by Marion Nestle
Jul 30 2014

Health claims for coconut water: water works really well

The big surprise in Michael Moss’s tough look at health claims on coconut water in today’s New York Times—worth looking at online for the terrific video—is this:

One Last Comparison

These days, coconut water’s big rival may be plain old water. How do they compare? Scientists are still wrestling with the question, and while their findings vary, water is starting to look just fine for most people. A 2012 study (funded by Vita Coco) in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that neither coconut water nor sports drinks were better than water in hydrating young men after hourlong workouts.

Really?  An industry-funded study that comes to a conclusion against the interest of the funder?

This requires a look at the original paper.

So a round of applause please for the authors who did this funded study, “Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men,” and nevertheless came to this conclusion:

Our data indicate that both coconut water (natural, concentrated and not from concentrate) and bottled water provide similar rehydrating effects as compared to a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink.  Moreover, none of the beverages impacted treadmill exercise performance differently during the rehydration period.

Lest there be any ambiguity about what this means, their data clearly show that VitaCoco, a sports drink (not named but I’d bet on Gatorade), and coconut water from concentrate all rehydrated men who spent 60 minutes on a treadmill to the same extent.

In other words: for rehydration, water works just as well as coconut water or sports drinks.   No surprise, really.

VitaCoco must be disappointed, but it still has one thing going for it: coconut water tastes really good.

  • Brad

    As someone who spent a few years negotiating grants and contracts on behalf of a university, most universities worth their salt will never accept grants or contracts in which the funder has “review and approval” authority over the final paper. They can review, sure, but most universities require the principal investigator to have full rights to publish his or her conclusions regardless of whether those conclusions are favorable to the funder. At the university where I worked, we spent a lot of time negotiating those clauses and turned down some really big (multi-million dollar) contracts when the funders refused to back down. Intellectual freedom is an important right.

    Of course in practice, some unscrupulous or desperate researchers might skew their results if they think it’ll attract future funding. But woe to them if they’re ever found out.

  • Novagene

    The study had an odd focus. Hydration alone wouldn’t be the reason why an active person would choose “water with sugar” (i.e. sports drink, coconut water, fruit juice, etc.) over plain water after training.

    “Water with sugar” is recommended in sports nutrition for endurance athletes to speed muscle recovery, in particular, to replenish glycogen.

    Plain water doesn’t do that.

    If it’s merely a matter of hydration, then coffee, typically considered a diuretic, will even hydrate just as well as water according to a recent well-done study.

    Also, there wouldn’t be a strong expectation of impacted performance for the study’s hour-long duration. Exercising to glycogen depletion takes more time than that, about two hours running, and that’s where water and simple carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) and electrolytes (i.e. salt) can make a difference in sustained performance over plain water.

  • NECroeus

    I’ve always found chocolate milk to be the most satisfying drink after a workout.

  • pawpaw

    I agree with Brad. There is a cynicism in a subset of my students today, that most research is biased by sources of funding. Poor experimental design is perhaps a bigger problem, if not careful one can appear to reach whatever conclusion they want. But if the researchers didn’t know who was drinking what and when, during their measurements, reliable data could be gathered regardless of setting. Hence the value of honest colleagues who challenge your assumptions and biases, from experimental design to writing up results. And of rigorous peer review before publishing. Reviewers were hard on my work at times, and I could be tough on them when reviewing or editing. I’d like to think a gentlemen’s agreement still exists in areas of research today, that integrity in this larger enterprise matters.

    Granted, there could be more pressures to compromise in certain subsets of nutrition/food science/pharmaceutical studies, if one is enamored with certain products. But during my years in basic research, I don’t recall pressure to skew results in favor of a funder. If my results were surprising, at times I’d be asked to repeat experiments to “be sure”, but once robust data was in hand, the results were backed by all involved. Scientists are consumers, too; we like to have confidence in what we read…

  • Sarah Moore

    Chocolate milk is always too sweet because it’s marketed at children. However I got chocolate MYLK in a race pack a couple of months ago. Woah. It’s coconut milk, with actual proper chocolate. A grown up chocolate drink!

  • JW Ogden

    So Coconut water and sports drinks are like organic food, non GMO foods in regards to efficacy.

  • JW Ogden

    Also most nutrition claims beyond the very basics are very weak.

  • TR

    Right, so eat a snack and drink plain water.

  • Novagene

    Sure. That works too.

    Although, it’s not always ideal for athletes to eat a snack during athletic performance.

    Also “sugar water” is absorbed faster. Then there’s the convenience of having sugar, salt, and water in one consumable.

  • what was the ‘mylk’ called Sarah?

  • Sarah Moore

    Oh I can’t remember now sorry! I’ve since discovered another brand doing the same thing (also can’t remember the brand, just that it’s sold opposite work and costs £2.50 so I won’t be getting that often!). Hopefully it’s the sort of thing that can be found in health food shops and vegetarian cafes.

  • YUM!! Was it Rebel Kitchen by any chance?! Came across these guys the other day and they make the yummiest chic coconut mylk!!

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