A wide variety of cartons of coconut water line store shelves with the label “100% coconut water,” complete with pictures of green young coconuts with straws coming out of them … implying that what’s inside is just like what you get on the beach in Thailand.
Except that's not true.
If it's all 100% pure coconut water, why do different brands taste different?
This is exactly what I wondered for years when I came to Canada. In Thailand I always drank coconut water from the coconuts. When I found packaged ones here, I was shocked at how ... bland ... they were! After trying a few more brands, I became even more perplexed as to why they all tasted so different. What's going on here? Read on.
What's really in your coconut water?
It IS 100% coconut water...but it's also not what you think. Most of these cartons are actually a mixture of young (green) AND mature (brown) coconut water. What’s the problem with that? Well, mature coconut water doesn’t taste nearly as good, it's actually quite bland. In fact, growing up in Thailand we often just threw it away.
But there’s a lot of it leftover from making coconut milk commercially, as coconut milk is made from mature coconuts, so this is where they end up. Different brands use different ratios of young and mature coconut water, and the ones that are sweeter (and, by default, more flavourful) are ones that are using a higher ratio of young coconut water.
How did I know? I found this out straight from the source when I filmed the documentary below about how coconut milk is made in Thailand. As you will see, a lot of coconut water is collected in the process. I asked them (off camera) what they do with it, and the answer was a revelation.
I finally understood why packaged coconut water never tastes as sweet as ones straight from the coconut, and why different brands vary so much in how sweet they are!
In this video I also do a side by side taste test of coconut water from young vs mature coconuts. Check it out below!
Is it really that bad though?
No. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s actually good that they are not wasting the mature coconut water. And I think it's good that less-sweet options are available for people who may find pure young coconut water too sweet.
And to be honest, I've found a few brands of packaged coconut water that I'm perfectly happy with. (For those curious, I usually get "UFC" brand, and while they have sponsored a video before, this is not a sponsored post. "Chaokoh" brand is pretty good too.)
But I do think it’s a real problem when the packaging is misleading consumers into thinking that this is just like what you get on the beach in Thailand with the straw straight in the coconut - all that's missing is a mini umbrella! Ask anyone shopping for these products and I guarantee you that most people are under this false impression. After all - look at the picture on the carton!
It's not technically "lying," because it IS indeed pure coconut water, but it's certainly a bit sneaky.
How to choose the best coconut water
As I mentioned, different brands use different ratios of young and mature coconut water, and the ones that are sweeter and tastier use a higher ratio of the young coconut water.
Trial and error is the best way I think, but you can also go by the sugar content on the nutritional label (assuming that it's accurate).
I also found that brands that offer flavoured options, like pineapple flavoured coconut water and such, tend to be less sweet; presumably because they can get away with a blander base since they are adding flavours to it anyway. And as an FYI, I never buy these flavoured ones; because when I drink coconut water, I just want it to taste like coconut water!
Where can you find 100% pure young coconut water?
Outside of Thailand, you can buy whole young coconuts at many Asian grocery stores. But to be honest I don't bother with those. They have spent so much time in transit that sometimes they don't taste that good anymore (if the water is pink or purple...that's a sign that it's old). I save myself the effort, and the $$, and just get the packaged ones.
If you are in Thailand however, you can look for products that say "100% Young Coconut Water". In Thailand they sell both types, pure and mixed. They can do this because Thai people know the difference, so manufacturers can charge more for the pure one, and then consumers can choose.
Note: I have seen one brand here in Canada that indicates "Young Coconut Water" (it's from Vietnam), but I don't know for certain if that is true. It tasted pretty good, but I couldn't be 100% sure.
Want to know more about "fake" ingredients?
Check out my video comparing real vs fake sago pearls (aka tapioca pearls), and also find out about the myth about "pure palm sugar" in my Ultimate Guide to Palm Sugar video!