Coconut Water – Rehydrating with the Naturalistic Fallacy

I’m a runner, and have been actively running for over a decade. Since I started running, I’ve consumed Gatorade Lemon-Lime almost exclusively as my as my rehydration fluid of choice. Whenever my run will last over about an hour, I carry and consume Gatorade to offset fluid loss and give me some carbohydrate. The formulation is basic: sugar, salt, and potassium. There are a hundreds of electrolyte products out there, and even Gatorade makes versions with exotic ingredients now. But I’ve been faithful to the original: It’s cheap, I don’t mind the taste (even when its warm), you can buy it nearly anywhere, and it’s a common beverage (besides water) offered at races. Plus, I’ve never been that convinced that it matters all that much – I focus on the engine, not the fuel. After exercise I usually stick with water, preferring to get my electrolytes and carbohydrates from food, rather than liquid sources. But now I’m seeing advertising me that sports drinks are both artificial and inferior. Is it time to upgrade my fuel?

Coconut water isn’t just at the West Indian roti shop anymore: From the grocery store to the yoga studio to the running club, it’s everywhere. The excellent Planet Money podcast recently did a feature on the skyrocketing sales of coconut water, so I decided to take a closer look. Is coconut water a fad beverage, like Vitamin Water was last week, and pomegranate juice the week before? It’s positioned as a superior product for rehydration. The marketing and packaging rely heavily on the naturalistic fallacy, and it’s clearly an appeal to nature: Coconut water naturally contains sugars and electrolytes. Natural is believed to be better than unnatural, therefore coconut water is a better beverage choice. Or is it?

What’s in coconut water?

Don’t confuse coconut water with coconut milk, which contains a lot of coconut “meat”, the white solid we might refer to simply as coconut. Coconut water is the 2-4 cups of fluid inside a young coconut, which declines as the “meat” grows. Depending on when the water is withdrawn, the electrolyte levels may vary, but have been reported in the following ranges [PDF]:

  • sodium 0.7-0.9 mEq/L
  • potassium 35-82 mEq/L
  • glucose 1.2-2.8 grams/L
  • calcium 5-17 mEq/L
  • magnesium 5-25 mEq/L

There are also small amounts of amino acids, vitamins and minerals present. Compared to a beverage like Gatorade, there’s more potassium, and less sodium and sugar. And unlike Gatorade, coconut has even been directly injected into veins.

Rehydration

As effective as water

The science of treating dehydration has been well evaluated – particularly in the treatment of diarrhea. In most cases, mild diarrhea is a bother. Severe, sustained diarrhea, however, particularly in children, can become life threatening without treatment. Diarrhea kills millions in the third world each year, mainly children under the age of 5. The treatment is simple, but not always available. The World Health Organization’s Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS), which is 6 level teaspoons of sugar and 1/2 level teaspoon of salt dissolved in 1 litre of water, is the considered optimal ratio of sugar and salt to support rehydration. Why sugar and salt in the water? It’s because plain water is not absorbed as well as a solution of salt and sugar. The journal The Lancet called this discovery “potentially the most important medical advance of this century.” The concentration of sugar and sodium will impact on how effectively a beverage will hydrate. How effectively are do the concentrations in a coconut support rehydration? Poorly. Coconut water appears to be inferior for hydration caused by diarrhea. Its electrolyte levels are inadequate – there’s not enough sodium.

So is this information relevant to exercise-induced dehydration? Here there have been some preliminary studies as well. I found three relevant to the question.

So what’s best?

There’s no convincing evidence to suggest that coconut water is a measurably superior beverage for hydration. Coconut water has no magical properties which make it more effective or superior than water or sports drinks when rehydrating. Having said that, many love the taste of coconut water. As a low calorie option, it may be preferred by some over sports drinks with more carbohydrate. Or you can stick with zero-calorie water, and eat something to replenish your electrolytes. Coconut water, or any other beverage, it doesn’t seem to matter for hydration.

25 Responses to “Coconut Water – Rehydrating with the Naturalistic Fallacy”

  1. R Horrowitz says:

    Well, I suppoose we could wait for the putative toxic effects of brominated vegetable oil to be determined, one way or the other. I mean it’s only bromine, boiled through vegetable oil, right? A wiser course of action might be to avoid Gatorade and any other drink that contains such artificial chemicals.

    The naturalistic fallacy is only a fallacy up to a point, Scott. Given the choice between consuming a product made with naturally occurring molecules that we have consumed as a species for thousands of years and consuming a product with novel molecules like BVO that have only been in our diet for 20-30 years, ‘going natural’ seems like a reasonable bet.

