You've probably seen them in the grocery store — cans of coconut water with their come-hither photos of young, green coconuts, tops sheared off, a straw poking out, and blue and green boxes that evoke cool, tropical breezes. Some vendors even sell the real thing. Artist John Gordon Gauld enjoys fresh coconut water when he's thirsty after biking through New York City.
"Its fresh and quick," he says. "There's a lot more flavor when the coconut water comes from a fresh coconut" versus a box or container. But nationwide, boxes and even cans of the newly touted "natural" sports drink are now proliferating on supermarket shelves, in specialty food stores and yoga studios. U.S. coconut water sales doubled in 2011, and will reach an estimated $110 million in sales this year. And, according to market research, the demand is likely to continue.
But is it really any better for you than plain old water?
Coconut water contains two minerals that help balance fluids in the body, sodium and potassium. "The big deal about coconut water is that it packs a potassium punch," says Andrea Giancoli, registered dietitian and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's a natural source, she adds.
Potassium is important for heart health, she says, regulating blood pressure and other body systems. But coconut water is "not magical," says Giancoli. People do not need to drink coconut water in order to be healthy, she says. "There's plenty of potassium in food and if you eat a healthy diet, you'll get all you need." Potassium rich foods include bananas, potatoes, kidney beans, lentils, spinach and papaya.
Nutritionist Monica Reinagel says when you get potassium from your normal diet, you get lots of other good stuff too, including "vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber." A shot of potassium is fine, says Reinagel but "I'd hate to see coconut water touted as the primary source of potassium," because there are lots of other sources that provide lots more benefit.
Now it's important to note: Coconut water is NOT like the coconut milk that comes from those hard brown and hairy coconuts. Mark Rampolla is founder and CEO of Zico, one of the most popular coconut water brands.
Coconuts are best when they're young, he says, about nine months old. "At that point, they're just filled with water," says Rampolla, who first came across the drink while volunteering for the Peace Corps in the early 1990s in Costa Rica. He was intrigued how local communities depended on coconut water to replenish and re-hydrate after illness or even childbirth. In fact, people in countries where coconuts grow have been drinking fresh coconut water for years.
As the coconut ages, that water morphs into the white coconut meat that's often pressed to produce coconut milk or oil. That's where the concern about dietary fat comes from. But this is water. There's no fat, says Rampolla, "and that water when you get it at the right time, it's at its peak of electrolytes and natural replenishment that people know and love."
But even if people love coconut water, Reinagel says, most of us just don't work out long enough or hard enough to seriously need it. Most people exercise for an hour or so, she says. "They really don't need an electrolyte replacement drink," she says, "all they need to rehydrate is water." And for those who really work out hard for 90 or more minutes, iron man types and marathoners, Reinagel says the mineral they need most is sodium and, actually, "coconut water is fairly low in sodium."
Bottom line: If you like the taste of coconut water and can afford it, enjoy, says Reinagel. But coconut water isn't cheap, running around $2 to $3 a serving, and it's no miracle drink.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
While you're shopping for sunscreen, maybe coconut water is also on your summertime list. It's a relatively new product in the U.S. You can find it in boxes or cans, even in actual coconuts. It's marketed to active consumes who want a natural alternative to sports drinks.
In thid report, NPR's Patti Neighmond takes a look at the benefits of coconut water, and whether it's all it's cracked up to be.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The appetite for coconut water in this country got its start in New York City.
JOHN GORDON GAULD: This is from a fresh coconut. And I don't buy a lot of the bottled kind.
NEIGHMOND: Graphic designer John Gordon Gauld bikes his way around town, and he gets thirsty.
GAULD: These guys in Chinatown, they chop it up and give it to you so it's fresh and quick.
NEIGHMOND: Fresh coconut is something of a tradition in New York's Chinatown. But it's pretty much everywhere in the city - not fresh, but in boxes and cans. Today, you can find it in supermarkets nationwide. It's quite popular with yogis and exercisers - like 26-year-old Lillian Tan, who enjoys it after a run.
LILLIAN TAN: It's refreshing, has the sugars I need, the electrolytes. I just like the taste of it. It's kind of nutty, refreshing, very light.
NEIGHMOND: Now, this isn't like the coconut milk that comes from those hard, brown and hairy coconuts. Mark Rampolla is founder and CEO of Zico, one of the most popular coconut water brands.
MARK RAMPOLLA: Those same coconuts, if you got them when they were younger - when they're immature - the color's probably either green or yellowish green. Those same coconuts, when you get them at about nine months of age, are filled with water.
NEIGHMOND: As the coconut ages, that water morphs into the white coconut meat that's often pressed to produce coconut milk or oil. That's where the concern about dietary fat comes from. But this is water; there's no fat.
RAMPOLLA: And that water, when you get it at the right time - it's when it's at its sort of peak level of electrolytes and the natural replenishment that people know and love.
NEIGHMOND: Coconuts are harvested from tropics worldwide - Thailand, Brazil, Latin America and Central America, where Rampolla worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, and first learned how community members used it to help with stomach ailments when people were sick and dehydrated. That's because coconut water contains two minerals that help balance fluids in the body: sodium and potassium.
Andrea Giancoli is a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
ANDREA GIANCOLI: It's one of the few foods - or beverages, if you will - in our food supply that naturally does contain a lot of potassium.
NEIGHMOND: And potassium is essential for many of the body's systems.
GIANCOLI: Potassium is very important for heart health. It's important to regulate our blood pressure, you know, fluid balance in the body, cell integrity. It's important in a lot of different chemical reactions that go on in the body.
NEIGHMOND: But Giancoli says it's always best to get needed potassium from food. Nutritionist Monica Reinagel agrees. When you get potassium from your normal diet, she says, you get lots of other good stuff, too.
MONICA REINAGEL: Other vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and fiber that you're not getting from the coconut water. So, you know, a shot of potassium is fine. It's certainly not going to do any harm. But I'd hate to see coconut water being touted as the primary source of potassium, because there are other sources that really will do a lot more benefit for you.
NEIGHMOND: Like bananas, potatoes, kidney beans, lentils, spinach and papaya. Lots of vegetables and fruits contain potassium. Reinagel says it's not difficult to get enough of it from a healthy diet.
As for rehydration, she says most of us don't work out long enough, or hard enough, to need serious rehydration.
REINAGEL: Most people, if they're just exercising for half an hour or an hour, really don't need an electrolyte replacement drink. All they need to rehydrate is water. And for those who really are perspiring very hard - you know, your Ironman triathletes, who do need electrolyte replacement - the mineral that they need most is sodium. And ironically, coconut water is actually, fairly low in sodium.
NEIGHMOND: So bottom line, if you like the taste of coconut water and can afford it, enjoy, says Reinagel. Coconut water isn't cheap. It runs about 2- to $3 a serving.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.