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Cuckoo for Coconut Water

Submitted by on April 29, 2009 – 7:31 pmNo Comment



In case this doesn't fit into your kid's lunchbox, 100% natural coconut water is sold in more convenient juice-boxy cartons.

I don’t know about where you live, but here in New York, it hit 90 degrees this week.  And it’s not even May.  No sooner did the flip flops come out did I find myself compulsively buying drink boxes of coconut water each time I passed by a bodega.

What is coconut water, you ask?

Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is the clear “juice” of a young (green) coconut that slowly gives way to coconut “meat” as a coconut matures.   Coconut water is very low calorie, fat-free, and is an excellent source of potassium, an important electrolyte.  (In addition, it also has small amounts of other electrolytes, such as magnesium, calcium and a teensy bit of sodium.) If you’ve ever traveled to the Caribbean or southeast Asia, you’ve likely seen people drinking coconut water from a straw straight out of a green (or white, if it was shelled) coconut.   In contrast, coconut milk is a high-calorie/high-fat (albeit super delicious), creamy liquid derived by squeezing the grated meat of a mature coconut.  It’s used for cooking and baking mostly, although recently I’ve seen it used as a non-dairy alternative to milk to make lactose-free  yogurts and ice creams.

Meet the many faces of coconut water…

Coconut water as sports drink?

When you sweat, you lose trace amounts of electrically-charged minerals called electrolytes, one of whose many important functions in our body is to maintain fluid balance.  In other words, they keep the right amount of water in the blood, in the cells and outside the cells so that everything can work the way its supposed to.  When your electrolytes become imbalanced–which can happen if you have prolonged diarrhea, excessive vomiting, if you run a marathon without replenishing properly, or if you ingest a super-human amount of water in a really short period of time, for example–then crazy things can happen to your fluid balance.  You can lose too much, become dehydrated and pass out from low blood pressure… your heartbeat could become irregular… you could overload your cells and cause them to burst.  Lots of fun things.   Luckily, we’ve got kidneys to handle the electrolyte balancing act, so we rarely need to think about it.

Now I will preface this by saying that plain-ol’ tap water is more than sufficient for the vast majority of gym rats and weekend warriors to prevent dehydration.  According to the American College of Sports Medicine, electrolyte replacement really only becomes necessary for intense physical activity that lasts for more than an hour, particularly among people who are sweating profusely and/or drinking a lot of plain water. The most important electrolyte to replace is sodium, since you lose a fair amount of it when you sweat.  (Our bodies are better able to hang on to some of the other electrolytes, such as potassium, so replenishing that in large quantities is less of a concern.)  Specifically, the ACSM recommends that, for intense physical activity that lasts over 1 hour, athletes should aim to have 500-700 mg of sodium per liter of fluid consumed, which translates roughly into 300mg of sodium in your typical 20-oz bottle of, say, Gatorade.  Of course, if you don’t like the taste of sports drinks or don’t want to spend the money, there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t meet your fluid and sodium needs by drinking plain water and nibbling on a snack of some salted pretzels from your fanny pack.)

There several major marketers of coconut water that I’ve come across in the US, including Goya, Zico, O.N.E , and Vita Coco.  Several of these brands market their coconut water as a ‘natural sports drink,’ and it’s an interesting claim.zico-330-carton-nice

According to the USDA and all of the product labels I consulted, 1 cup (8oz) of pure, straight-from-the coconut coconut water has about 45 calories, 10g of natural sugars (2.5 tsp worth) and no fat.  (If you decided to splurge on a coconut water with added fruit puree for extra flavor, that would bring the total to somewhere between 45-60 calories per 8oz (about half that of an equivalent amount of apple juice) with 10-13g of sugar (2.5-3 tsp worth), depending on the brand.)   In the electrolyte department, that serving contains: 600-680mg potassium (12%-14% of the daily value), 40-60 mg sodium (2%-3% of the daily limit), 4%-6% of your daily calcium needs and 6%-10% of your daily magnesium needs.   This translates into 200 mg sodium per liter, which falls short of the ACSM recommendation of about 500 mg per liter for intense workouts over 1 hour long.

Compare that to 8oz of your average leading sports-drinks, where the same 8oz portion contains 50 calories, 14g of added sugar (3.5 tsp worth), 1% (30 mg)of the daily value  for potassium, 2-5% (110 mg) of the daily value for sodium, no calcium and no magnesium.  For athletic rehydration purposes, these products provide about 440 mg sodium per liter consumed, which is much closer to the ACSM recommendation for intense physical activity lasting more than 1 hour.  Of course I doubt that the artificial colors do very much to boost one’s athletic performance.