    • Dianne Sousa says:

      What are you talking about? There is no point at which it stops being a fallacy. If you say: “coconut water is better than gatorade because coconut water is natural and gatorade is not”, your argument is fallacious because it depends on the untrue assumption that natural is always better/superior/safer etc.

      I think you’re trying to argue that in this particular case natural is better, though I think the evidence is against you there. If you could show that coconut water is better than gatorade for rehydration, you’d still have to show that this is because it is naturally occuring. Good luck with that.

    • Carl says:

      Dianne makes a clear point, we’re discussing Gatorade as a sports drink, not as a drink.

      “Going Natural” would be to make the salt/sugar solution in some basic filtered tap water and drink that – oh wait – it tastes like a camels behind.

      We’re discussing actual ability to replenish nutrients – not the ability to be “natural”. Natural isn’t “better” always. I could feed you a cup full of apple seeds to prove that.

  2. Leslie F says:

    I’m going to go with, in many cases coconut water might be better because of the lower sodium and sugars. We as a whole tend to consume more sugar & salt than we need – causing problems such as diabetes & high blood pressure. Sugar-free sports drinks don’t edge ahead because part of the benefit of a sports drink is the carbohydrates.

    I think coconut water’s only “natural” advantage is that it’s been ingested longer than sports drinks so we may have more long-term data on any potential ill effects.

    • Carl says:

      We’re discussing this as a sports drink.

      If you drink Gatorade all the time, hells ya, you’ll be a fattie.

  3. Larry says:

    I agree that hydration with water is sufficent with food following exercise, if the exercise was was not in high heat and/or humid conditions. In that case, getting electrolytes in as soon as possible is advisable. Carbs can come within 24 hours for glycogen replacement, however during exercise, injestion of some carbs has shown to delay the onset of fatigue by improvement of blood sugar level maintenance avoiding muscle protein breakdown for gluconeogenesis.

    The differences in gastic emptying among the solutions is not important except in potential medical emergencies.

  4. Aviatrix79 says:

    Although it may be true that coconut water isn’t inferior with sports drinks like Gatorade for hydration purposes, the rest of the benefits of coconut water should not be ignored. Coconut water has been used holistically for thousands of years and anything that can be safely used intraveneously has to be better fro the body overall than a drink manufactured using artificial ingredients and chemicals. Coconut water has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It promotes a healthy digestive tract and weight loss, it’s great for the skin and tastes magnificent. Surely these other benefits are taken into account by serious health and sports addicts. There’s nothing more satisfying than drinking coconut water directly from the nut on hot summer’s day or after strenuous exercise. But let’s be completely honest here. The only reason why athletes grab the gatorade instead of the nutrally occuring, highly benefitial young coconut, is cost and convenience.

    • Jason says:

      It has been used for thousands of years … and this is suppose to say what exactly?

      Anything that can be used intraveneously has to be better for the body than a drink made using artificial ingredients and chemicals …. chemicals are bad somehow? and by what standard are you labelling things as artificial? This statement is more of an assertion which seems borne out of a false concept that natural equals good whereas manufactured equals bad. Clearly, this is not the case.

      Finally, I doubt cost and convenience are the only reason … which really are two reasons. I bet the real reason is a massive corporate conspiracy so that wall street bankers and their corporate lackeys can line their pockets.

  5. Aviatrix79 says:

    Oh come on. We are not comparing a dodgy natural product here. We are comparing a coconut, which is FOOD, to a synthetic product, manufactured and stored in a PLASTIC bottle with ingredients that are known to be harmful to one’s health. Coconut has known health benefits including promoting weight loss, it raises the metabolism, it boosts the immune system. It kills bacteria, fungus and viruses in the body. It helps carry oxygen to cells and improves circulation. It’s high in potassium which is alkalizing and helps maintain PH levels. It’s high in antioxidants which helps keep many diseases at bay. It’s naturally hydrating. It helps control diabetes. It helps breaks down kidney stones and more! Gatorade however contains high fructose corn syrup and sucrose syrup… known to contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and coronary heart disease. It contains modified food starches… which one? I presume it’s not wheat since it’s not listed as an ingredient but it still could be a starch containing gluten which poses a threat to celiacs and could eventually lead to celiac disease. It could contain MSG. Gatorade contains food colours such as Red40 and we know what effects these have on children and how it contributes to ADHD. Gatorade has stabilises such as glycerol ester of wood rosin. That’s not there because it’s healthy, it’s there to make the product more aesthetically pleasing and for the taste and texture to remain consistent in the bottle so that the ingredients don’t separate. Gatorade was also formulated for serious athletes who push themselves beyond limits and sweat excessively. In this instance, the drink is useful because as I’ve mentioned earlier, who the hell is going to crack open a coconut midst or after a marathon race? It’s convenient and more beneficial than water… in this instance. However, we have the average person gulping down a bottle of Gatorade after a one hour workout in the gym. A simple glass of water in this case would be more beneficial than a drink full of artificial crap and sugars. We also have non sports people drinking sports drinks for energy. Also Gatorade is stored in plastic which leaches toxins in the drink. It’s manufactured in a factory and there could be cross contamination with other products and ingredients. Sorry, but Gatorade is NOT better than coconut water… in any case. It’s simply more convenient and less costly than thai young coconuts. It’s extremely unhealthy to the average person.

