Coconut water has really only become a thing in the last decade or so, and prolific brand Vita Coco is credited with instigating the hype back in 2004 when friends Michael Kirban and Ira Liran founded the company, inspired by the popularity of packaged, ready-to-drink coconut waters sold in Brazil and other parts of South America. While in the U.S. Vita Coco was first to market in 2004, two other now ubiquitous brands followed closely behind that year: Zico and O.N.E.. Each began as an independent outfit, but The Coca-Cola Company eventually bought Zico and PepsiCo went on to claim O.N.E.
From a consumer standpoint, coconut water seems to now be sold everywhere. Whole Foods carries tons of brands (plus its own), but even drugstores and gas stations stock the stuff. Coconut water is at events, it's in your cocktail, it's helping you to not feel hungover (hi, potassium!). And there's good reason that it seems like you can't get away from it. Taking a closer look at the numbers, last year, according to market research company Technavio, coconut water was a $1.3 billion industry, as compared to $100-150 million back in 2004. It's also worthwhile to note that those numbers only account for coconut water sales from retailers who report to tracking agencies, and a Vita Coco rep estimates that the industry is probably worth closer to $1.9 billion. Regardless of its exact value, it's obvious that the coconut water biz is on fire. And that rapid growth is only expected to continue. Technavio estimates that before 2019 the coconut water category will shoot up to $4 billion.
Until Harmless Harvest came on the scene during the summer of 2011, coconut water was mostly relegated to juice box brands that never quite tasted fresh. Sure, those polyethylene plastic and aluminum-lined Tetra Pak containers (Vita Coco was the first to bring the Tetra Pak from Brazil to the U.S.) pushed slogans like 100% pure, hydration by nature, and nature factor, in attempts to market themselves as the real deal, but anyone who has tried a fresh coconut versus the packaged kind understands the flavor difference.
I've long pondered the disparity between the two, and it really wasn't until Harmless Harvest hit the scene that I finally gave in to ready-to-drink coconut water. But what is Harmless Harvest—with its sweet, fresh, nutty flavor—doing that all those other companies are not? Why does their coconut water actually taste like water from a freshly cracked coconut? First, I decided to round up and try as many unflavored, pulp-free coconut water brands as I could find, making sure to include the big players, plus some smaller guys, too.
Next, I wrangled a slew of Vox co-workers, some from Eater, but many who contribute to our other non-food verticals. All, however, were coconut water enthusiasts, eager to sample a handful of brands in one fell swoop.
"It tastes like the way sunblock smells," said a co-worker of O.N.E.'s "energizing hydration ... pure coconut water." Meanwhile another chimed in, "tastes like someone added perfume." Picking up a carton of O.N.E. coconut water, upon closer inspection, small print toward the bottom of the container's front reads, "with other natural flavors." And sure enough, included ingredients are "coconut water, natural flavor."
Overall, almost all the brands we tried tasted of a stale cross between a sweet potato and bread when compared to the one we unanimously deemed the freshest-tasting: Harmless Harvest—whose singular ingredient is "organic coconut water." Vita Coco, which, for the record, is "never from concentrate," came in second place for its fresh-ish flavor, with ingredients "coconut water, less than 1% natural fruit sugar, vitamin C." I was confused as to why the company would add extra sugar to their product, but after a rep explained their reasoning, it made sense:
Vita Coco notes "less than 1% natural fruit sugar" on the Nutrition Facts Panel of its unflavored (Original or "Pure" flavor) coconut water beverage to accommodate for global sourcing and production, and the brand's goal of providing consumers with a consistent taste experience. Vita Coco produces coconut water in eight different countries. Coconuts grown in different parts of the world, under different agricultural conditions, will vary in taste, as will the water that is extracted from them. So noting this on the label allows for subtle additions of natural fruit sugar, if necessary. Ultimately, a Vita Coco should taste the same whether you drink it in the US or in Europe or in Asia.
But nuance in flavor isn't an issue the brand will have to address when they launch Coco Community this May, a new premium coconut water (made with organic, single-origin, and fair trade Thai coconuts) poised to compete with Harmless Harvest in the "artisanal coconut water" space.
Zico, which only contains "coconut water," channeled a slightly lighter, sweeter flavor, though I distinguished a vaguely metallic taste, too. Harvest Bay was coconut-y, with notes of vanilla biscuit, while Whole Foods' brand had a lighter, cleaner flavor, though one reminiscent of soap. Nature Factor, which comes in a can, was straight-up bad. "Garbage" someone said, and there was definitely a perceivable metallic taste in there as well. Purity Organic, which also contained "organic coconut water," had, nonetheless, the off-putting sweet potato thing going on, as did FOCO, while the spiffy-bottled Jax Coco tasted sour and bready, despite only containing "coconut water." Coco Libre was the only coconut water from concentrate we tried, and surprisingly it wasn't as offensive as many other the others, with less of that bready flavor.
Meanwhile, Natural Value, a brand made in the Philippines and sold in the U.S. through a California importer, poured an obvious yellow (most other brands were clear), and reminded me of a sour, half-rotten sweet potato. Interesting enough, its one ingredient: "100% coconut water." In fact, all the waters mentioned here were made from coconuts grown in either the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam.
So what's up with all these wacky flavors found in a seemingly simple product? Is processing to blame? According to Harmless harvest co-founder Douglas Riboud, the coconut varietal is vital, which is why he and partner Justin Guilbert settled on the Nam Hom species from Thailand, believed to be the most flavorful in the world. (Incidentally, this is the same type that will go into Coco Community.) Riboud explains, "From an economic point of view, it was a stretch: this variety is smaller, with little water yield, and the price was high, but the taste was amazing ... so it was just a matter of staying true to that and not degrading it through the extracting and bottling process."
Riboud continues on to says that, in the past, "the most popular form of processing these waters for preservation was flash pasteurization," which is a way to extend a drink's shelf life by quickly subjecting it to high heat. But, through that process, not only do healthful enzymes die off, but the "heat burns off the volatile compounds that make up the delicious taste of coconut water," he concludes. Unsurprisingly, most of the waters sampled above were, indeed, flash pasteurized, which helps to explain their unsavory taste.
So, the Harmless Harvest guys needed to find another way to safeguard their product from perishability. As Riboud puts it, they "pioneer[ed] the use of various technologies, some of them are now proprietary, to conserve the taste the way it was originally when you crack the coconut open." They won't divulge specifics, other than disclosing that their "highly confidential" preservation technique—a form of HPP (High Pressure Pasteurization) where pressure, not heat, is exerted on a packaged item to inhibit the growth of bacteria—has matured since they launched.
The takeaway from all this is that several factors affect the flavor of coconut water and stand to explain the difference between Harmless Harvest and all the rest. With more than 100 coconut varietals in the world, species matters. Ultimately, the only ingredient in coconut water should be, well, coconut water. And then after that, taste depends on how a company treats its juice once packaged.