Harmless Harvest Strips Down, Goes Raw

It was last October when a new company called Harmless Harvest generated considerable buzz at the Natural Products Expo East show with an ambitious pair of products: a natural, functional blended drink called Mato, comprised of “wild harvested” native fruits, and what they claimed at the time would be the first USDA-certified organic coconut water on the market.

When reality met the buzz, however, those ambitions hit a detour. First, industry interest in the  coconut water quickly pushed Mato into the product development back seat. But then the production of the coconut water itself hit some snags, hitting quality control and consistency problems with its Mexican suppliers.

Harmless Harvest was forced to delay production, and in March, another, much larger, coconut water company, O.N.E., announced that it, too, was going to convert its entire product line to organic, thereby stealing much of Harmless Harvest’s thunder.

Still, the company’s founders, Justin Guilbert and Douglas Riboud, soldiered on, and they’re on the brink of reintroducing their coconut water – and it’s not just going to be organic. It’s going to be raw, unpasteurized via a new high-pressure processing, and will feature an entirely different form factor, to boot.

Additive and preservative-free, the brand will employ the same kind of high-pressure pasteurization that was introduced earlier this year by superpremium juice company Evolution Fresh. The high-pressure model leaves the product closer to its original form, said Guilbert.

“We wanted to find an alternative to pasteurization and heating, both of which bring coconut water to a baseline flavor,” he said. “[High pressure processing] of raw liquids was approved by the FDA two years ago, and the technology is beginning to gain a foothold in the beverage industry. I see it as the future for processing raw foods.”

Harmless Harvest has also become one of a number of coconut water companies to reach beyond Brazil (or Mexico, in its own case) and into Southeast Asia to source its products.  Guilbert said the unique flavor profile from coconuts in the region is a stark contrast to those from Brazil, where coconut is the second most-consumed fruit in the country.

“The coconut industry in Brazil is very mature,” Guilbert said. “A lot of coconut water from Brazil is extracted from low quality, old coconuts already off the tree and with these ‘man-made’ coconut plantations, the fruit is only good for its oil and meat.”

In keeping with Harmless Harvest’s highly-altruistic beginnings, however, Guilbert said his brand’s sourcing comes from a single stream of farmers, and not a series of sources. The relationship he has with partner farmers enables him to trace his coconut water to the exact day and location from where it was sourced, he said, adding,“I know the faces of our farmers. I know their sons that climb the [palm] trees. In the end, that is the best form of quality control.”

Guilbert said that it took about 12 hours from the time each coconut was picked to when the juice is extracted and bottled. The coconut water is then pressurized while in the bottle to maintain a taste and texture that Guilbert claims is the same as the day it was packaged.

The finished product has a 60-day shelf life, but it still needs to be refrigerated on its journey to stores — an expensive proposition when the product needs to be shipped from Thailand to the U.S..

Nevertheless, it appears that at least one major retailer believes in the product: beginning in August, it will be  distributed exclusively at Whole Foods locations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with a national roll-out expected sometime in the fall. The product will be sold at a suggested retail price of $2.49 per 8 oz. bottle. On the face of it, that appears to be a rather low price point, considering the seemingly high costs associated with producing the product. Asked how the company could turn a profit with one SKU and such a low price point, Guilbert joked, “We’re a borderline NGO.”

“In all seriousness, we’re a product company, not a brand company, Guilbert said. “We’re not putting our money in marketing or celebrity endorsements. We have no flavors and probably won’t have any flavors coming. The only thing we can do now is sample and just let the product speak for itself.”