    • Art Tricque says:

      Your argument is fatally flawed: whether or not a product is natural or a food, or man-made is irrelevant to its healthiness or fitness for purpose. This is the very naturalistic fallacy that the author speaks of!

      The rest of your argument is a laundry list of supposed benefits for coconut water and evils of Gatorade. None are supported by serious science. You have not proven the central conclusion of the article: “There’s no convincing evidence to suggest that coconut water is a measurably superior beverage for hydration. Coconut water has no magical properties which make it more effective or superior than water or sports drinks when rehydrating.”

      • Aviatrix79 says:

        You keep missing my point and I’m getting tired of repeating myself. I am not suggesting that coconut water is superior to Gatorade for rehydration purposes. I am suggesting that the rest of the pros and cons should be taken into account when comparing the two. There may be inadequate clinical studies done on coconut water but that doesn’t mean that there are none and it certainly does not mean the that most of the benefits claimed are not true. There is certainly marketing hype with every processed product and the packaged coconut water sold today does not fall short of it. However, before the ZICOs, the Vita Co Cos and the like came about, people have been drinking sterile coconut water from the nut for centuries for health and medicinal purposes. I personally have been drinking it for over 12 years, at least three times a week and I certainly notice the benefits. That aside however, coconut is a natrual food and does have some proven health benefits. I’m not going to list them, you can do your own research.

        Gatorade is a product specifically designed for hydration purposes but is filled with a lot of other undesirable crap that makes the product more desirable (aesthetically speaking). It’s interesting that you dismiss the artificual substances I’ve mentioned that have been clinically proven to be harmful. Again, my point was that this article fails to consider any other health benefits of coconut oil and it fails to consider any harmful substances in Gatorade or other sports drinks. If Gatorade added a known deadly substance to the mix of currently questionable artificial ingredients, would you keep drinking it just because it’s rehydrating? lol You probably would but most sensible people would not.

        Anyway, I guess it’s pointless arguing with stubborn people. You keep drinking your gatorade full of harmful substances and I’ll stick to my delicious, nutritious thai young coconuts :)

      • Jason says:

        It is funny but it could be suggested that perhaps you might be missing the points being put forth as well. Of which I find a few basically suggesting that the reasoning used to support specific positions are unwarranted and unsupportive … that is all.

        For example ….”people have been drinking sterile coconut water from the nut for centuries for health and medicinal purposes.” So what? What does this matter? An interesting tidbit of information perhaps but completely irrelevant and a flaw to think it bolsters any claim to its rehydration properties.

        “That aside however, coconut is a natrual food…” again, so what? What does this matter?

        Perhaps the main concept here is that the main thrust of point could be made more effective without reliance on these flaws. Stating that coconut water has been drunk for centuries by many people does not speak in any way to anything other then that simple fact. Thats all.

  6. Aviatrix79 says:

    “An interesting tidbit of information perhaps but completely irrelevant and a flaw to think it bolsters any claim to its rehydration properties.”

    I really don’t want to call you an idiot, however, I’m really tempted! Again, you’re missing my point. I am not stating that coconut water is more hydrating than Gatorade although it has been scientifically proven to be very hydrating. Again, my point is that hydration should not be the only factor considered when comparing coconut water to Gatorade. When something is consumed, the whole product and it’s contents, ingredients and it’s nutritional value as a whole should be taken into account. There is nothing in coconut water that is harmful to the human body and it provides a heap of nutritional value plus IT IS very hydrating.

    On the other side we have Gatorade that is more hydrating to coconut water because it’s higher in sodium, however, looking at Gatorade’s nutritional value as a whole, it’s not only lacking in nutritional value but it has artificial substances that have been PROVEN to be harmful. You conveniently keep skipping over this point.

    Let me type it one last time because this will be my final post here. For hydration Gatorade is more superior that coconut water, however, it is not more superior to coconut water when comparing their overall nutritional values. It is in fact far inferior. Again, I’ll add this so you don’t miss my point again… if I add a cyanide to Gatorade, it will still be be more hydrating that coconut water, however it will make you ill and could possibly kill you. Do you get the point I’m making now? If you don’t care about your overall health and just care about hydration then go ahead and drink your Gatorade. However if you want to get hydrated and stay healthy, have coconut water with some sea salt and some fruit. Gatorade is not a healthy choice… far from it.

