When you think about coconut water, you may just picture yourself relaxing by a pool, using a straw to sip the cool, refreshing liquid straight from the fruit. It’s the perfect summertime beverage. But if you take a closer look at the incredible nutritional benefits of the drink, you may be tempted to make it a daily staple – no matter what the weather.
Coconuts are hard to miss in the supermarket, as no other fruit is as distinctively brown and hairy. But if you’re looking for a coconut beverage, you may find yourself mulling over whether the milk or water is a healthier choice. And, yes, there’s a definite difference between the two.
So, what exactly marks coconut milk out from coconut water? Well, registered dietitian Franziska Spritzler has explained all in a 2018 piece for Healthline. And when it comes to nutritional content, it appears that one of the liquids is considerably fattier than the other.
Spritzler wrote, “Coconut water is the juice found in the center of a young, green coconut, [and] it helps nourish the fruit. As the coconut matures, some of the juice remains in liquid form, while the rest ripens into the solid white flesh known as coconut meat. Coconut water forms naturally in the fruit and contains 94 percent water and very little fat.”
That all sounds good. So, what’s different about coconut milk? The dietitian continued in her Healthline post, “[Coconut water] should not be confused with coconut milk, which is made by adding water to grated coconut meat. Coconut milk contains about 50 percent water and is very high in coconut fat.”
And while a glass of coconut water is said to come in at around 45 calories, the milk dwarfs that number by a considerable margin. Incredibly, a single serving of coconut milk contains roughly 500 calories – not to mention a significant amount of saturated fat.
Both beverages are full of good nutrients, though, with coconut milk housing magnesium, iron and calcium, to name just a few. Yet nutrition expert Bonnie Taub-Dix still offered some words of caution. When she spoke to website Treehugger in May 2020, she said, “The vitamins and minerals provided [in coconut milk] don’t outweigh the negative calorie and saturated fat content.”
As for coconut water, you’ll find helpings of potassium, protein, fiber, sodium and vitamin C. Thanks in part to those contents, the beverage has in the past been dubbed “Mother Nature’s sports drink.” So, how exactly does it compare to a standard energy drink?
Well, in a piece for WebMD, Kathleen M. Zelman took a closer look at the research. This compared potassium and sodium levels in a serving of Gatorade to those in a serving of unflavored coconut water. And what she uncovered is rather eye-opening.
Zelman revealed on WebMD, “Ounce per ounce, most unflavored coconut water contains 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams of sugar, 61 milligrams of potassium and 5.45 milligrams of sodium. In comparison, Gatorade has 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams of sugar, 3.75 milligrams of potassium and 13.75 milligrams of sodium.”
That’s round two to coconut water. But what other health benefits has the drink got to offer? Well, it’s been suggested that it can help if you want to shed a few pounds. Coconut water isn’t packed with calories, after all, meaning it’s definitely a better choice for slimmers than a sugar-filled soda.
But registered nutritionist Jo Lewin is rather skeptical about such claims, as she explained in a 2018 piece for the BBC Good Food website. She wrote, “Coconut water is a relatively low-calorie drink compared to sugary fizzy drinks or juices, but it is not calorie-free like plain water.”
Crucially, Lewin added, “The claims that drinking coconut water increases metabolism are not yet backed up by research… [And] there is very little evidence to support the idea that certain foods and drinks can have a significant effect on your metabolism.” If you’re looking for a quick weight-loss fix, then, coconut water won’t necessarily help.
However, Spritzler investigated a few other claims about coconut water that appear to be more promising. For instance, the drink may contain antioxidants that are extremely helpful to the human body. Without those compounds, volatile atoms known as “free radicals” can cause havoc, leading to potential health problems in the future.
In a process known as “oxidative stress,” these free radicals can injure a person’s cellular structure if they’re left unchecked – but antioxidants are responsible for stopping them. And in her Healthline post, Spritzler mentioned a couple of intriguing tests in this area.
“Research on animals exposed to toxins has shown that coconut water contains antioxidants [that] modify free radicals so they no longer cause harm,” the dietician wrote. “One study found that rats with liver damage showed significant improvement in oxidative stress when treated with coconut water compared to rats that received no treatment.”
And Spritzler added, “In another study, rats on a high-fructose diet were treated with coconut water. Free radical activity decreased, as did blood pressure, triglycerides and insulin levels.” She was quick to point out, though, that there hadn’t been any human tests to see if the same thing happened in people.
Apparently, though, coconut water may also stop you from developing kidney stones. That uncomfortable medical ailment arises when certain substances, such as oxalate and calcium, merge together, creating crystals inside the vital organs. And as anyone who has experienced kidney stones will know, they can be excruciatingly painful to remove.
But if you live in fear of going through the whole horrible process again, then there may be help at hand in coconut water. According to Spritzler, research has been carried out on coconut water to see if it will help. And, once again, the experiment was carried out on rats.
Fortunately, the animals were granted some much-needed relief after they were exposed to the coconut water, as it seemed to stop troublesome stones from attaching themselves to the kidneys’ interior walls. In fact, there were signs that the drink could halt – or at least slow – the development of crystals altogether.
