Find out what’s in coconut water and how it compares to your favorite post-workout sports drinks.
What do Matthew McConaughey, Demi Moore, and Madonna have in common? (Hint: it’s not an affinity for model husbands/lovers/baby mommas or a history of shirtless behavior.)
Answer: All three have bought into the recent coconut water craze. Literally, bought into. Madonna recently invested $1.5 million in VitaCoco, the independent coconut water competitor to Zico, which sold a minority stake to Coke, and O.N.E. which currently has a distribution deal with Pepsi. So congrats, Madge! You can add “nature’s sports drink” to the long list of other, slightly obnoxious, fads you have sworn by (including but not limited to yoga, raw foods, Kabbalah/Jewish mysticism…)
The hype surrounding coconut water is based mainly on its natural electrolyte content, which mimics the makeup of blood plasma. Coconut water is different from coconut milk, in that it is not as sweet and contains absolutely no fat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the stuff has been used in South America and Southeast Asia for decades, and is capable of acting as an intravenous fluid replacement in emergency situations in developing countries. During the Pacific War (1941-45), both sides used coconut water to restore blood plasma in wounded soldiers. Yeah I know, really great trivia and awesome if you happen to be losing a lot of blood in a tropical location… but what does it mean for athletes?
In the body, electrolytes (also called minerals or salts) are charged particles that are responsible for tons of physiological processes. The electrolytes responsible for primary functions in the body include magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, and chloride, but other minerals (zinc, copper, selenium, etc) are needed in small amounts too! These charged particles work to maintain electrolytic balance, which regulates hydration, blood pH, and nerve and muscle function.
So why the heck were sports drinks created? When you sweat, you lose large amounts of water, sodium, and chloride. Amounts lost vary from person to person and obviously depend on the length and intensity of exercise, but it is not uncommon to lose up to 1 liter of water/hour. The amounts of sodium lost can be as much as 800-1,000mg/liter, and potassium losses are typically around 100-200mg. Other minerals are lost as well, but typically in very small amounts.
In people exercising for <1 hour, or working out in a cool place <1.5 hours, there is no research pointing to benefits of drinking sports drinks over plain water. For those of you who habitually partake in a more intense workout regimen, experts recommend not only replacing fluids, but replacing electrolytes and carbohydrates as well.
As much as I hate to endorse a product of PepsiCo, and though I cringe at the sight of non-athletes chugging the stuff post-big night of drinking, Gatorade was actually invented for athletes to meet the recommendations of exercise scientists. It has since been thoroughly researched, tested, and tailored for optimum performance, containing what they have found to be the ideal balance of sodium, potassium, and carbohydrate. Let’s take a look at how PepsiCo’s coconut water “Zico” measures up to this gold standard.
Not totally the same, huh? Zico emphasizes the fact that it contains exorbitant amounts of potassium, “more than the amount in 15 sports drinks.” But we have just learned that when you exercise, you actually aren’t losing all that much potassium. The product markets itself as being low in calories and added sugars, which, in the case of someone who has totally depleted their stores of carbohydrate, is not exactly a good thing. Coconut water enthusiasts will have you believe that this stuff will rehydrate you faster than plain water or sports drinks, but, there is really no scientific research supporting that claim.
Then you have to think about cost and taste. Sure, Gatorade contains a few hard to pronounce flavor additives and a little artificial sweetener (sucralose). So maybe you enjoy the “all natural” feel of coconut water (keep in mind the stuff is imported from halfway across the globe, so you’re not doing the environment any favors!) When it comes to cost, Zico typically comes in at about $2 for an 8oz container, while Gatorade is about $3 for 32 ounces. So ounce for ounce, Gatorade is around $.09, while coconut water is $.25…plus you will have to drink more of it to get the carbohydrate and sodium content you’re looking for. Not ideal if you’re trying to avoid nausea, fullness, and stomach upset. So, all in all, I would steer clear of the coconut water train, unless of course you love the taste, or you are easily swayed by the habits of these coconut loving (quasi) celebs…