How Coconut Water Built a Health Empire Out of Electrolytes, Rihanna, and Human Blood
Coconut water—this decade's energy drink of the stars—is rich in electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphate. In other words, it's a banana and a glass of water. But with the help of some clever packaging, a touch of Rihanna, and a fat price tag, marketers have spun coconut water into a health beverage empire.
According to health and nutrition product tester ConsumerLab's recent analysis of three major coconut water brands (O.N.E., Vita Coco, and ZICO), the beverage companies' claims are a little shaky. Two of the three brands contain significantly fewer rehydrating electrolytes than their packaging suggests. "When you start making claims comparing it to sports drinks, you expect them to at least deliver on what they are promising," ConsumerLab president Tod Cooperman told The Huffington Post.
Forget Gatorade. Coconut water producers have routinely compared the beverage to an even more precious substance: Human blood.
Coconut water is "the only natural substance that can be safely injected into the human blood stream," ZICO tells consumers. It is "identical to human blood plasma,” Body Ecology insists. One enthusiast goes as far as to say that coconut water is "the universal donor," and so "by drinking coconuts we give ourselves a [sic] instant blood transfusion." Several coconut water manufacturers cite the liquid's use as emergency intravenous hydration during World War II and the Vietnam War as an extra incentive for cracking open a can.
"Coconut water is not the same as blood plasma," Cooperman tells me. While coconut water "had been used as an intravenous replacement fluid in very dire situations," he says, that emergency use has since been "misused by these companies." ZICO, for example, encourages consumers to drink up by stating that its product has "saved many lives."
Is coconut water a life saver? Maybe: When the Straight Dope took on the coconut water transfusion question, it found that "chemical analysis indicates it's closer in makeup to intracellular fluid" than plasma, but that it "behaves like a saline solution" when mixed with plasma. Still, it's "got fewer electrolytes in it than our bodies are used to and too much potassium, so it's not an ideal rehydration fluid. But it works in a pinch."
Coconut water companies' marketing claims are meant to imply that the drink really, truly belongs in your body. But the practical relationship between olde-tyme IV supplement and Rihanna-endorsed workout drink remains to be seen. So coconut water was a last-ditch saline solution employed in decades-old foreign wars—why does that mean consumers should shell out $3 to drink 11 ounces of the stuff? After all, most humans don't need to drink electrolytes at all, much less stick them straight into their veins.