A recent phenomenon, seated in the nutritional habits of tropical lands that grow coconut palms, coconut water has been touted as a super-hydration drink and a cancer cure, and many things in between, but what are the real coconut water benefits for overall health and the reduction of LDL cholesterol? Since coconut water has only taken off, in marketing terms, in the last few years, there are to date limited case studies and experiments documented. One thing is certain: coconut water benefits its processors and marketing teams. Its sales double annually and it has become the next big health-food marketing coup.
What is Coconut Water?
Coconut water is not the milky fluid you get when you crack open a whole coconut. The sort you purchase at the supermarket is a mature coconut, brown and hard with dry brown fibers across its rough surface; inside there is a thick layer of coconut meat that can be eaten fresh or dried. Coconut water is extracted from young, green coconuts, long before they have reached maturity and the grocery store shelves. They are the fruit of the coconut palm tree, and are grown in most places that boast a tropical climate.
Naturally sterile from being housed in the fruit, coconut water is often drunk where grown by inserting a straw into a hole in the shell. In America, we can purchase coconut water in glass bottles, cans, Tetra-Paks and plastic bottles, and it has almost invariably been pasteurized. But are all the claimed benefits genuine?
Distilling Down Fact from Fiction
Direct studies on the correlation between coconut water and cholesterol levels, because they are highly specific, are rare (but they do exist); general studies on the health benefits of drinking coconut water are increasing by the day as the popularity of the drink with health-conscious consumers grows. It’s tricky to separate the hype from the facts, but here are facts about the nutrients and properties of coconut water:
- It is fairly high in potassium; an 8-ounce glass of coconut water is roughly equivalent to eating one medium-sized banana. It may surprise you to learn that bananas are not as high in potassium as their reputation would suggest. Chocolate, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, fish, beans, dates and dried herbs have more! But potassium counters sodium and therefore helps in reducing high blood pressure. As a result, coconut water can fairly be said to help lower blood pressure. A study entitled “Control of Hypertension”, otherwise known as control of high blood pressure, was performed at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, in Trinidad and Tobago in 2005, that showed a marked decreased in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings. The study can be read at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15892382.
- It is low in carbohydrates, calories and sodium, all positive attributes, but since it is being marketed as a natural alternative to high-sugar sports drinks, the lower sodium is not a plus. There is not sufficient potassium in coconut water to replace electrolytes lost from sweating through exercise or playing sports.
- It has virtually no fat.
- It has small amounts of calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.
- It keeps well and has a shelf life, once bottled, of about 2 years.
- It contains “cytokinins”, elements that promote cell division in plants. It is unclear how this benefits humans or if it does.
There is no evidence at this time to suggest that coconut water will hydrate any better than regular tap water, but the major national soft drink makers have put serious money behind it and their advertising agencies are out to make you believe differently.
So, What Does It Taste Like?
For many people coconut is an acquired taste. If you have grown up enjoying coconut, odds are you’ll like the slightly bittersweet flavor. Given that there are dozens of different flavors added to coconut water, this suggests it’s not a taste that everyone loves. Tropical juices are the common flavorings for coconut water. Some bottlers add sugar, which defeats some of coconut water’s claims.
Eating fresh coconut is better for you than drinking its water. Like most fruits, you get much greater benefit from eating the whole fruit than drinking its juice; there is far more fiber in the fruit than its liquid. As far as that highly regaled potassium content goes, you can get ample potassium to meet daily nutritional requirements by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and they have dozens of extra benefits, too!
Can Drinking It Do Any Harm?
Coconut water in and of itself is harmless to drink unless you happen to have an allergy to coconut. The harm can be done in one of three ways:
- By spilling the clear liquid on fabric. It stains permanently.
- By hitting you hard in the wallet; coconut water is very expensive.
- By ingesting coconut water in the false belief that it will cure or prevent cancer, or control diabetes.
Some people who live in the tropical zones where coconuts are grown claim that coconut water cures bladder infections. Those of us who live in northern climates say the same thing about cranberry juice. When a mild bladder infection occurs, even water will help dilute the urine and ease the discomfort.
My Lovely Bunch of Coconuts; Effects On Cholesterol Levels
As aforementioned, the paucity of actual clinical studies involving coconut water and its effect on cholesterol levels makes it hard to get a grip on where things stand with coconut water benefits. Curiously, many of the studies about the general health benefits of coconut water have been conducted in places like India and the Caribbean, where coconuts grow. Some of the clinical experiments have been performed on coconut oil, which has shown to not raise LDL cholesterol levels, a good thing. But there is insufficient clinical research to suggest it has significant impact on increasing HDL levels. And while it has shown to reduce blood pressure, clinicians claim that it does not have a profound enough effect to be used as a sole remedy for hypertension.
A pivotal medical study was undertaken in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Kerala in India in 2006, and was subsequently reported in the authoritative publication, “Journal of Medicinal Food”, entitled, “Beneficial Effects of Coconut Water Feeding on Lipid Metabolism in Cholesterol-fed Rats”, the study concludes that coconut water reduced LDL and increased HDL cholesterol levels in the subject rats. The study can be read at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17004906.
Coconut water can be regarded as a thirst-quencher with a bit more nutritional value than plain water, but there is nothing to support the marketing claims that it is a natural sports beverage. It’s a very expensive sip of odd-tasting (unless it’s to your personal taste) fluid that has mild health benefits, but appears to be the answer to the massive industry that sells and promotes beverages. One mixologist (bar tender) in Chicago says he uses it to make exotic cocktails that people are willing to pay extra for. Bottoms up!