The Coconut Craze: Is It All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

In my experience, people either really love coconut or they shy away from it altogether. I’m drawn to Mounds and Almond Joy bars and coconut cupcakes (yes, I have a sweet tooth). But others are adamant about avoiding the coconut’s distinct flavor. Lately, though, coconut has received a lot of attention, and not just in the baking or confectionary world. Two products, coconut water and coconut oil, have hit the market big time, and their purported health benefits have caused more than a little confusion. Are these products good for us or not?

The coconut, which is really a fruit, not a nut, is extremely versatile. Coconut water, milk, oil, husks, and leaves are used for a number of different things, including beverages, cooking oil, tanning lotion, soap, and decoration. The word coconut comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word coco, which means “grinning face,” referring to the face-like features of the coconut with its three holes. And who can’t picture themselves on a sunny beach, sipping a fruit tropical drink from a coconut?


Coconut Water
It’s hard to miss coconut water these days, thanks to celebrities like Madonna, Rihanna and Dustin Pedroia hyping it up. Do a Google search for “coconut water” and you’ll come up with numerous ads and Web sites for brands such as Vita Coco, ZICO and O.N.E. What’s the big deal about it, anyway?

Coconut water is the thin liquid that’s found inside of a green coconut. It’s not the same as coconut milk, which is made by grinding up coconut “meat” and extracting fluid from it. Cream of coconut, by the way, is coconut milk that has had most of the water removed, so it’s very rich, thick, and full of calories.

If you’ve ever tried coconut water, it has a subtle but unusual flavor and has, in my opinion, a somewhat slimy texture (no, I’m not a fan). Here’s the nutrition breakdown of 8 ounces of coconut water:

46 calories
0.5 grams of fat
9 grams of carbohydrate
3 grams of fiber
2 grams of protein
252 milligrams of sodium
600 milligrams of potassium

As you can see, coconut water is a fairly low-calorie, lower-carb beverage, which adds to its popularity. You’ll also notice that it contains a fair amount of sodium and potassium, and it contains magnesium, calcium, and phosphate, as well. Collectively, these minerals are known as electrolytes, which has caught the attention of athletes and fitness buffs. Athletes and hard-core exercisers often need to replenish their electrolytes after a game or a workout. Instead of sugary, higher-calorie sports drinks, coconut water has become an all-natural beverage of choice for many.

There’s really nothing “wrong” with coconut water, but the average person doesn’t really “need” it, at least for electrolyte replacement. Most people, even those who might go to the gym everyday, don’t need to worry about replenishing electrolytes. Staying hydrated with plain old water is what’s recommended. And if you happen to be an athlete or someone who works out fairly intensively, coconut water actually doesn’t provide enough carbohydrate, protein, and sodium, which are nutrients needed for the “recovery” period after exercise. So, it’s kind of a drink that’s in limbo (perhaps better suited to a limbo dance on the beach?)

Benefits of Coconut Water
Coconut water isn’t necessarily a lost cause: It actually does have some nutritional merits.

Rehydration. Coconut water can be used as a rehydrating beverage after exercise. In one study, men who drank coconut water after exercising in the heat were able to replenish body fluids. However, water and a sports drink also replenished fluids equally as well. Coconut water may be a good choice as a rehydrating beverage in third world countries where water (and clean water, at that) is in short supply. The problem is that it’s quite expensive. Coconut water may also do in a pinch in emergency situations where IV fluids are not available, believe it or not.

Kidney stone prevention. Thanks to its potassium and magnesium content, coconut water may help lower the risk of kidney stone formation.

Tooth preserver. According to WebMD and other sources, if you ever have the misfortune of getting a tooth knocked out, store it in coconut water until you can get to a dentist. Apparently, it works better than water to keep the tooth cells more viable.

Heart-health booster. One study has shown that drinking coconut water may lower the risk of heart attacks. And another study found that drinking coconut water significantly lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) in 71% of people with high blood pressure.

Unproven Coconut Water Claims
While there may be some small benefits to drinking coconut water, the claims that tout all the miraculous benefits are still unproven. Here’s a handful of what it supposedly can do for you:

• Enhance athletic performance
• Lead to weight loss
• Clean your kidneys out
• Increase fertility
• Improve your skin, nails, and hair
• Lower blood glucose

No studies have shown that these claims are actually true. So, if you like coconut water, go ahead and enjoy it (check with your physician if you have kidney disease, however). Keep in mind these three things, though:

• The calories and carbs can add up if you’re not careful of the portion size.
• Once opened, coconut water only keeps for a day or two in the refrigerator.
• Don’t expect miracles.

More on coconut next week!

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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