Surprisingly, this experiment was the first to focus on the area, meaning further research is required to properly test out the connection between kidney stone prevention and coconut water. But given what was discovered, the early signs certainly seem promising. And the good news keeps coming….
Spritzler noted, too, that coconut water may help to manage your blood pressure levels. And as humans have actually taken part in tests on the subject, this is arguably the most proven health benefit mentioned so far. The dietitian wrote for Healthline, “In one small study in people with high blood pressure, coconut water improved systolic blood pressure in 71 percent of participants.”
Spritzler continued, “Additionally, coconut water contains an impressive 600 milligrams of potassium in 8 ounces, and potassium has been shown to lower blood pressure in people with high or normal blood pressure.” That’s got to be good to hear if you’re wanting to supplement prescription medication with something more natural.
Plus, Spritzler’s article suggested that coconut water may even hold off heart disease. After further tests on rats, researchers noted that the beverage was cutting down the subjects’ triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Even better, their liver fat readings were lowered by a large margin, too.
If you’re still not convinced, though, maybe it will help to hear that some athletes are big fans of coconut water. For example, tennis star John Isner has been quick to sing the drink’s praises in the past. Apparently, it even plays an integral role in his preparations on and off the court.
WebMD has reported that Isner drinks a combination of normal water and coconut water the night before a warm-weather clash. Then, once the sportsman starts to play, his go-to beverage is coconut water with just a touch of sea salt. And after the match ends, he turns once again to the drink – this time, accompanied by some protein powder to help rejuvenate his body.
Isner explained to the website, “[Coconut water] is super hydrating and has kept me going in long matches. [It’s] prevented me from cramping even in the hottest and most humid conditions.” Despite that testimony from the tennis player, though, a sports nutritionist isn’t so sure.
While Nancy Clark – the author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook – has confirmed that coconut water is a hydrating drink for athletes, she also claimed that the tasty beverage wouldn’t be effective in small amounts. In fact, according to Clark, you’d have to consume considerably more than you may expect to replenish your body’s energy.
Clark was also concerned about the sodium and carbohydrate levels in coconut water. Unlike potassium, there aren’t many of these important nutrients in the drink. The expert suggested, then, that people who participated in strenuous activities wouldn’t be able to properly recover without topping up on carbs and sodium.
Clark told WebMD, “Whether you choose a sports drink, coconut water or plain water, they all work to keep your body hydrated. The challenge is [that] when you exercise strenuously for more than three hours in the heat and lose lots of body fluids, you need easily absorbed carbs for quick energy and to replace lost electrolytes like sodium and potassium.”
Hopefully, then, Isner is getting his carbs in and sodium level higher in other ways. And, instead, it turns out that you may want to think about loading yourself up before exercising. That way, your body shouldn’t be crying out for the nutrients you’ve lost once you’ve called it a day.
Clark explained, “Supplement [the coconut water] with a quick source of energy like a banana or some raisins and a handful of pretzels to provide nutrients to replenish your stores. Eat a bagel with peanut butter to get food into your system [beforehand], and drink plenty of water during exercise.”
It’s definitely a balancing act, but if a top athlete like Isner can incorporate coconut water into his diet and see some apparent benefits, then you may be tempted, too. And there’s a further potential health effect of coconut water. As Spritzler suggested in her Healthline piece, it may just be helpful for people battling diabetes.
Yet again, experiments have been conducted on rats to see if coconut water would have a positive effect. And Spritzler – a certified diabetes educator – reported on Healthline that one of those tests was particularly promising. In essence, you see, the drink appeared to lower the blood sugar readings of the animals with diabetes.
These particular rats also exhibited less hemoglobin A1c in the body after consuming the coconut water. According to Spritzler, this was a sign of “good long-term blood sugar control.” And an additional experiment strengthened the idea that the drink could help diabetics.
The dietitian’s post on the health website claimed that thanks to coconut water, oxidative stress levels were also demonstrated to have lowered in diabetic rats. And while Spritzler again pointed out that human tests are needed on the subject to confirm the results, the findings could be a step in the right direction.
It should be known, though, that not every expert is so convinced of coconut water’s positive effects on the body. Lilian Cheung of the Harvard School of Public Health shared her thoughts with WebMD, saying, “There’s a lot of hype about coconut water, yet the research is just not there to support many of the claims. Much more research is needed.”
Cheung did confirm that coconut water is a better choice of drink than sugary beverages. Even so, she urged people against drinking too many glasses of the stuff because of its caloric content, which – as we mentioned before – is higher than good ol’ fashioned mineral or tap water.
Speaking of calories, Jo Lewin gave some important advice on the BBC Good Food website. You see, just like any other fruit juice, there are different coconut water products on the supermarket shelves. And, Lewin claims, some of these aren’t as healthy as others.
“Natural coconut water that has been harvested straight from the nut is the best choice,” Lewin explained. “Always check the label and look for pure coconut water. Avoid flavored varieties, as they tend to have a higher sugar content and so will be higher in calories, too.” So, as long as you read the label, you can’t go far wrong with coconut water. Plus, it’s a little taste of summer all year round.