Athletes and fitness enthusiasts who have hardcore competition and training workouts are in need of a good way to replenish their body of the fluid and nutrients they lose during their performance. When you have a long workout that is pretty intense you will sweat a lot and will lose electrolytes through your sweat. Many have turned to sports drinks like Gatorade to help replace the electrolytes they lose but coconut water is a popular option that has gained some traction in recent years. So what’s the deal? Which one is better? Let’s take a look.
A Little Background
Sports drinks have been around since the 1960s and have been used by countless athletes since then. Gatorade led the charge to help athletes replace their electrolytes lost during training and competition and as they became more and more popular other brands like PowerAde began popping up. Today these sports drinks are some of the most popular non-soda beverages in the world.
I drank Gatorade and other sports drinks a bunch when I was playing football in high school and continued drinking them through my rugby days. I wasn’t really concerned with sugar content or chemical additives back then.
Coconut water has been around since who knows when. The mid-2000s is when it started to get packaged and marketed as a commercial beverage when brands like Vita Coco, Zico and O.N.E. were created.
My first experience with coconut water was many years before that as a kid while growing up in Hawaii. My aunty had a coconut tree and we would take a coconut home whenever we visited her. We would drink the water and eat the white coconut meat inside. I had no idea about any potential health benefits. Little did I know that many years later this would be a popular beverage.
What it is for
Basically your body runs on electricity and your body send signals to and from it’s muscles and nerves through an electrical charge. Electrolytes are responsible for helping to maintain the proper voltage throughout the body so it can function properly. The major electrolytes in the body are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate, sulfate. The most common imbalances are from too much or too little sodium and/or potassium.
Your body is constantly trying to maintain a balance of electrolytes in the blood. When you have an intense workout and you sweat a lot, you will lose electrolytes in your sweat. The main benefit of sports drinks and coconut water is they contain electrolytes so you can help replenish your body and it’s electrolyte levels.
What it is not for
Although sports drinks are a very common recreational drink nowadays, it’s not really meant for that. Sugar is not good for you, plain and simple and normal sports drinks have a lot of sugar. If you are not recovering from an intense endurance workout where you lose a lot of fluids through sweat (or something else where you lose fluids like the runs) there is no benefit to drinking a sugary sports drink like Gatorade or PowerAde.
A lot of people (especially kids) opt for these drinks because they think they are “healthy.” They were not created sedentary individuals who think they are being healthy by not drinking a soda. If you did not lose electrolytes at an unusual pace, there is no reason to get a bunch of sugar just to get some electrolytes.
Even though the plain flavors of coconut water of the 3 major brands don’t have any added sugar, they still have sugar, so I would not classify this as a recreational drink either. It does have a lower sugar content than a normal sports drink though, which is a good thing.
Let’s Compare the Nutritional Breakdown
This information is direct from their websites. For Gatorade and Powerade, the nutritional information was the same for all flavors and I chose the normal drink and not the low calorie version. For the coconut water I chose the unflavored variety.
Here is the breakdown per fluid ounce. (Remember one ounce is not the typical serving size)
Gatorade: 6.7 calories, 1.75g carbs (all sugar), 13.3mg sodium, 3.75 mg potassium
PowerAde: 6.7 calories, 1.75g carbs (all sugar), 12.5mg sodium, 2.92 mg potassium
Vita Coco: 5.29 calories, 1.29 g carbs (all sugar), 3.53mg sodium, 60.59mg potassium
Zico: 5.36 calories, 1.34 g carbs (1.07 sugar), 8.03mg sodium, 58.93mg potassium
O.N.E.: 5.36 calories, 1.25 g carbs (0.98 sugar), 5.8mg sodium, 54.46mg potassium
Each of these drinks has a different serving size. Gatorade and PowerAde both list their serving sizes as 12 fl oz. Vita Coco is 8.5 fl oz and Zico and O.N.E. both list theirs at 11.2 fl oz. So to determine how many calories you are getting per serving remember to multiply these per ounce numbers by the amount of ounces you are drinking. Depending on the bottle size, you may be drinking more than one serving size so these numbers get multiplied even more.
Looking at the breakdown for each, the calories, carbs and sugar are similar although the coconut water has a bit less of each of them. These wouldn’t seem to make too much of a difference unless your serving size got really huge.
The big difference in the nutritional content comes with the sodium and potassium. Coconut water has a lot more potassium than sports drinks. If you took the average of the 2 sports drinks (3.34mg) and compared it to the average of the 3 coconut waters (57.99mg) you would get a difference of almost 55mg. When you multiply that by the serving size, the difference is staggering. An 11.2 fl oz serving has almost as much potassium as a banana for about half the calories and half the sugar.
