Coconut water has seen an explosive rise in popularity over the last several years. Coconut, in general, has become a trending food item, from cooking with coconut oil to munching on baked coconut “chips,” to guzzling coconut water, the fruit itself has been in high demand because of its potential health benefits. Let's look at the nutrition facts for coconut water below:
With these nutrition benefits is coconut water good for you? If you really like the flavor, it can be a low-calorie, low-sugar alternative to soda. It is pretty refreshing to consume on a hot day and to help re-hydrate. Coconut water is a safe, healthy beverage for most people. Those with kidney disease should limit consumption foods that are too high in potassium, including coconut water. Here are a few science-backed benefits of coconut water.
Coconut water, though, became more common in the American markets around the same time we started to see more negative research surrounding refined, processed sugar and a push for “natural” foods became more important to consumers. It seemed like just about everyone was flocking to drink without really determining what exactly it does for your overall health. So that brings us to the big question…
Is coconut water good for you?
The appeal of coconut water is that it provides hydration, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and a low amount of natural carbohydrates, all packed into one product. This has made it very marketable, and while these traits are all positive, when relying on information from friends and pop-culture magazine articles, consumers are often missing important pieces of the puzzle and end up misinformed.
Although the sugar in unflavored coconut water is in its natural state, those sugar calories will add up, just like every other calorie. Naturally-occurring sugar may not be as inflammatory as refined sugar, but it is still a calorie source without much value. One cup of coconut water provides roughly 50 calories, so if someone traded their plain water for two cups of coconut water per day, they are now consuming an extra 100 calories they may not realize. In addition to the naturally occurring sugar, most of the coconut water available on the market is flavored and includes additional sugar, sometimes from other fruits but often times from processed sugar.
One of the best-known coconut water benefits, an uncommonly high amount of potassium, is also the main reason that drinking too much coconut water can cause harm. Too much potassium from over drinking coconut water brings many side effects.
In a case study titled “Death by Coconut,” published in Circulation, Justin Hakimian, MD, and his colleagues at the Department of Cardiology, New York Hospital Queens, describe the case of a 42-year-old previously healthy man who developed dangerously high potassium levels that led to fainting and abnormal heart rhythms after drinking a large amount of coconut water.. The man had been playing tennis outdoors all day in temperatures in excess of 90° F. He reported drinking a total of eight 11-ounce bottles of coconut water throughout the day. He experienced a sudden onset of lightheadedness and briefly lost consciousness. Afterward, he complained of weakness and lightheadedness and was brought to the emergency department by ambulance. He was disoriented and warm and, most importantly, had a very low blood pressure and heart rate.
This unfortunate man was experiencing the classic signs of too much potassium in the blood. The body needs a delicate balance of potassium to help the heart and other muscles work properly. Most Americans consume too little potassium, which is mostly found in fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, consuming a large amount of coconut water potassium in a relatively short period of time can lead to dangerous, and possibly deadly, changes in heart rhythm.
In fact, high potassium (hyperkalemia) is a common cause of life-threatening heart rhythm changes, including ventricular fibrillation, an emergency condition in which the lower parts of the heart flutter rapidly instead of pumping blood. If extremely high potassium levels in the blood remain untreated, the heart may stop beating, causing death.
The Institute of Medicine has set an adequate intake for potassium at 4,700 mg/day for adults, but they have not set an upper limit. Therefore, it is not clear exactly how much potassium can be taken safely. However, as you just learned, very high doses of potassium can be deadly.
Side effects of coconut water in excess and high potassium levels include the following:
- Kidney disease
- Medications including ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and some antibiotics like penicillin
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Addison’s disease (adrenal failure)
- Burns and trauma
- Breakdown of red blood cells (hemolysis)
- Breakdown of muscle tissue (rhabdomyolysis)
Is there a time coconut water isn’t so bad to drink?
Too much of a good thing, even if it’s all natural, isn’t always safe. Anyone with a heart condition or kidney disease needs to avoid overdoing it with coconut water and talk to their doctor about how much potassium is safe to consume.
For an active person who engages in high heart rate activity daily, coconut water can be a great way to replace fluid and electrolytes lost through sweat and carbohydrates that were burned as an energy source. When compared to a traditional sports drink, coconut water is made with far fewer processed ingredients while providing much of the same benefit, which is a plus. However, any calorie-containing electrolyte drink—natural or not—is most beneficial during and after exercise and should not be a main fluid source elsewhere throughout the day.
Most people have no reason to fear drinking coconut water. If someone enjoys the flavor of coconut water and drinking it helps them consume more fluid throughout the day, it is reasonable to include coconut water in a well-balanced diet in moderation.
What should I look for when shopping for coconut water?
Consumers should look for options with fewer than 12 grams of sugar and pay attention to ingredient labels. You’ll want to avoid coconut water with ingredients like sugar, fruit juice, or even pureed fruit that can add simple sugar. Additionally, you can choose organic and non-GMO varieties that pack a nutrient punch without any added synthetic ingredients or pesticide reduction that may be found in conventional coconut products.