The Truth about Coconut Water: Dr Bruce Fife
The Truth About Coconut Water – is it Really Coconut Water?
What you get at the store may not be what you think it is.
Coconut Water is the liquid you find when you crack open a coconut. For thousands of years this fluid has been used as a refreshing drink and is the most popular beverage in the tropics. It is considered not just a satisfying beverage but also a health tonic. Traditionally, it has been used to treat a variety of health problems including dehydration, heat stroke, digestive complaints, constipation, diarrhoea, fatigue, hives, low libido, urinary tract infections, jaundice, nausea, and improve overall health. Modern medical research is confirming the use of coconut water for many of these conditions and is adding others. Recent research suggests that is may also be useful in treating or preventing cancer, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart failure, stroke, glaucoma, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and Crohn’s disease. There is strong evidence that it even possesses anti-aging properties. In both plant and human cell cultures coconut water extends the youth of the cells. In fact, the water has even proven to be more effective in preserving the life of human organs for transplant than the chemical solutions specially formulated for this purpose.
In my book, Coconut Water for Health and Healing I describe the science and history behind the use of coconut water, including its amazing anti-cancer and anti-aging properties. While coconut water has gained a fair amount of attention regarding many of these health benefits, it has gained most of its recognition for its ability to fight dehydration and heat stroke. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended it as an effective tool in the battle against dehydration caused by dysentery, cholera, influenza, and other dehydrating diseases. These diseases cause more deaths due to dehydration than by the infection itself. Simply keeping the patient hydrated increases the survival rate 10-fold.
The benefits of Coconut Water
Coconut Water not only prevents dehydration caused by disease, but also by hot weather or extreme physical labour. In recent years, coconut water has soared into popularity as a natural sports or hydration drink. Most commercial sports drinks are little more than sugar water and salt with added chemical colourings and preservatives. It is all natural with a full complement of electrolytes, vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, and other health-giving phytonutrients. Celebrities and athletes have embraced coconut water as a natural, healthier alternative to commercial sports drinks. Although coconut water tastes sweet, it has far less sugar than sports drinks or even fruit juice. It has less than half the sugar of apple juice.
The coconuts used for drinking are “young” or “green” coconuts, not the mature brown, hairy ones you see in the grocery store. Young coconuts are six to nine months old. A fully ripened coconut takes 12 months to mature. These are the ones sold in grocery stores. The water in the young coconut is generally much sweeter and better tasting. The water in mature coconuts is often bland and sometimes even slightly sour.
Up until a few years ago if you wanted coconut water you had to go to the topics and get it from a freshly opened coconut. Now coconut water is packaged in a variety of cartons, bottles, and cans and delivered all over the world. Companies like ONE, Zico, and VitaCoco were among the first to package coconut water in tetra pak cartons and make them available outside the tropics. Each of these brands were originally produced and packaged in Brazil.
The differences between Coconuts
Mature coconuts are not usually used for drinking, but are harvested for the thick layer of meat inside.
As the popularity of coconut has grown, others have jumped on the bandwagon and a variety of new brands have appeared on the market. Beverage giants such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co have taken notice and bought interest in two of the largest coconut water producers, ONE and Zico. With sales rapidly increasing, suppliers in Brazil were unable to meet demands. PepsiCo and others began looking to Thailand, Colombia, and the Philippines for new sources of coconut water.
In my travels around the word I’ve tasted coconut water from dozens of countries and they all taste a little different, some much better than others. The quality of the water depends on many factors including the variety of coconut palm, climate, humidity, soil, age at harvest, etc. Thailand has long been known for its excellent coconut water. The Philippines too has very good coconut water generally.
Because of the high demand for coconut water, companies like PepsiCo are now packaging fully mature coconut water rather than use young coconut water. Mature coconut water is far less expensive than young coconut water. Mature coconut water is generally a waste product in the processing of mature coconuts for coconut meat and oil. Instead of throwing away the water they are capturing it and packaging it as coconut water. There is nothing wrong with this process, except the quality and taste suffers.
The taste of Coconut Water
In the beverage industry it is important to standardize the taste. Customers expect a brand of orange juice, for example, to taste the same regardless of when it is purchased. This doesn’t happen in nature. The taste can vary from season to season depending on a variety of factors. One of the major changes is the sugar content or sweetness. Sugar concentration is measured on a brix scale. Each type of juice has its own brix value, or level of sweetness, because some fruits contain more sugar than others. The brix levels for 100 percent juices are set by the federal government. For example, the brix for orange juice is 11.8, the brix for apple juice is 11.5 and for grape juice it’s 16. Beverage producers are allowed to add sugar to their products to reach the official brix value. For example, if a supply of orange juice has a natural brix value of 9, then the producer is allowed to add enough sugar to bring it up to 11.8 and they can do this without having to state on the ingredient label that sugar was added. The label can read “100% orange juice” with no mention of the added sugar. In fact, they can even legally state “No Sugar Added.” So you have no idea if sugar has been added or not. Some brands will also add in artificial or “natural” flavors to make each batch identical in flavour and sweetness.
The brix value of coconut water is 5 to 6.5. The natural brix value for mature coconut water is closer to 3. So when mature coconut water is packaged, sugar is added to increase its brix value and make it taste more like young coconut water. But you would never know it from reading the ingredient label. It may only state 100% pure coconut water.
