Q&A: Harmless Harvest Co-Founder Discusses “Raw” Revamp

Justin Guilbert, Harmless Harvest

Justin Guilbert, Harmless Harvest

Last week BevNET reported on the decision by Harmless Harvest to remove the phrase “100% Raw” from labels of its popular line of organic and high pressure processed (HPP) coconut water products. The company cited a surge in the number of beverages marketed as raw and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) lack of a formal definition for raw as the primary reasons for the revamp. The newly branded “Harmless Coconut Water” also comes with the removal of “Never Heated” from its labels. The description referred to Harmless Harvest’s use of HPP as opposed to pasteurization.

In a recent interview, BevNET spoke with Harmless Harvest co-founder Justin Guilbert to discuss in further detail why the company introduced the new labels and offered an extensive look into the evolution of the brand and why it felt it necessary to make a change. Guilbert also addressed several questions as to whether external pressures, litigation and/or an updated formulation played a role in the updated positioning.

We’ve condensed the interview into an edited question and answer format:

BevNET Managing Editor Ray Latif: “Raw” has been such an integral part of Harmless Harvest messaging since launching the coconut water in 2011. Why was it important to make the change and what spurred the timing of the move?

Harmless Harvest Co-Founder Justin Guilbert: Four years down the line, with the critical and commercial success, we’ve seen a lot of things evolve. There’ve been a lot of me-too products; cold-pressed and raw [descriptors] are starting to, I believe, dilute the message around “what’s the superiority of the product?” It’s around raw and not about the source. If you have a bad orange, you’re going to make bad orange juice, regardless of how you process it.

I think we were worried about two things: one, we wanted to make sure our brand was understood. Most people would say “it’s the white bottle with the raw coconut.” We wanted to make sure that people would understand that there is much more to this company than just the raw coconut water.

Also another piece of that is our focus on professional practices, our focus on environmental stewardship and long-term relationships to be getting these incredible crops. And we want to preserve that crop with as much integrity to achieve that flavor profile that you go through so much more to be able to deliver it. So that’s the rationale: better food from better sources.

The concern was that’s a pretty complex message. And “100% Raw” is one piece of that message. And we wanted to install the perception around “harmless coconut water.” That starts with the soil, the farm, the way of farming, the type of coconut, the specific hydrometry, and then  graduate to the relationship with the farmers and how are we processing, harvesting, bottling, HPPing. All those steps are part of the supply chain to maintain this product’s flavor, health benefits, and, of course, sustainability and social progress in mind.

It also makes a lot of sense because the Harmless Coconut is the core product that we’re going to derive our next line (a dairy-free yogurt), which is going to be working with the meat of the actual coconuts that we have.

RL: Were there any external pressures to remove the word “raw” from your product?

JG: Not pressures. I would say maturity — from our side — more than pressure. It’s such a complex discussion. It’s a dialogue on one hand and on the second, we don’t want to be people that are feeding buzzwords; that’s not what we stand on.

When we launched this product [raw] was not a buzzword. It was a description and demonstrated our commitment. The problem is five years later that descriptor is being used and abused, and we don’t want to be the people promoting that. On the contrary, we want to be focusing on what we feel are much more important issues.

Harmless HarvestRL: Is Harmless Harvest facing any current lawsuits regarding its use of “raw”?

JG: None that I’m aware of, and I should be if there was. And I think that’s also a testament of our approach. We’re not seeking controversy. We’re not seeking attention. We’re not trying to create any type of provocation. The flipside of that is we have a sense of initiative which ruffled a lot of feathers, probably. But it’s also a testament to our integrity. When people ask us questions, we [speak] clearly. My definition of raw is posted on the website.

There’s been questions about [using “raw”]; Blueprint had an issue a couple years ago. It’s not like the issue didn’t exist. It’s not like it wasn’t already resolved. I think it really shows that we want to make sure that people understand that we’re much more just raw.

When it comes to any kind of regulatory aspects, we like to be conservative. We try to keep our egos in our pockets. Is there a possibility that people don’t agree with us on our definition of raw? There’s a possibility that people aren’t going to understand the language that we use. We try to put up as much information as we can on our website. No one’s asked us to pull it.

The other reality is that as we get bigger and bigger, we’ve got to be more and more careful about people that are trying to make a buck. [But] I’ve looked at all of the [raw-related] lawsuits that happened in the past, and all of them have been dismissed, in most cases.

RL: Is the label update related in any way to a change the formulation or processing of Harmless Harvest coconut water for the purposes of an additional food safety step beyond HPP? Has the company acidified the liquid or begun exposing it to ultraviolet light?

JG: I really can’t get into specifics of technology. Unfortunately, I’ve been known to speak my heart, and it has been very helpful to burgeoning entrepreneurs who have attempted to compete. It’s a combination of a lot of technologies that are very exciting, and that’s all I can say really. There is no modification of the coconut water makeup. It is what it is.

We do not add acid to the coconut water. The minute you put vitamin C in coconut water — a low-acid product — whether it’s ascorbic acid or citric acid, that just ruins the flavor right away. Even if we were putting vitamin C in levels that would make it scientifically useful, it would taste bad.

RL: Why did Harmless Harvest remove the phase “never heated” from its labels?

JG: A lot of it is part of common sense to prevent any misinterpretation of what we say. You can talk about thermal impact. You can say, “oh, well it was in a frozen container and then it thaws in a cooler temperature or warmer temperature” and that’s thermal impact. The word “heated” can mean anything; it’s open to a lot of interpretation. So in that case, we just want to focus on what’s important.

I think the semantics of “never heated” and the semantics of “100% Raw” are the privileged conversation of the industry people and maybe members of very specific communities. But that’s not really what we care about. We care about the product and how it’s made and all of the reasons why it’s made. That’s what I want to spend my time on. That’s what’s important to the company and why the product is what it is.