Is Coconut Water Really Better Than Sports Drinks?

As a runner, I always considered sports drinks a necessary evil: While I never loved the taste, I held my nose and downed my Gatorade for the sake of proper hydration. But last year, a friend handed me a little box of coconut water, which, she told me, had just as many electrolytes as Gatorade. I took a sip, loved the mild taste, and found myself regularly shelling out as much as $3 for 11 oz. of the stuff. That is, until it disappeared from my local supermarket earlier this summer.

Turns out I’m not the only one with a new coconut water addiction. Although the beverage has been popular for centuries in countries where coconuts grow, it has only recently been marketed in the US. Vita Coco, currently the country’s biggest coconut water company, was founded in 2004, and according to spokesperson Arthur Gallego, sales skyrocketed from $4 million in 2007 to $20 million in 2009. The past 6 months have been Vita Coco’s busiest yet. “Typically Vita Coco would keep 45 days of inventory, but that has all been blown through,” says Gallego. “People used to buy by the unit, now they are buying in bulk by the box.”

Not to be confused with coconut milk, which is made from the white flesh of the fruit, coconut water is the clear liquid in the fruit’s center. Also unlike coconut milk, the water is very low in calories and fat and high in the electrolyte potassium, which is why it’s often marketed as a natural alternative to sports drinks. The website of the coconut water company Zico features a slide show of perspiring runners, rock climbers and mountain bikers and says the company is “on a mission to tell the world that Mother Nature made a better sports drink.” Another manufacturer, O.N.E., claims that coconut water is “a natural alternative to Viagra” and prevents kidney stones. Others tout its anti-aging properties, and some companies regularly sponsor sports events and partner with bikram yoga (“hot yoga”) studios.

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