for juice.

It has virtually no protein, no fat and is low in sodium – only 5 mg per 100ml compared to 28 for sports drinks like Gatorade which has added salt for its electrolytes. Maybe there's more variation than I saw which would account for the sizzling claims currently being made but it's not obvious.

There's not much fibre and yes there's some potassium, copper, calcium and riboflavin but only traces of other vitamins and minerals.

Nutrient per 100g Green coconut water
Kilojoules 109
Calories 16
Protein g 0.2
Fat g 0.0
Saturated fat g 0.0
Carbohydrate g 6.6
Sugars, total g 6.6
   glucose g 2.7 (40%)
   sucrose g 1.5 (25%)
   fructose g 2.4 (35%)
Fibre g na
Vitamin C mg 0
Sodium mg 5
Potassium mg 186

Source: FSANZ database

Coconut water contains some interesting phyto-compounds eg auxin. other plant growth regulators such as gibberellins, ethylene, cytokinins, and abscisic acid. [Source Molecules 2009, 14, 5144-5164; doi:10.3390/molecules14125144]

Checking out the claims made for coconut water

Does coconut water contains more potassium and fewer sugars than sports drinks?

Yes and yes. Per 100ml and per serve, coconut water has fewer sugars and more potassium than sports drinks which are quite low.

Can it rehydrate you faster than a sports drink?

Probably on a par but it's really only of interest to athletes and serious competitors who exercise for over an hour and sweat lots (enough to leave chalky residue on your clothes). For them, sports scientists have concluded that sodium, potassium, carbohydrate and flavouring ALL matter.

Sodium increases the drive to drink and helps with fluid retention. Both sodium and potassium replace losses through sweat. Flavouring and carbohydrates improve palatability which is important to get athletes to like the drink enough to ensure they drink enough fluid. A drink with 5 or 6 per cent sugar solution is rapidly emptied from the stomach and absorbed by the intestine, and delivers those carbs to active muscles.

Drinks missing in one of these four are unlikely to deliver enough fluid to muscles. For instance, fruit juice with 10 to 13 per cent sugars has a high concentration that slows gastric emptying.

At 4 to 6 per cent, coconut water has about the same sugars as sport drink, has way more potassium but little sodium. And the flavour may not to be everyone's liking. So it may not fit the athlete's bill for recovery.

Nutrient per 100g Green coconut water Sports drink e.g. Gatorade
Energy kJ 109 129
Protein g 0.2 0
Fat g 0.0 0
Carbohydrate g 6.6 7.3
Sugars total g 6.6 6.0
Sodium mg 5 28
Potassium mg 186 14

Source: FSANZ and Gatorade

If you're working out and really sweating for longer than an hour, you're better served by a sports drink with carbohydrate or a chocolate milk for protein for your recovery, according to sports nutritionists.

Does coconut water contain more potassium than bananas?

Not really. I did the math on 100ml of coconut water compared with 100g of banana (well known as a rich source) as well as a standard serve.

Per 100g (ml)

The values for potassium range from 172 to 250 eg:

From the USDA database
250mg per 100g

From FSANZ database
186mg per 100g

Average of our 4 coconut waters are:
223 (H2Coco), 131 (Cocobella), no figures for Celebes, 162mg (Beyond which has figures identical to Foodworks) which averages 172mg.

But bananas have almost double at 346 per 100g.

Per serve

I compared one cup (250ml) of coconut water to one medium banana (120g). One cup is about what a single coconut yields in fluid.

In potassium, one cups provides 625 mg (USDA) or 465 (FSANZ) or 735 (330ml for H2Coco), 328 (Cocobella), no figures for Celebes, and 405 for Beyond.

One medium banana has 422 mg.

So regardless of which way I lined the products up, coconut waters do NOT have more potassium. Maybe around the same comparing per serve and depending on which brand and which batch of coconuts, but not enough to make me sit up and take notice.

Most Australians don't eat enough potassium which is found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, lean meat and fish. Per 100g, here are 8 foods that are higher in potassium than coconut water:

Instant coffee powder 3700
Dried apricots 1510
Potato crisps 1130
Sultanas 910
Potato (baked & fried, but not boiled) 590
Spinach, English 570
Bananas 346
Grilled steak 320
Recommended daily intake

2800 women

3800 men

Flavoured coconut drinks

Most plain coconut water tastes so unappealing that many people reach for the fruit versions. Coconut water with pineapple is the most popular as the strong flavour of the pineapple 'covers up' the coconut and fits the tropical theme. Such flavoured drinks are around 90 per cent coconut water with a small 5 to 10 per cent puree or juice. There's also sugar and often food acid and flavour. They deliver more potassium (thanks to the fruit) but also more kilojoules and sugars.

Bottom line

Coconuts green growing on palmIf you don't mind the taste, coconut water is another low kilojoule beverage to quench your thirst with and top up your fluid intake. It's more 'natural' than formulated drinks although this really applies to the fluid you sip from inside the coconut, not the packs or cans which have been pasteurized or heat-treated so they don't go off.

It has fewer sugars and kilojoules than juices, soft drinks and sports drinks. It's non-gassy and handy if you're wanting to shed weight.

But that's about it. It's not a super food in my book and doesn't deserve to proclaim its benefits about potassium and electrolytes and being "super hydrating" the way it does at present. There's nothing magical about it that could make it refresh and revive you any better than other similar drinks.

If you aren't active enough or only work out once or twice a week, plain water is all you need.

Interesting facts in a (coco)nutshell

  • Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) are an important food and cash crop in the Pacific and the Indian ocean regions.
  • Coconut palms are found naturally in tropical coastal areas around the globe. Top producing countries are 1) Indonesia, 2) Philippines, 3) India, 4) Brazil, 5) Sri Lanka, and 6) Thailand.
  • Coconuts hang in clusters of 15 to 20 from the top of the palm tree. They are green at first and turn brown when they mature.
  • A tree can bear fruit for 70 to 80 years. Inside their shell, coconuts contain white meat and around a cup of clear liquid.
  • Coconuts are often sold green and immature. They have more water and the water is less sweet.
  • Coconut water or juice is the sweet clear liquid found in freshly opened coconuts. It is both low in kilojoules (Calories) and low in fat.
  • Coconut milk is the creamy white liquid produced by squeezing or grating the white flesh of newly-opened coconuts.
  • Coconut oil is produced by pressing the coconut flesh after it has dried out. The flesh is about 50 per cent oil.
  • Coconut oil is used for cooking and as an ingredient in foods such as confectionery e.g. the hard choc-tops on ice-cream cones at movies, in non-dairy coffee creamer and the soft liquid centres of filled chocolates.
  • It is rich in fats that are used to make soaps, detergents, shampoos, synthetic rubber, perfumes, face creams, suntan lotions and hair styling mousses.
  • Coconut oil is high in unhealthy fats (it is 80 per cent saturated fats) although there is great interest in virgin coconut oil among alternative health circles.

These interesting facts courtesy of the Facts and Details website

Coconut water in the news

Coconut water manufacturer admits making misleading claims   17 Dec 2014

Read this post from Australian Food News on H2Coco Pty Ltd being forced to pay a fine and admit that they didn’t have the evidence to substantiate their potentially-misleading claim.

H2Coco falsely claimed that their water ‘contains a complex blend of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, enzymes, health enhancing growth hormones and other phytonutrients’. They also agreed to train their sales staff on the true composition of their products.