Cracking the nut

Coconut water has been described as the new "superfood". But do its health benefits really match the hype?

First came pomegranate juice, then vitamin water, and now coconut water is the latest beverage to be making a splash in the health-food market. Lofty health claims combined with reports that A-listers including Lady Gaga and Madonna are fans have helped demand for the stuff to soar. Sales in the US have just topped $60 million (Dh220m) and there are reports that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Madonna herself have all invested in it.

Coconut water isn't new. It has long been a staple in the diet of many South-East Asian, Caribbean and South American countries. Coconut milk, which is the thick, white liquid derived from the meat of a mature coconut, is high in calories and saturated fat. Coconut water on the other hand, the clear liquid found inside young, green coconuts, is both low in calories and fat-free. For example, a 414 ml (14 oz) bottle of coconut water has a mere 60 calories, which isn't much considering the same amount of fizzy drink has three times that. And while it does contain some naturally occurring sugar - about 15 ml (3 tsp) per 414 ml bottle - that's not even a quarter of that found in the same amount of your usual canned beverages.

Because of these qualities, some manufacturers in the US are marketing coconut water as the natural alternative to sports drinks. In addition to its low-calorie content, it also contains a range of electrolytes - compounds in the body that help control water balance, blood acidity and muscle contraction. Other manufactures claim it can detoxify your body, boost your immune system and promote smoother skin.

But what's the science behind the claims? Is coconut water really all it's hyped up to be? Nutritionally speaking, it certainly has a few things going for it. If purchased as a pure, unsweetened product, it does not contain any additives, preservatives, artificial colours or added sugar that many other bottled drinks have, including sports drinks and energy drinks. The fact that it's all-natural is a selling point that appeals to health-conscious consumers. But beyond its low calories, sugar and fat content, its health and nutritional benefits start to get shaky.

Much of the buzz about coconut water has to do with its high content of potassium, an essential mineral needed for growth and development that also plays a key role in muscle and nerve function, as well as controlling blood pressure. Some brands of coconut water, such as Zico, claim that a 14oz serving contains more potassium than a banana, while another leading brand, Vita Coco, claims a serving has 15 times more potassium than a sports drink.

While it's true that coconut water is an excellent source of potassium, it's important to remember that there are other, often healthier, ways to stock up on this mineral. For instance, one cup of steamed spinach, mashed sweet potatoes or low-fat yoghurt all contain more potassium than a bottle of coconut water. And it's not just the amount of potassium that's important; it's what comes with it. For instance, spinach has the additional benefit of vitamin K, sweet potatoes have fibre, and yoghurt has calcium; three things you won't find in a bottle of coconut water. So while getting a boost of potassium is a potential benefit of drinking coconut water, it shouldn't be used to replace whole food sources of potassium in the diet.

As for being an excellent source of electrolytes, while the drink does contain potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium - essential electrolytes lost through sweat that need to be replaced after vigorous exercise - their quantities are nothing exceptional. Consider that with the exception of sodium, plain old orange juice actually contains 75 per cent more calcium and 35 per cent more potassium and magnesium than coconut water.

Despite the claims that it qualifies as a "natural sports drink", coconut water may not actually be well suited to long bouts of rigorous physical activity. Unlike most sports drinks that contain high amounts of sodium and small amounts of potassium, coconut water contains the opposite. As a result, it can help rehydrate the body after a moderate workout, just like water can, but for serious athletes and strenuous physical activity that require electrolyte replenishment - bottled sports drinks remain the better choice due to their optimal electrolyte balance.

As for health claims that coconut water can improve the appearance of skin, prevent disease, boost your immune system or detoxify the body, not surprisingly these claims are unfounded and certainly more hype than health. At this point in time, there is no convincing scientific evidence to support such lofty assertions. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research: "Some coconut water health claims are plain wrong and for others right now the research is too limited to confirm." The truth is, no single food, including coconut water, can keep you healthy or prevent disease. For that you need a balanced diet with a variety of foods, and plenty of exercise.

The bottom line? Coconut water is a natural product that can be a healthier alternative to beverages with added sugar. There's no reason it can't be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, but it's certainly not a cure-all and shouldn't replace other nutrient-dense foods in the diet. If you do enjoy the taste of coconut water, be mindful that not all products are the same. Some brands have added sugar, so read labels carefully and be sure to choose a product that contains pure coconut water. Better yet, pick up a fresh, green coconut from any major market in the UAE and enjoy this natural beverage straight from the source.