“Raw” Coconut Water Under Scrutiny of the FDA

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Ten years ago coconut water was a non-factor in the beverage industry. But what was once a little-known product hidden on bodega shelves and in ethnic aisles of grocery stores is now a $400 million a year category that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. The emergence of coconut water as a mainstream, everyday beverage has created opportunity for companies to expand its scope — beyond even the approaches taken by industry trailblazers like Vita Coco or Zico.

Recently, a handful of newer beverage brands have taken the approach of marketing unpasteurized coconut water and promoting the liquid as “raw.” However, the methods of production have landed a few of these companies under the microscope of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Last month, New York-based Exotic Superfoods voluntarily recalled its flagship Young Thai Coconut water product, following a visit from the FDA to the company’s California offices. Unlike the majority of companies selling “raw” coconut water, the best known of which is Whole Foods stalwart Harmless Harvest , Exotic Superfoods does not use high-pressure processing (HPP), a safety processing method that employs pressure instead of heat to suspend bacterial growth in raw foods and beverages. Exotic’s coconut water is essentially untouched, with the exception of being frozen.

“We had been selling our coconut water for six years on the market with no issues,” said Exotic Superfoods founder Matt Henckler. “But as soon as [the FDA] found out that all we were doing was basically bottling and freezing the coconut water, they told us we were selling an adulterated product, because we didn’t do a five-log reduction,” he said, referring to the FDA’s requirement of a 100,000 fold decrease in the number of microorganisms for juice that is packaged and sold.

Under FDA pressure, Henckler considered the option of utilizing HPP, but was surprised to learn that high-pressure processing alone would not suffice the FDA’s requirements for his product.

“[The FDA] told us that for coconut water, HPP will not be an acceptable form of treatment unless the coconut water is acidified,” he said.

According to Henckler, Exotic Superfoods’ Young Thai Coconut water has a PH level of 5.1, and in order for HPP to be effective in controlling potentially harmful bacteria, the product requires a PH level of 4.6 or lower. Henckler’s reluctance to acidify his product through the addition of other ingredients (such as a citrus extract) puts the company’s future in doubt, though he does plan on continuing to sell the brand’s raw, frozen coconut meat, which he supplies to juice bars in New York and California, as well as to distributors like United Natural Foods Inc. Because the coconut rind does not fall under the juice category, it does not require the same treatment as coconut water.

“For us, we don’t see it as an option to go from a raw coconut water company that doesn’t process it in any way it to all of a sudden having to acidify it and then put it through HPP,” he said. “It won’t be the same product. So for us it’s not looking good.”

Though Henckler has been the most vocal about his recent run-ins with the FDA, Exotic Superfoods doesn’t appear to be the only raw coconut water company mindful of the agency’s recent inquiries into these companies’ production processes.

In an email to BevNET, Justin Guilbert, the co-founder of Harmless Harvest, which produces the top-selling brand of “raw” coconut water, issued the following statement:

“Yes, we are aware of this particular situation,” Guilbert said. “To our knowledge, our proprietary processes and approach differ substantially from any other comparable product. We are always in proactive discussions with many experts in food safety as well as the FDA to abide by their guidelines and recommendations.”

Whether that proprietary process entails the acidification of Harmless’ coconut water is unclear, although Harmless Harvest lists only coconut water as its sole ingredient. The company says on its web site that it does not use other methods such as ultraviolet light or radiation to control bacteria.

Independent HPP consultant Joyce Longfield — who has had Harmless as a client — says there are other ways to prevent bacteria from growing and germinating in such products regardless.

“If you take the pH of a bottle of Harmless Harvest, it could be something like 5.5, which is still alkaline,” she says. “But Harmless Harvest and the other companies I work with have parameters in place to ensure there is no opportunity for bacteria to germinate and for spores to grow.”

Longfield notes that along with acidification, the addition of nitrates and the increase of salt concentration are other FDA-approved methods of controlling spores, while ultraviolet light is FDA approved for a five-log reduction of vegetative organisms. Given the complicated nature of the regulation, she stressed the need for companies like Exotic Superfoods to do their due diligence with the FDA, especially in light of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act.

“The FDA is really cracking down on a lot of companies, and products that come from Thailand in particular,” she said. “So these companies have to demonstrate that they are doing their jobs and understand all of the safety aspects of their particular products.”