The Real Deal On Coconut Water?

I recently returned from an amazing tropical vacation on the island of St. John. Every day, I would wander to the small town center to get a coconut cracked open via a machete and served with a straw for $2. Even in the early hours of the morning, it is brutally hot and humid in the Virgin Islands, so locals and tourists alike rely on the island’s abundant supply of fresh coconuts to help stay hydrated.

But you don’t have to travel to the Caribbean to enjoy coconut water these days. By now, you have undoubtedly seen it popping up on your grocery and even convenience store shelves under brand names like Vita Coco and Amy & Brian. You can buy it with pulp or without, flavored or not. Some are concentrated, others are not, and they come from various parts of the world. So, what is coconut water and how do you choose which one is best?

Let’s break it down:

Coconut water is the liquid found inside young coconuts. Why young coconuts? Because as a coconut starts the age, the oily, milky, flesh on the inside walls softens and turns into a sweet, creamy, jelly-like substance.

As it continues to age, the flesh mixes in with the water to create coconut milk — a common ingredient in cooking and baking. While there are numerous health benefits and desirable cooking properties of coconut milk, it’s very high in calories and saturated fat — so watch out.

Coconut water doesn’t have any of that (unless you’re drinking the with-pulp version) so it is lower in calories, has no fat, and is full of electrolytes like potassium, magnesium and sodium, plus some natural sugars. These electrolytes help to replace those that are lost through sweating, which gives coconut water its reputation an excellent, natural sports drink.

There’s a catch for us local folks though: since coconut water is produced primarily in the tropics, for food safety and shipping purposes, companies will sometimes dehydrate the juice and rehydrate at its destination. In fact, many coconut water brands are re-hydrated from concentrated solids ( labeled “from concentrate”) — the problem though is that very often, less water is added back than was originally there in order to increase the overall sweetness. This results in a beverage that technically can claim “no added sugar” even though it has more sugar and calories than is naturally found in the product. As a point of reference, keep in mind that naturally, coconut water has about 45 calories per cup and 10-12 grams of sugar — so it’s a pretty low-calorie, low-sugar beverage. Additionally, make sure that “young coconut” is the only ingredient on the ingredients list.

A second catch is that here in Boston, where we are far from palm trees, coconut water can sometimes be quite pricey — but it is still a healthy beverage to enjoy after a workout, in a smoothie, or just with a straw. Of course, all bets are off if you add rum.