If you're like me, coconuts bring to mind images of tropical drinks, Thai food, and, of course, the almighty Mounds bar. Lately, though, nutritional components of the coconut have been promoted for health or fitness reasons: Coconut oil, despite containing mostly saturated fat, is claimed to be more healthful than saturated fats from other sources. And coconut water is advertised as a refreshing, electrolyte-rich drink suitable for replacing sports drinks such as Gatorade. What's the evidence behind these claims?
Coconut oil. For years, researchers have been advising people to keep saturated fat consumption to a minimum—which would mean avoiding coconut oil, even the virgin kind, which is about 92 percent saturated fat. But the fatty acids in coconut oil are primarily medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are shorter than the long-chain triglycerides found in other fats and oils. MCTs are more easily metabolized by the body, which is why they're found in infant formulas and used to nourish hospital patients, says Monique Ryan, a nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.
Some claim that those MCTs can turn up the temperature of your metabolic furnace, thereby promoting weight loss. But while animal studies suggest some weight-loss effects from substituting MCTs for LCTs, preliminary human studies have not, says John La Puma, an internist and author of, most recently, ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine: A Food Lover's Road Map to Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Getting Really Healthy. "If it has any potential at all to produce extra heat, it is pretty small or not there at all, depending on who you ask," he says. And there is certainly no long-term evidence to suggest any lasting weight effects from coconut oil consumption.
Those MCTs may also act differently on your heart. Evidence shows that virgin coconut oil either doesn't raise cholesterol or primarily raises HDL, the good cholesterol, thus improving the all-important ratio of good cholesterol to the bad kind. When you look at that ratio, coconut oil "doesn't look too bad," though it's not as good as a combination of plant oils like olive and canola oil, says Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. But whatever the short term effects, it's unclear whether eating coconut oil over a long time raises the risk of heart attack or stroke any less than other saturated fats, says La Puma. Research on Pacific Island and Asian populations whose diets are naturally very high in coconut oil has shown unexpectedly low rates of heart disease, but those people also eat a mostly plant-based diet and are far more active than the average American, making direct comparisons pretty tough.
There is simply not enough evidence to substantiate any sweeping claims for coconut oil, says Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian and author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet. Coconut oil certainly merits more research, and what we have learned so far points toward the notion that "we can't just look at classes of fat—we have to look at the individual [type of] fat," she says. But based on the current research, "I wouldn't go out of my way to add it to my diet."
[Check out 10 ways to get omega-3 fats without taking a pill.]
La Puma says that while coconut oil is no cure-all, it and oil-rich coconut milk—in small amounts—are a great way to add flavor to foods you make at home. (Here's his recipe for steel-cut oat pudding with dark chocolate and lime, which includes coconut milk.) "Its role is in sensible cooking, as a special treat—the way you might think about butter or sour cream," he says. It still has calories, so it should be a substitute for other oils or fats, not an addition. And don't mistake virgin coconut oil for the partially hydrogenated variant found in packaged goods; the latter has been chemically altered to contain trans fats, which absolutely no one is claiming are good for your health.
[Read more on La Puma's ideas about turning your kitchen into a clinic.]
Coconut water. Not to be confused with the far richer coconut milk, coconut water is a clear liquid extracted from very young (green) coconuts. It's billed by one producer as being "nature's sports drink," because, like Gatorade and other energy drinks, it contains water for rehydration, carbohydrates in the form of sugar for energy, and electrolytes to replace what's lost through sweat. If you compare Gatorade with Zico brand coconut water, here's how they stack up, per ounce:
Gatorade: 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams sugar, 3.75 mg potassium, 13.75 mg sodium
Zico: 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams sugar, 61 mg potassium, 5.45 mg sodium
The most notable difference is in the electrolyte content: more sodium in Gatorade, much more potassium in Zico. But sodium is more important than potassium for athletes who are exercising heavily, says Ryan, so don't switch to coconut water just for its very high potassium content. And, says Nancy Clark, dietitian and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, neither product contains enough sodium to replace what's lost through sweat. So if you are a heavy perspirer and work out intensely in the heat, you're better off sprinkling some salt on your oatmeal or having a handful of pretzels before you head out the door than relying on either drink to replenish your stores, she says.
In terms of carbs and hydration, yes, coconut water offers similar benefits to Gatorade—benefits that could also be achieved by drinking water and eating sports gels, gummy bears, raisins, or other portable sources of energy, says Clark. It depends on your personal preference and workout routine—the harder you're working, the more important it is to have something that's designed to be easily digested, like conventional sports drinks. Because coconut water hasn't been studied as much, Tara Gidus, a nutrition performance coach and American Dietetic Association spokesperson, doesn't advise her athlete clients to swap it for conventional sports drinks but says it's fine for them to try out to see how it affects their digestive system and performance.
Just be aware that coconut water tends to be more expensive than Gatorade—on Freshdirect.com, Zico was 18 cents per ounce, compared with 5.6 cents per ounce of Gatorade. And don't believe some of the wilder claims, advises Amy Jamieson-Petonic, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. Unsubstantiated hype claims it has the ability to "control diabetes, fight viruses, speed metabolism, treat kidney stones, smooth your skin, stop dandruff, or prevent cancer," she says. As a drink mixer, of course, it's perfectly fine.