Coconut water and its commonly used “green packaging” (the Tetra Pak) is not the health conscious choice that it is made out to be—not for the consumer and not for the world. To be sure, there are far worse things on this planet, but in the same vein, there are better options for much of North America. Let me explain.
Taking a critical look at the packaging, the Tetra Pak is a container that uses paper (cardboard) to create a sturdy box to hold the liquid. But of course, paper is not waterproof. So, this container uses several extremely thin layers of plastic, adhesive, and (frequently) aluminum to water-proof the container and preserve the contents. Studies show that the plastic used does leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the liquid. In fact, a study (conducted in Germany) showed that one kind of Tetra Pak leached more estrogen-like compounds than do plastic water bottles made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (#1 plastic). Xenoestrogens, like those leaching from plastic, can adversely affect health in many ways, including decreased fertility, interruption of hormone balance and menstrual cycles, sexual dysfunction, feminization of young males, damage to DNA, and cancer. Before you leap to the conclusion that coconut water (or any other liquid) is safer from aluminum cans, please realize that this type of container also uses a thin polymer lining to prevent the liquid from reacting with the metal can, a lining that also leaches endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals.
Aside from its health hazards, the Tetra Pak is heralded as “green” because it can be recycled (though in actuality few municipalities can recycle this container). What follows is really important—we need a major shift in our awareness and practice. RECYCLING is not even close to being as green as REUSING. Recycling, though better than extracting raw materials and manufacturing new products, still uses tremendous amounts of energy to sort, transport, disassemble, and reformulate a new raw material (then transport it once more where it is manufactured into something else). Reusing an item, such as a glass container, requires only washing it out. That’s it. Americans love recycling, but recycling still promotes single-use economies, which are wasteful and utilize massive amounts of energy (mostly in the form of fossil fuels).
Coconut water is wonderful, there is no doubt about it. But until it becomes available in glass, it won’t be anything I enjoy (and then only as a rare treat). Coconut water ships from distant lands (one well-known brand comes from farms in the Philippines). Aside from the energy of transport, we need to consider unintentionally transported organisms. For example, many people in the eastern United States have not seen an American chestnut, even though at one time it was a very common tree of deciduous forests. Its decline was caused by the introduction of a fungal pathogen native to Asia. This is one consequence of globalization—radical alterations to local landscapes due to introduced species. I am an advocate of locally sourced products packaged in reusable containers. My “coconut water” is maple sap (this comparison was first made by Daniel Vitalis). And when the sap isn’t flowing, I reverse-engineer sap by adding approximately 1.5 tablespoons of maple syrup to a liter of spring water. It isn’t exactly sap, but it does provide trace minerals and antioxidants (in fact, it supplies as much potassium as coconut water). It also supplies a hint of sweetness, which I find very refreshing during intense physical activity. My maple syrup never touches plastic. It is locally sourced and is stored in reusable containers. Putting these concepts to practice, I’m sure many people can formulate wonderful beverages that promote health and don’t expose the body to xenoestrogens. Unfortunately, we are learning that whenever large scale business practices are applied to food, it rarely comes without deleterious effects to our health and to the landscapes we (or someone else) rely on. However, this is easily dealt with by becoming sovereign and doing more for yourself.