America is Cuckoo for Coconut Water: Healthy Drink or Gimmick? Behind the Label

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America is Cuckoo for Coconut Water: Healthy Drink or Gimmick? Behind the Label

Valued at more than $1 billion, the massive coconut water industry is quickly taking hold of America’s developing thirst for healthy and functional beverages. What exactly is coconut water, though? And are there health risks? We go behind the label to find out.

The Good

A mere decade ago, if you wanted to gulp down coconut water you’d have to get yourself to a tropical part of the globe or seek out imported whole coconuts sometimes sold in produce sections of supermarkets. Coconut milk and meat, the cream and flesh of mature “brown” coconuts, have long been prized in exotic cuisines and specialty desserts. But in coconut hotspots around the world, the young “green” coconuts are filled with a sweet, satisfying, liquid and fleshy, tender “meat” known as "copra" consumed before a coconut reaches its richer maturity.

The coconut water market is led by brands including Vita Coco, Zico, O.N.E., Coco Libre, Baí, Naked, Taste Nirvana Real Coconut Water, and Harmless Harvest.

According to the popular health website run by Dr. Axe, the potassium-rich liquid in coconuts “is a safe, healthy beverage for most people.”

Because of its high potassium content, coconut water is often looked at as a safe alternative to sports drinks like Gatorade, which are typically full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors. You get 17 percent of the Recommended Daily Intake for potassium, and 17 percent of the RDA for manganese, as well as 15 percent of your daily magnesium needs in coconut water.

Compared to sodas and other sugary soft drinks, coconut water is low in calories, about 46 for a one-cup serving, and contains around 6 grams of sugar compared to 30 or more grams of sugar common in a serving of soda. It contains 10 percent of the RDA for vitamin C, 6 percent for calcium, and 4 percent of iron. It also contains a number of B vitamins, selenium, and phosphorous. There’s also 11 percent of the RDA for dietary fiber in just a one-cup serving.

Aside from the human health benefits, some coconut water companies, like Harmless Harvest, are incorporating social responsibility missions into their bottom lines.

According to the company’s website, it sources organic young coconuts from Thailand and works on an ecosystem based model with farmers and communities. The company says the price of the products takes into account “what ingredients cost, factoring in living wages for all those involved in its growth, harvest, and production.”

In 2014, it obtained Fair for Life - Social & Fair Trade Certification, “As we build Harmless Harvest’s presence, other companies are following our example and turning away from standard processed products and toward more ingredient integrity in manufacturing,” the company explains.

Other brands that sell Fair Trade Certified coconut as of 2014 include Naked Coconut Water and Coco Libre Protein Coconut Waters.

The Bad

While booming interest in coconut water is disrupting the soda and sugary drinks category, not all coconut water is created equal once it’s out of the shell.

Dr. Axe warns that many coconut water brands “have a significant amount of added sugar or preservatives that can modify the health benefits of this amazing treat.”

And if you’re opting for whole young coconuts, which are often sold in markets with the green husk shaved down to a white boxy looking coconut, there are health risks there too.

For years, rumors have circulated that those imported coconuts, typically coming from south Asia, are dipped in formaldehyde once the husks have been shaved down to keep them from spoiling during transport and to keep them looking white.

But that’s just a rumor says Dr. Bruce Fife, one of the world’s leading experts on coconuts. “On further investigation, I discovered that there was some truth to the rumor, but it was grossly distorted,” he wrote on his website.

“A detailed description of the processing procedure can be found in the technical publication titled "Postharvest Handling of Tender Coconut" published in the ASEAN Food Journal. The article explains that after the husk of young coconuts are trimmed, in preparation for shipping to market, they are dipped in a vat of water, not formaldehyde. However, the water does contain a very small amount, between 1-3 percent, of sodium metabisulfite.”

While formaldehyde is a serious toxin that’s been linked to cancer and other health risks, sodium metabisulfite, according to Fife, “is a food grade antioxidant and preservative used to prevent oxidation (browning) of the husk and to retard mold.” It’s the same stuff you find added to many dried fruits such as figs and apricots; it keeps the fruit from spoiling and helps to retain the most vibrant color.

According to Fife, sodium metabisulfite is commonly used in making wine and beer as well as vinegars. It’s not nearly as toxic as formaldehyde but some people can be sensitive to it showing mild allergic reactions and respiratory problems.

But beyond any health concerns, the biggest controversy for coconut water is in its harvest and production.

According to Fair Trade USA, coconut farmers receive “about $0.12 - $0.25 per coconut and earn anything between $72 - $7,000 a year,” for an industry that is making companies like Vita Coco and Zico tens of millions of dollars with rapid annual growth. “[T]he average serving of coconut water sells for $1.50 in the US, or £1.85 in a UK supermarket for a 330ml carton,” reports the Guardian, “To put this into context, a [coconut farmer] earning the lowest bracket of $72 could afford just 48 cartons of 330ml coconut water if they bought nothing else that year.”

Additionally, Fair Trade USA reports that the coconut industry is largely reliant on mono-crop farming, “which fosters an environment of low crop diversity that can be detrimental to the environment and risky for the farmer.” As the coconut trees age, their yields and productivity also decline, and their inefficiency “makes the cost of maintaining and harvesting coconuts extremely high.”

The Bottom Line

When choosing coconut water, milk, or meat, consumers have options. With certified Fair Trade and organic coconut products now on the market, making an ethical purchasing decision is easier than ever. But be sure to read the labels to be on the lookout for any added sugars, flavors, or other ingredients that are common in coconut water.

But of course, if you want the truest coconut experience, you just might need to book a tropical vacation and get yourself to the nearest coconut tree.

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young coconuts image via Shutterstock

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