Coconut water: Is the hype true?

We examine the claims about this latest health trend to see how true they are. By KIrsten Braun

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coconut water
Coconut water is the liquid from inside an immature coconut. It differs from coconut milk or coconut cream which is produced from the grated coconut flesh. There are many claims of the health benefits of coconut water including:

It's a natural sports drink

Partly true
Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes, in particular potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Unlike commercial sports drinks, however, it contains no artificial flavours or colours. In one small study of 12 men, little difference was found between the rehydration properties of coconut water, bottled water and a sports drink. However, as sports drinks have been specifically designed and formulated for rehydrating athletes this group may benefit more from a sports drink as typically they contain more sodium. Similarly, those requiring rehydration due to severe vomiting or diarrhoea should use a product designed for this purpose rather than relying on coconut water. One study, for example, also found that coconut water didn't contain the amount of electrolytes claimed on the packaging. For the rest of us, drinking bottled or tap water will probably provide the same hydration as coconut water and for less cost. Frequent drinkers of sports drinks (who are not elite athletes), however, might benefit from switching to coconut water as at least it does not contain as many artificial ingredients.

Helps combat urinary tract infections

Partly true
In Asian countries where coconuts are plentiful, coconut water is used to prevent urinary tract infections. Coconut water is a natural diuretic so it helps flush out bacteria from the urinary tract. However, a more effective strategy is to drink cranberry juice as it actually prevents E.coli bacteria, the bacteria most likely to cause a urinary tract infection, from attaching to the walls of the urinary tract.

Helps weight loss

True (but only through fluid loss)
As previously mentioned, coconut water acts as a diuretic. So while it may cause a drop in weight on the scales, it is really only a loss of fluid. The other way coconut water could contribute to true weight loss is if a person substituted it for another type of drink that contained more kilojoules. For example, switching from a sugar laden fruit juice to coconut water could result in less kilojoules consumed and, therefore, weight loss.

Reduces high blood pressure

Maybe
One of the benefits of coconut water is that it contains high amounts of potassium which can reduce blood pressure. One small study involving those with high blood pressure found that those who drank coconut water experienced a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure. However, further randomised trials are required before coconut water could be recommended as a treatment for high blood pressure. In addition, while coconut water's high potassium level may have health benefits it can also be a health risk (see below).

Too much of a good thing

As with most things, too much coconut water can actually be bad for you. The high potassium level of coconut water can cause too much potassium in the blood (hyperkalemia). Hyperkalemia can lead to changes in heart rhythm which can be fatal. People with heart conditions or kidney disease need to be particularly careful about the amount of coconut water they consume. Similarly, older people should also be cautious because as we age our kidneys become less efficient at removing potassium from the blood.

Last updated: December 2014

© Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2014 Issue 3/4.

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