In a (coco)nutshell: The coconut water would appear make an acceptable substitute to a sports drink for intense indoor activity lasting just about an hour, but if I were running outdoors in the summer for an hour or more, racing in a marathon or competing in a triathalon, I’d play it safe and stick with the fakey sports drink.

Coconut water as a secret weapon to fight high blood pressure?

If you have high blood pressure, you’ve probably already been advised to stick to a low-sodium diet.

But it’s less likely that you’ve been advised to stick to a reduced-sodium AND high-potassium diet.  (Doctors don’t actually learn much about nutrition in medical school…)

One box of plain coconut water has the same amount of potassium as 2 small bananas.

One 11-oz box of plain coconut water has about the same amount of potassium as 2 small bananas.

As it turns out, sodium and potassium play opposing roles in regulating your blood pressure.  While sodium causes you to hang on to more water, thereby increasing your blood volume and by definition, your blood pressure, potassium has the opposite effect.  It LOWERS blood pressure by causing “diuresis” (or, making you have to pee) which eliminates excess water from your blood, reduces the blood volume, and therefore reduces the blood pressure.  I bet your doctor also didn’t tell you that there’s solid research which shows increasing dietary potassium by about 1,550mg/day has more of a blood-pressure lowering effect than reducing your dietary sodium by an equivalent amount (1,400-1,800mg) per day.  Now, my guess is that for most people, it’s much more pleasant to get to eat more fruits and vegetables and have to cut back a little bit in the sodium department than to have to just have to cut back a whole lot in the sodium department. Am I right?  Generally, you should aim to eat 4,700mg of potassium per day (unless you have kidney disease, in which case your doctor will need to tell you how much is safe to eat.)  Fruits and vegetables are the best dietary sources of potassium, with foods like prunes/prune juice, bananas, OJ, melon, apricots, spinach/leafy greens, tomatoes, potatoes and asparagus being among the best sources.   But if you’re falling short of getting in a solid 9 servings of fruits/vegetables daily to meet this goal, then perhaps you might consider adding one 11-oz tetra-pak box of plain coconut water per day.  That alone should get you to about 20% of your daily potassium goal while only spending only 2% of your ideal sodium budget.  Efficient!

Coconut water as lower-sugar juice surrogate?

Even if you’re not among the sports-drinking or hypertensive set, coconut water may be useful to you yet.  If you ever make smoothies at home using fruit juice as a base, replacing it with plain coconut water would reduce the calories of your smoothie by 60-75 calories and 12g of sugar (3 tsps worth) per 8oz used, due to the lower sugar content of plain coconut water versus an equivalent amount of, say, 100% apple juice.  True, the coconut water lacks the vitamin C that you get from juice, but if you’re having a smoothie with real fruit, then your vitamin C bases will be more than covered.  For economy’s sake, you can buy larger (32 oz) boxes of coconut water to keep in the fridge.

Alternatively, if you have kids who are juice-addicts and you’re trying to wean them off of it due to the sugar, perhaps you might consider replacing their current juice box with a lower-sugar coconut water “juice box”?   (This may be more appropriate for an older child, since I haven’t come across any brands that are selling an appropriately child-sized tetra-pak in the 4-8oz range… the standard size is 11oz, which is a bit large for a younger child.)   As you may be aware, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting a child’s intake of 100% juice to a modest 4 oz-6oz per day…  that’s 1/2 cup-3/4 cup max!  This recommendation is based on research findings that show excess sugar intake in kids–a lot of which can come from juice– as a contributing factor to childhood obesity.   To start the weaning process, go for the flavored coconut waters, which taste like watered-down juices and fruit punch but still have anywhere from 1-2 tsps LESS sugar per 8oz serving than does 100% juice.  From there, see if you can wean them down to the natural (unflavored) coconut water, which has even less sugar: more like 3 tsps less per 8oz serving.  One way to try this would be to seek out an actual young coconut from a Hispanic/Caribbean/Asian grocery, buy it, lop off the head ans stick a straw in it (see photo above).  Your kids may be so enchanted with the novelty of drinking straight from a coconut that they choose to give the taste a chance… and then, boom!  They’ll be as cuckoo for coconut water as I am.

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