Joining the ranks of Gatorade, SmartWater and other electrolyte-enhanced drinks is coconut water -- a hydrating beverage that looks like cloudy water and has the distinctly sweet, tart taste of coconut. Coconut water (a.k.a. coconut juice) has long been commonly found in Asian or Latin markets, typically packaged in tall aluminum cans and produced by brands such as Parrot. Now, this naturally fat free, lower calorie drink can be found in everyday supermarkets and health stores from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, to Vons.
"I think we've hit a time period where there's a big health craze," said Katie Chapmon, registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center.
She mentioned other healthy fad items such as pomegranate juice and acai berry, and said that for some, coconut water could be a natural alternative to a sports drink. Coconut water is made from young green coconuts, and is a low sugar, low sodium beverage that's high in electrolytes. It can be a healthy alternative to juice or soda for people trying to monitor their sugar intake, said Chapmon, but for the average person, coconut water's not any more hydrating than normal water.
For athletes or someone trying to re-hydrate pre or post-workout though, the coconut water does have properties, such as replenishing potassium levels, that can help them recuperate. Zico, one common brand of coconut water, contains five electrolytes according to their website; sodium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium (as much as is in a banana). In terms of calories and sugar, Zico is comparable to Gatorade, said Chapmon, but Gatorade has much higher levels of sodium, which as an athlete you lose much more of than potassium.
"Coconut water is an excellent re-hydrator," said Chapmon, which may explain why it has also become a popular hangover cure.
Hangover headaches result from being extremely dehydrated, said Chapmon, so coconut water can help balance out one's electrolytes, replenish fluid levels and thus help lessen the hangover systems. But is coconut water really a superior way to hydrate?
"In all honesty, you're going to be just as good with plain old water," she said.
There's no doubt that coconut's become an increasingly common site on grocery store shelves, and Chapmon attributes this to the general public being more proactive about their health and being more conscious of what they're ingesting.
In addition to the standard flavors, Zico comes in pineapple, mango, chocolate and passion fruit alternatives. Although the beverage is good to drink anytime -- including in smoothies and cocktails -- according to Zico's website, the drink's "wonderful nutritional characteristics are most evident before, during or after exercise."
Chapmon explained that electrolytes "do everything in your body"; they control how the heart pumps and communicate with nerves.
"There can always be too much of a good thing," she said, warning against excessive electrolyte consumption -- especially for those with compromised kidneys that have a harder time filtering the drink.
Coconuts are also made into coconut oil and coconut milk: Two thicker versions of the fruit's liquid that often come with chunks in them and contain much higher levels of fat and calories. Chapmon said these alternatives will have different health properties than coconut water.