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What You Don’t Know About Coconut Water vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup

By: Dave Asprey

You’ll find a lot of written in online marketing about the health benefits of coconut water, and there are definitely beneficial things in coconut water compared to soft drinks. However, most marketing pays all the attention to the benefits and misses the downside. The biggest downside – higher fructose content – is one of the things to be concerned about, and it’s one of the things I controlled while creating the Bulletproof Diet. But before we analyze the fructose content, let’s check out some of the other health claims for coconut water and compare them with actual numbers.

Claim 1: Rich in vitamins

People claim coconut water is “rich in natural vitamins (especially the B vitamins), minerals, and trace elements (including zinc, selenium, iodine, sulfur and manganese)” and “a rich source of electrolytes and natural salts, especially potassium and magnesium.” 1

But if you examine the label from coconut water, it only lists 10% of the low RDA of vitamin C and trace amounts of calcium and iron. And one cup of coconut water actually contains:

Calcium, Ca 58 mg
Iron, Fe 0.7 mg
Magnesium, Mg 60 mg
Phosphorus, P 48 mg
Potassium, K 600 mg
Sodium, Na 252 mg
Zinc, Zn 0.24 mg
Copper, Cu 0.096 mg
Manganese, Mn 0.341 mg
Selenium, Se 2.4 mcg
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid 5.8 mg
Thiamin 0.072 mg
Riboflavin 0.137 mg
Niacin 0.192 mg
Pantothenic acid 0.103 mg
Vitamin B-6 0.077 mg

To put that data into perspective, one cup of coconut water has very small amounts of the things that coconut water fans says are “rich.” For comparison, I take 200mg of thiamin and riboflavin per day, or the amount found in 2,700 cups of coconut water. The only things that are present in decent amounts are potassium and magnesium. I take about a gram of potassium a day with 800mg of magnesium because magnesium and potassium work together and are less effective taken separately. That’s only 12 cups of coconut water – which would have 72 grams of sugar. Oops. Double-oops if you pay attention to the Bulletproof Diet guidelines, or know anything about the aging effects of sugar!

Claim 2: Full of amino acids

Other online marketing says “coconut water is full of amino acids.”

But seriously, let’s look at what’s in there.

Tryptophan 0.019 g
Threonine 0.062 g
Isoleucine 0.067 g
Leucine 0.127 g
Lysine 0.077 g
Methionine 0.031 g
Cystine 0.034 g
Phenylalanine 0.089 g
Tyrosine 0.053 g
Valine 0.106 g
Arginine 0.283 g
Histidine 0.041 g
Alanine 0.089 g
Aspartic acid 0.168 g
Glutamic acid 0.396 g
Glycine 0.082 g
Proline 0.072 g
Serine 0.089 g

These are mostly negligible. It takes 5 grams of BCAA (branched chain amino acids, namely leucine, valine, and isoleucine) after workouts or during intermittent fasting to prevent muscle breakdown. That’s only about 18 cups of coconut water, or 108 grams of sugar. But all is not lost. There is enough arginine – about 0.283 grams to perhaps have a blood pressure lowering effect because arginine dilates your arteries slightly by increasing nitrous oxide levels. A biohacker like me takes about 4 grams of it before bed to increase growth hormone levels and for better circulatory effects, but maybe .283 grams is enough to move the blood pressure needle. To get my normal 4 grams, I’d need 14 cups of coconut water…again, almost 100 grams of sugar.

Claim 3: Coconut Water is Low in Sugar

You’ve probably heard marketing saying, “Coconut water is low in sugar.”

This is the claim that inspired me to write this post, because dietary fructose during the day is harmful (although I’m ok with a bit right before bed if it helps sleep…) There are 6 grams of sugar in a cup of coconut water, which contain exactly as much total fructose (55%) as the most common high fructose corn syrup.

Research from the Brazilian Pediatric Society identified the sugars contained in coconut water, detecting glucose, sucrose and fructose in the proportion of approximately 50, 35 and 15%, respectively, but their study did not relate whether these proportions remained constant during different months. The current study found that the proportions of these sugars varied depending on the stage of maturation of the coconuts: glucose, from 34 to 45%; sucrose, from 53 to 18% and; fructose, from 12 to 36%. (it was Paleo Hacks that turned me on to this research.)

Why coconut water works (probably)

There are documented beneficial effects from coconut water, but that doesn’t mean you should drink too much of it, or even drink it daily. It is ok as a work out drink, unless you’re in ketosis, in which case it’s a bad idea.

But the main benefits – like possibly lowering blood pressure – obviously come from the high potassium, moderate magnesium, and perhaps the arginine content. This is a classic anti-aging formula for controlling high blood pressure. The biohacker in me would argue that taking higher amounts of these in supplement form – with out the sugar – is a better long term strategy.

The other reason coconut water seems to work has to do with cytokinins (plant hormones) which are purported to have anti-aging, anti-cancer, and anti-thrombolytic effects. I haven’t done enough research on these to say how much they contribute to the effects, but I do know several anti-aging professionals who swear by fresh coconut water for a variety of powerful effects. But they always specify fresh, from the coconut, not the canned and pasteurized stuff you get from the store.

How I use coconut water

When I use coconut water, I get it fresh from young Thai coconuts, organic if possible. That naturally limits the amount I get, as the average coconut has less than 1 cup of juice anyway, and it’s a lot of work to open a dozen coconuts to get 12 cups of juice. I give the juice to my kids as a special treat and then we eat the amazingly good young coconut meat. Or if I’m on a day when I’m not limiting my carbs, I might blend the water with the meat and some ice to make an amazing smoothie. To make it more ice-cream like, I sometimes add a raw egg yolk (seriously, that’s what ice cream is made of…) and some erythritol or xylitol (sugar alcohols better for you than the fructose in coconut water) and vanilla. And if the kids are sick and need electrolytes, coconut water fresh from a coconut is great. (So is a pinch of salt in water…)

But I don’t normally give my kids the canned or bottled pasteurized coconut water just like I don’t give them soda. There’s little reason to waste your money – or your sugar intake – on bottled coconut water. Just take some potassium citrate and magnesium aspartate/citrate/malate and a quality mineral supplement like the one I recommend from Vitamin Research Products (I have no affiliate arrangement with them whatsoever).

It’s my sincere hope that this post guides you to drink coconut water on occasion, but not as some sort of magic health tonic with no downside. I’m not opposed to coconut water – I do give fresh stuff to my kids – but it has a downside and is best in moderation.  If you do drink it, remember you’re drinking 6 grams of sugar, which will have an effect on your metabolism. But definitely reach for coconut water long before you touch soda or orange juice!