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Coconut popularity expanding beyond confines of health food stores, observers say

By Hank Schultz , 11-Dec-2013
Last updated on 11-Dec-2013 at 16:18 GMT

Coconut popularity expanding beyond confines of health food stores, observers say

Much of the growth of coconut food ingredients has been driven through the natural channel in years past. But now the ingredient may be reaching critical mass, with more mainstream consumers drawn to its flavor and health benefits. 

“I think there are more articles coming out, more people are talking about the ingredient and I see more coconut products in the store,” Bruce Fife, ND told FoodNavigator-USA. Fife, based in Colorado Springs, CO, has written voluminously on the health benefits of the ingredient. “It’s definitely getting more popular.”

Tarred with saturated fat brush

Coconut as a mainstay food ingredient spent a long time in the wilderness after being tarred with the saturated fat brush, and the oil had almost disappeared for a time form markets in North America.  But as more information comes out about the health benefits of coconut oil’s medium-chain fatty acid chemistry, and messages from popularizers like Fife and Dr Joseph Mercola gain tranction in the marketplace, the ingredient seems poised for a spike in demand.

At a UBS Global Consumer Conference in March, Hain Celestial CEO John Carroll had this to say: “Our MaraNatha business has been on fire. Coconut's been on fire.”

But the difference now, Fife said, is that that demand is trending beyond the confines of the natural channel.

“I think you are going to see a very rapid increase in demand. Because Up to now most of the people who have embraced coconut as a health food are those who visit health food markets to buy their groceries. The vast majority of the population who don’t pay that much attention to their health are only now discovering the health benefits of coconut oil and coconut in general.  And that’s a really huge segment of the population,” he said.

Coconut waters have made a big splash in the beverage market, positioned both as healthy hydration and as a healthy alternative to sugared soft drinks as a casual beverage.

But the ingredient shares only the name; coconut water is fluid harvested from immature nuts, whereas the meat and oil is harvested from mature nuts.  And pretty much never the twain shall meet, from a nutritional sense. 

Healthy snacking

Dang Foods is one company benefitting from the increased popularity of all things coconut.

But the waters’ popularity has fixed the name of the ingredient in mainstream consumers’ minds.  And one company that is riding that wave is California-based Dang Foods, which markets a line of toasted coconut chips under the Dang brand (the name of the founder’s mother).

“We are kind of riding on the tail of coconut water and coconut oil,” said founder and CEO Vincent Kitirattragarn.

The startup company’s sales have been expanding rapidly, Kitirattragarn said.  Distribution, which up to now has been concentrated in the western US, is now going national, he said.

The company currently offers two products:  a natural flavor and a caramel-sea salt variety.  The chips are simple: Minimally processed shaved coconut that has been roased to a tawny shade.

Sustainable crop

Kitirattragarn has a background in sustainability engineering.  Coconut is thought of as highly sustainable and environmentally sustainable crop, he said, but that’s not what drew him to start his company.  Rather, it was the foods his mother made that included big pieces of toasted coconut as ingredient that provided the seminal idea, and hence the name of the product.

Kitirattragarn said coconut is similar to coffee and chocolate in that it is produced by networks of small farmers across the tropics.  In the case of coconut, there is only one species, but that plant can express differently depending on where it’s grown.

“What’s more important is the region and the conditions for which it’s grown.  We source all of our coconut in Thailand,” he said. Other significant sources of coconut include The Philippines and countries in the Carribean.

And like coffee and chocolate, there are questions about the conditions for those local farmers where it is grown, Kitirattragarn said.  “We are actively pursuing Fair Trade certification,” he said.

Though the company has had good reviews on its initial offerings, Kitirattragarn said he doesn’t intent to rest on his laurels. Dang Foods is planning to launch a chocolate-coated offering in January, and other products are in the pipeline, including those with savory flavors.

“We are trying to be innovative and stay on the front edge of healthy snacking,” he said.

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