    • Art Tricque says:

      “Again, my point is that hydration should not be the only factor considered when comparing coconut water to Gatorade.”

      The article is entitled “Coconut Water – Rehydrating with the Naturalistic Fallacy”. Any other factors are are irrelevant. Coconut water may be an excellent motor oil, but that is not germane.

    • Art Tricque says:

      Sorry, early posting before completed. Let me complete this response to the shoddy arguments and fallacious logic offered by commenter Aviatrix79.

      You have said it yourself. If you want to claim coconut water is more nutritious than Gatorade, that too is irrelevant: Gatorade is not designed to be a nutrition beverage, it is designed to be a rehydration beverage.

      “…but it has artificial substances…”

      Whether Gatorade contains natural or artificial substances is irrelevant.

      MSG? Gluten that might be a problem for celiacs? “It’s manufactured in a factory and there could be cross contamination with other products and ingredients.” These are trivial points.

      “Coconut water has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.” Based on what well-established science that can be cited?

      “I personally have been drinking it for over 12 years, at least three times a week and I certainly notice the benefits.” A personal anecdote, as other commenters haver tried to point out, is unreliable evidence.

      “…coconut is a natrual food and does have some proven health benefits. I’m not going to list them, you can do your own research.”

      If coconut water were such a wonder food, cosmetic and all-round health tonic, I am sure there would be plenty of serious,s ettled science that a commenter could provide at a moment’s notice. No commenter has done so. The argument fails.

  7. Jason says:

    I am an idiot now … as I have repeatedly ignored that part of my brain which tells me not to respond. Please grasp I got your point quite readily …. hell, you never know, I might even agree with the basic thrust of it, might. The failed attempts I was trying to make in responding was simply to highlight the fact that your points about many people drinking coconut water is irrelevant as well, the fact that it is ‘natural’ again is irrelevant.

  8. Eli says:

    Your all stupid.

  9. scott says:

    I have 5 guys at work that drink gaterade all day everyday with there meals, and they keep getting fatter month after month.
    its shitty on insulin spikes!
    is it not made by coca-cola ? that just says it all, leave the shit at the store and pick up something more healthy.
    why would one want to degrade there body and strain it by trying to process chemicals and moddified bullshit. juice up a cucumber thats refreshing and rehydrating lol.
    but really i understand that the topic is which is more hydrating, which in this case is gatorade, but then again man can make any product more hydrating since we know what the product needs to do so, but man can never do it right like mother nature can when it comes to health and balance within the body. mans problem is that its all about making money !!!!!

    • Erik Davis says:

      Except as Scott points out, man can indeed do this better than mother nature — the optimal solution for human rehydration requires water to be mixed with sugar and sodium in a ratio not found in nature.

  10. Cat says:

    It’s quite simple really, and I’m surprised that the author has missed the very point of his own article.

    As an athlete, I would presume that you respect your body, and the integrity of the substances you put in it.

    Given the conclusion of your article “Yet again, no differences were noted between groups”, it would logically follow that since there is no significant advantage to consuming Gatorade, why would you choose to pollute your body with it (everything is synthetic from the colour to the texture).

    One may argue that there is no danger to consuming these synthetic substances that make up Gatorade. I would then refer you to R Horrowitz’s post who put it so beautifully!

  11. Dave Weller says:

    Awesome discussion!

  12. Michael M says:

    Since coconut water DOES act similarly to gatorade, I’d say the high fructose corn syrup in gatorade automatically relegates coconut water to a be the better choice by a country mile.

    “Natural” may be a buzz word that annoys a lot of people. And “natural” certainly is a big marketing ploy. But there are some very good reasons why natural CAN be meaningful. Almost every natural food that contains sugar also contains various ingredients that help the body metabolize that sugar. Nature has a built in way of regulating its ingredients, hence the development of food taking thousands, if not millions of years.

    This is why there actually IS a difference between white sugar and cane sugar that has not been processed. The brown is simply composed of minerals, which it so happens your body uses to digest sugar.

    Just google high fructose corn syrup and you’ll come across enough information to make ME anyway wonder why anyone would consume it.

    • Scott Gavura says:

      @Michael – that’s the naturalistic fallacy – right there.

    • Art Tricque says:

      “Almost every natural food that contains sugar also contains various ingredients that help the body metabolize that sugar.” No they do not.

      “Nature has a built in way of regulating its ingredients, hence the development of food taking thousands, if not millions of years.” And yet, millions of years of evolution could not produce a “natural” food or beverage with the right combination of sugars and salts needed by the body for rehydration. As Scott and Eric keep pointing out to you again and again, Michael M.

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.