The other difference between the two is with the sodium content. While not as significant as the potassium difference, it is still noticeable. A quick and easy solution for this is to add a little salt (table, kosher or sea) to the coconut water.
I included protein on the list because both sports drink and coconut water both list the protein on their nutritional labels as 0 grams. Protein is a very important macronutrient that helps with muscle recovery. Protein is missing with both sets of recovery drinks and that is something that you should keep in mind when consuming either one.
Advantage: Coconut Water
Let’s Look at the Ingredient Lists:
When I looked at the labels for all three coconut water products (plain flavor of course) the only ingredient listed for all three was coconut water. No fillers, no preservatives, no sweeteners…so that is a big plus for coconut water. I am definitely in favor of more natural, less processed products.
As for the sports drinks, the main ingredient for both was water. A sweetener was the second ingredient for both. Gatorade uses sugar and PowerAde uses sucrose (which is a sugar) and maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a common food additive that is found in many foods, especially meal replacement shakes. Sugar, sucrose, and maltodextrin are all high on the glycemic index which means they will quickly raise your blood sugar. This can be good after a workout to absorb protein, but sugar can easily convert to fat if not used.
Both also use acid. Citric acid is used for Gatorade and PowerAde lists “food acid” as it’s ingredient. They also use chemicals like Tri-Potassium Citrate, Sodium Chloride, Tri-Potassium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Monopotassium Phosphate, Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium to increase the sodium and potassium content.
In addition to those ingredients, you also have the dyes and flavoring. These may or may not be harmful but until recently they also both added brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in their recipe. This is a food additive that is used as a fire retardant and has been banned in Europe, Japan and India. Pepsi stopped adding it to Gatorade in January of 2013 and Coca Cola just stopped using it earlier this month in their PowerAde products. So if they were adding this ingredient to their drinks for as long as they did, it does make me wonder about their other ingredients.
Advantage: Coconut Water
How Do They Taste
Taste is always a personal preference so one person’s opinion can be very different from the next. There are certain flavors of Gatorade and PowerAde that I like and some that I don’t like. I am not playing rugby anymore or doing any type of endurance training so there is no need for me to drink a sports drink. Coconut water is an acquired taste. I think it’s kind of bland and for the amount of sugar in the nutritional data, it is surprisingly not very sweet. There are some people that love it and some that despise it. I am somewhere in the middle. It’s not the best tasting drink in the world, but if I were competing, that would be my drink of choice since it has less sugar.
Advantage: I will call this one a tie since it’s really an individual thing. Kids will probably prefer a sports drink because of its high sugar content, for adults it’s really a tossup.
Coconut water seems like it would be more expensive than a sports drink so I wanted to look up actual numbers. I found an online grocery store that had a 17 fl oz container of Vita Coco Coconut water for $2.48 which equals about $0.15 per ounce. The same store did not sell a single bottle of Gatorade. The cheapest price they had was an 8-pack of 20 fl oz bottles of Gatorade for $4.98 which equals around $0.03 per ounce.
In this example the coconut water was about 5 times more expensive than Gatorade. I am assuming that most stores will have similar prices. The cost may not be a factor for some, but it can be a limiting factor for others so it is a consideration when choosing your drink.
Advantage: Sports Drinks
Coconut water has not only been in the news because it’s increased popularity. It was also in the news back in 2011 because of a class-action lawsuit that claimed that coconut water did not provide the nutrients that were promised on it’s labels. An independent firm ConsumerLab.com tested the 3 major brands and found that Vita Coco and O.N.E. had significantly less electrolytes than were listed on it’s labels.
Vita Coco settled the lawsuit in 2012. As part of the settlement Vita Coco agreed to change it’s labels and quality control. They also agreed to provide up to $5 million in cash refunds and product vouchers.
Although this was a few years ago, it still makes me question the accuracy of nutrition labels.
Other than cost and sodium content, coconut water seems to have a nice advantage over sports drinks. It is lower in sugar and total calories and has a lot more potassium. The cost of coconut water is a bit more and that may stop a few people from making a switch.
I think the main benefit though is the single ingredient (at least according to it’s labels.) The plain versions of coconut water do not contain chemicals, processed ingredients or added sugar that a sports drink has. So just for that alone, coconut water gets the thumbs up from me. Remember, both of these drinks are meant for re-hydrating after an intense cardio endurance workout where you lose a lot of sweat. If you are not doing an intense workout you will get just as hydrated with plain old water and since you didn’t lose the electrolytes from your workout, you don’t need to worry about replacing them.