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Munchies

I Want to Believe in the Coconut Water Hype

Our obsession with coconuts—their water, flesh, oil and milk—doesn't show any sign of slowing any time soon. But are we right to just be knocking the so-called superfood back without doing some research?

by Emily Steer
Sep 3 2014, 5:25pm

Foto: Hafiz Issadeen | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

I, like much of the Western world, have been whipped up a treat by coconuts over the last couple of years. You can't move these days for cakes made with coconut flour (now available in supermarkets) and coconut sugar, coconut milk substitutes, and even coconut oil coffee (in London, at least).

For me, it's a lust for coconut water that just won't quit. Maybe it's the way Rihanna's dewy body still looms over the showers in my gym after yoga, two years on from the initial Vita Coco craziness, promising even the faintest whiff of her tautness. It could be the rows and rows of cartons winking at me from the fridge next to the tills, or the fact that it tastes ever-so-slightly fetid but just borderline tasty enough to surely be good for me.

Almost everyone I know swears by coconut water on a hangover. "It has LOADS of potassium in," they bleat, faces greener than a young coconut's own skin, without the foggiest about what potassium actually is or does. I've personally been known to spend as much on GoCoco with a hangover as I would a takeaway, chugging it down in front of the telly and feeling like it's entirely cancelling out the previous night's three bottles of Chardonnay.

I'm not the only one who buys into the coconut's super-power, either. Everything and anything coconut-y has gone berserk over the last few years. When it launched (outside of the areas who have been drinking it for millennia, that is), coconut water was touted as some kind of miracle tonic, a surefire way to drink away all ills. We were told about its rehydrating electrolytes, its brain and heart-friendly potassium levels, it's cholesterol-lowering effects.

In essence, coconut water was marketed as something that'd make you bulletproof.

As The New York Times' Michael Moss recently pointed out, however, the reportedly $4 million coconut water industry "appears to have nine lives." After nutritionists began to dismantle the coconut-water-is-the-holy-grail mentality, it was marketed as "better than sports drinks for rehydration". The threat of a lawsuit soon put the dampener on that one.

Now, all lofty claims have had to be scaled back, and today coconut water is basically touted as a tastier alternative to water, with added potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium. But, as Moss says in his video, you could just drink a big glass of water and eat a potassium-rich banana and reap almost the same benefits.

It's not just coconut water that we obsess over, though—it's the oil and flesh, too. Ask any health-conscious eater and they'll tell you to eat coconut oil (raw and unrefined, obviously) by the bucketload. We're told to put it in our hair and smear it all over our naked bodies, too. I've even read about coconut water being so similar to human plasma that it can be injected directly into the blood stream. But are coconuts really the hairy brown miracles we're told, and so many of us believe, they are?

I'm definitely part of the "I've been told this is great for me so I'm going to neck it like there's no tomorrow" camp. But certainly, now everyone is talking about how sugar is basically the devil, even I have had momentary lapses in my coconut water fervour. It's all so confusing. A coconut's sugars might be naturally occurring and not refined, but the word is enough to instill fear in people who've had implicit belief in their so-called superfoods these days.

freshcoconutcostarics

Fresh coconuts being sold in Costa Rica. Photo via Flickr user Jim Larrison.

If the health merits of coconut water are wobbly now, coconut oil and flesh are a nutritionist's best pal. Initially it was thought that the saturated fat in coconuts was a big, gut-busting no-no. Not anymore. Most nutritionists claim that coconuts contain the best saturated fat known to man, talking about how their medium-chain fatty acids metabolise different from long-chain fatty acids and how the calories therefore provide us with more energy than other fats.

Apparently, if you have 15-30 grams of coconut, you'll have five percent more energy all day than you would from any other kind of fat. That's the kind of tropical maths I like.

Still, though, the idea of coconut water as a magic, post-exercise elixir hasn't seemed to wane in my demographic. Even though monolithic brands like Vita Coco were found to have less sodium (crucial in post-workout hydration if you've really exerted yourself) than advertised, and there have been many other studies observing the difference between rehydrating after exercise with sports drinks, coconut water, or plain old water, I still see hordes of young cross-trainers necking the stuff—even if it is from fresh young coconuts from brands like CocoFace who are now on the scene. You can eat the flesh from inside them, too.

Maybe it's the flesh—or "meat"—that we (I) should be obsessing over rather than the water, after all. There are stories out there that suggest coconut can boost the brain's energy supply in Alzheimer's patients, and a quick Google search will give you reams of other cognitive benefits.

All in all, it seems like coconuts are a superfood that is actually worth the hype. But instead of knocking cartons of coconut water back after moderate exercise instead of water because, well, I've been told it's good, and thinking it'll somehow compensate excessive drinking, I—we—should all do a bit of research into how much of it we should eat or drink, and when, in order for it to be beneficial. Coconut oil is undoubtedly wonderful stuff, but is still very calorie-dense and will, even though fat is great, probably not be great in huge quantities. Like everything, moderation is key.

Oh, and take it from someone who knows, too much coconut water will make you poo. A lot.