Packed with electrolytes and a great source of potassium, coconut water is the ancient drink that’s making a big comeback. Even Madonna’s invested a hefty sum in one company. But is this natural nectar all that it’s cracked up to be?

The Other Thirst Quencher — What It Is

Marketed as the alternative to processed sports drinks (and yes, it comes in different flavors without the artificial coloring), coconut water is mostly meant for hydration. It’s been called “nature’s sport drink” thanks to its isotonic solution that’s low in calories (about 60-90 calories per serving), fat-free, and low-cholesterol.

Basically, people drink it because (drum roll, please) exercise causes sweating. Sweating means dehydration and a loss of glucose and electrolytes such as potassium and sodium which the body needs replaced. Coconut water can help replenish what’s lost by sweating more quickly than regular water thanks to its natural electrolyte dense formula. It’s packed with replenishing stuff including the so-called “big five:” calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous.

For clarification, coconut water is the clear, liquid juice found in the center of a coconut and not the same as coconut milk, which is made from the fruit’s white flesh (and often found in curry recipes). Though, come to think of it, putting the lime in the coconut would probably taste great with either.

As far as it being a tropical elixir, the debate rages on. Unlike regular water, coconut water isn’t essential to life and isn’t necessarily ideal for those with a sedentary lifestyle (it’s not calorie-free). But the drink has been proven effective in hydration. One study found coconut water caused less nausea, fullness, and no stomach upset in post-exercise participants as opposed to the average sports drink and waterRehydration after exercise with fresh young coconut water, carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water. Saat, M., Singh, R., Sirisinghe, RG., et al. Department of Physiology, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Sciences, 2002, Mar 21, (2):93-104. The drink is also touted for its high potassium levels (15 times more than what’s found in the average sport drink and twice as much as what’s found in a banana), a mineral that has been linked to preventing muscle cramps.

Dehydration is a major bummer and isn’t only caused by hardcore, sweat-inducing workouts. A few non-exercise instances when a hydrating drink would come in handy: during long flights, to ease a hangover, and on any deserted island where, well, coconuts are bountiful.

Take a Tropical Vacation, Mon — Your Action Plan

Luckily, to enjoy the benefits of coconut water, proximity to a coconut tree (and a passport) isn’t required. The big-brand bottled versions can be found almost anywhere refrigerated drinks are sold. And while cracking open a fresh fruit is ideal, not only can they be hard to find, but opening them can be a workout. Consider the 40 Minute Open-a-Coconut Workout trademarked.

It’s clear the tropical-minded water isn’t a cure-all. Its high potassium-low sodium combo may not be ideal for long-distance, endurance training since more sodium is lost in sweat. And for many, it’s clear the drink may not be necessary at all— unless it’s after a sweaty Bikram Yoga class or mid-summer run where quickly replenishing lost electrolytes is necessary, electrolytes can usually be naturally replaced with a normal diet.

At the end of the day, keep in mind that coconut water isn’t meant to replace water— it’s a natural alternative to sports drinks. Though, if weight loss is a goal, remember that coconut water, just like sports drinks, isn’t calorie-free (unlike plain ol’ water). And a wise woman (err, my mom) once said “it’s better to eat your calories rather than drink them.”

Updated August, 2011