Coconut Water: Is It What It’s Cracked Up To Be?

fresh-coconutWhether or not Robinson Crusoe was sustained by it, coconut water—not coconut milk—has gathered a following among those fitness fans looking for an all-natural alternative to sports drinks. However, it just might not be good enough for all athletes.  The liquid endosperm of young coconuts, coconut water is considered one of the world’s most versatile natural products. To enhance that image, science has found evidence to support the role of coconut water in health and medicinal applications. One of the traditional uses of coconut water is as a growth supplement in plant tissue propagation and culture, but a wider application can be justified by its unique chemical composition of sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytohormones. The last category holds a few welcome surprises, since soy genistein has hogged the spotlight for years.

What’s The Big Deal?
Coconut water is the liquid endosperm and is served directly as a beverage to quench thirst, while coconut milk is the product obtained by grating the solid endosperm with or without additional water to get a food ingredient useful in traditional recipes. Coconut water is more than 90% water; the milk about 50% water, but also containing fat and protein (Seow, 1997). Coconut water is a clear isotonic solution plentiful in young coconuts. (Isotonic means that the tonicity, or tension, of a solution is similar to that of a body fluid and exerts basically the same pressure on both sides of a membrane.) As the coconut matures, its chemical composition and liquid volume change. The liquid may exceed half a liter at nine month’s maturity (Jackson, 2004).

Coconut water is touted as being high in potassium, one of the electrolytes essential to muscle function as the body’s predominant intracellular cation. One cup of coconut water (240 gm) carries about 600 mg of potassium, which is a fraction of the Institute of Medicine’s recommended 4700 mg (http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2004/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-Water-Potassium-Sodium-Chloride-and-Sulfate.aspx). Of course, 8 glasses will put you over the top. The concern is that potassium needs to be balanced with sodium, the electrolyte first lost to heavy sweating. This is where coconut water falls short as a sports beverage. Sodium content of one cup of coconut water is about 250 mg, not enough to aid recovery after a hard workout that spent eighteen times that by sweating more than a day’s worth of suggested intake. There’s more sodium in a glass of vegetable juice. If you have an interest in electrolytes’ role in human health — and you should, really — check out this site for a cogent explanation:  http://crampnomore.com/sportshealth/electrolytes-101.html.

What Good Is It, Then?
In an era of anti-aging curiosity, coconut water seems to be able to hold its own.  The vitamin content of coconut water is insignificant, although considerably better than the zero of plain water, but its phytonutrients, cytokinin and its analog kinetin, have demonstrated appreciable impact as anti-senescent agents. Isolated more than half a century ago, cytokinin has a potent biological effect on plant cells and tissues that influence gene expression, cell cycle, chloroplast development and biosynthesis, stimulation of vascular architecture, and delay of senescence. This characteristic was extrapolated to humans and cell membrane lipid peroxidation (Mik, 2011). Against placebo, in a randomized, double-blind, controlled study, a combination of topical cosmetic ingredients that featured kinetin and niacinamide was found to induce a reduction in spots, pores, and wrinkles and to re-establish evenness after eight weeks (Chiu, 2007). Additionally, age-related changes attributed to lipofuscin, an indicator of damage represented as brown pigmentations from oxidized fats, were delayed (Rattan, 1994).

Cytokinin and its analogs were found to induce cell death and to inhibit cell proliferation in diverse cancer cell lines (Vermeulen, 2002), where researchers were surprised to find anti-cancer effects that extended beyond the original discoveries (Voller, 2010). An item of interest is that these studies were conducted outside the United States, but not necessarily where coconuts are native. There is a modicum of protein in a cup of coconut water (less than 2.0 grams), but when part of a more voluminous coconut protein product, it is sufficiently influential to contribute to an increase and a strengthening of the immune cells that are born in bone marrow (Vigila, 2008). All the while, non-malignant cells are left alone, as cytokinin and kinetin are selective in their inhibition of cell proliferation (Dudzik, 2011).

To Use Or Not To Use?
Though not quite as balanced as serious electrolyte replacement beverages, coconut water has a place in health promotion and disease prevention. To some, it is the darling of India’s Ayurvedic medical practice, where the coconut palm is labeled “Kalpavriksha,” the all-giving tree that provides antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, hypoglycemic, immunostimulant and hepatoprotective properties (DebMandal, 2011) (Preetha, 2012).   To overcome coconut water’s sodium shortfall, some formulators add salt and other enhancements to their drink and then market it as a complete sports beverage. There’s a lot more to learn about what’s in the marketplace, since adulteration is common and can ramp up calories from the basic 46 per cup.

Oral rehydration using coconut water following bouts of diarrhea, especially in children, can forestall the need for intravenous therapy in those who are amply nourished prior to the onset of the infirmity. It is contraindicated in cases of dehydration for lack of electrolyte balance (Adams, 1992). The absorption of coconut water is far superior to that of soft drinks, too, which are often used as fluid replacements by those who are unaware of the options (Chavalittamrong, 1982). The problem with this application, however, is the variability of sodium and glucose content of the coconut fluid at various stages in its development (Fagundes, 1993). A legitimate coconut water purveyor will have analyzed his product before packaging, and will put that data on the label.  Coconut water costs about fifteen cents an ounce. A quality electrolyte replacement concentrate, making four gallons of sports beverage, costs about four cents an ounce…and has the right balance of potassium and sodium, the two important players in muscle contraction and relaxation.

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