I recently purchased some coconut water that at one time was produced in Brazil, but is now being produced in the Philippines. I used to like the flavour of this product but now the taste is significantly different. I could tell it was produced from mature and not young coconuts. It was just as sweet as it used to be but had a sour underlying taste. It was obvious to me that they added sugar to mask the sour taste. Yet, when I looked on the label it stated it was 100% coconut water.
Coconut water has been a popular beverage in Asia and the Pacific for a long time. The reason why it took so long for it to catch on in North America and Europe is due to the difficulty in transporting it. Coconut water is highly perishable. Once the coconut is opened and the water extracted, it begins to ferment and the taste and smell rapidly changes. To eliminate the risk of bacterial growth, commercial bottlers are forced to sterilize the product using high-temperature/short-time pasteurization (the same technology used in long-life milk that can sit on the shelf for months), which destroys some of the coconut water’s nutrients and much of its flavour. To preserve as much of the natural flavour as possible, pasteurization must be done within a very short time after extracting the water. Since coconuts are bulky and expensive to transport, processing must be done in a location close to where the coconuts are harvested.
Production of Coconut Water
Another development triggered by the increased demand for coconut water is the production of coconut water concentrate. This is coconut water that has been boiled down into thick syrup. This concentrate can then be shipped to the US and other countries where it is reconstituted and sold as “100% natural coconut water.” One gallon of coconut water concentrate can be transformed into 15.2 gallons of juice. How can you tell if the coconut water you buy is made from concentrate? Some brands may state that they are made from concentrate, but some don’t. The ingredient label will say 100% coconut water, even though tap water (which probably contains chlorine and fluoride) has been added to reconstitute it. The best way to identify the concentrates is to locate on the package the source of the product. If it is bottled or packaged in New Jersey or somewhere where coconuts don’t grow, you know it is a concentrate. Some will say “Made in USA.” Well, if a bottle of coconut water is made in the USA it certainly wasn’t made from fresh coconuts. Some brands wanting to distinguish their products from these will state “Not from Concentrate.” One popular brand, which used to be produced in Brazil and tasted pretty good, is now made from concentrate from Thailand and is bottled in the US. The taste has changed and not for the better. I can see why, when some people taste coconut water for the first time, they don’t like it. There are now a lot of low quality products available. Unfortunately, I see these brands everywhere.
To make matters even worse, you can actually buy powdered coconut water. Yes, you read that correctly, powdered coconut water. Simply mix the powder with water and presto you have coconut water. This product is marketed as an easy-to-carry rehydration beverage that you can make yourself. It probably does contain all the same electrolytes that fresh coconut water does and in addition chlorine and fluoride as well, if you reconstitute it using tap water.
What happens to the coconut water when it is subjected to high heat pasteurization, boiled down into a syrup, or transformed into a powder? Some of the heat sensitive nutrients are lost that’s for sure. The taste is also affected. How it affects other properties of the water is really not known. I have not seen any studies comparing the nutritional or medicinal properties of fresh versus heat-treated coconut water. The makers of the powdered coconut water say it is made using a freeze-drying process. What changes does that cause? Again I don’t know.
In my book Coconut Water for Health and Healing all of the health benefits I describe and the studies cited are in reference to fresh “young” coconut water. These same benefits may or may not apply to mature coconut water (especially with added sugar) or to coconut water that has been heat pasteurized or concentrated.
The mineral or electrolyte content should remain the same, however. In this case, processed coconut water would still be a suitable rehydration beverage. Even the pasteurized coconut water would be superior to commercial sports drinks because it contains more nutrients, including more electrolytes, and none of the chemical flavourings or preservatives. Also the sugar content even if sugar is added is still much lower than any fruit juice (all of which, by the way, have been pasteurized too). So these packaged products aren’t necessarily bad, and are still much better than most commercially produced sports drinks and fruit juices, they just aren’t the same as fresh young coconut water.
When buying coconut water you need to read the label. Don’t just assume it is the next best thing to fresh coconut water. It may not be. See if it is bottled in Thailand or Los Angeles, is it made from concentrate, does it have added sugar, what other ingredients does it contain? Some brands list added water, sugar, and preservatives like citric acid, potassium metabisulphite, and sulphurdioxide. When fruit flavourings are added, any number of other substances can be added along with it such as artificial and natural flavours. These beverages are no longer coconut water but just expensive fruit flavoured drinks.
If you want fresh young coconut water but don’t want to go to Thailand to get it, there are some other options available to you. One option is the “white” coconuts you see in health food stores and Asian markets. These are green coconuts that have been slightly trimmed, to reduce their size and weight for shipping, but are otherwise whole. You crack open the coconut and drink the juice just as you would in Thailand. Most of these coconuts come from Thailand and are often referred to as Thai coconuts. The only problem with these coconuts is that they are old. They are picked immature, as they should be for drinking, but they must be harvested, loaded onto a ship, travel long distances over the ocean, unloaded and stored, and trucked to various markets. By the time you buy them in the store they are already a good two months old. The age does affect the flavour. With age they tend to take on a woody taste from the coconut shell.
Another concern some people have noted is that these coconuts are dipped in a water bath containing 3 percent solution of sodium metabisulfite —a food grade antioxidant used to prevent mould and prevent browning. As reported in a previous issue of the Healthy Ways Newsletter we showed that none of this chemical penetrates all the way through the husk to reach the shell, let alone the water inside. So this isn’t an issue.