Is going coconuts all it's cracked up to be? The tropical fruit has emerged as a hot trend, with its nutritional components being promoted for health or fitness reasons. Coconut water is advertised as a refreshing, electrolyte-rich beverage suitable for replacing sports drinks such as Gatorade. It's cropping up in grocery stores, gyms, and yoga studios. And coconut oil, despite containing mostly saturated fat, is claimed to be more healthful than saturated fats from other sources. U.S. News took a hard look at the evidence behind the claims.
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 Monique Ryan, a nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, 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 consultant for athletics at the University of Central Florida, 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. A small study published in January in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that coconut water did help 12 athletes rehydrate after exercising, quenching their thirst just as well as a commercial sports drink and better than plain water. However, the study participants didn't enjoy the taste of coconut water.
If you do opt for coconut water, be aware that it tends to be more expensive than 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.
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 Ryan.