iTi: 15% of coconut waters mislabeled; let’s level the playing field

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Using Krueger Food Labs data, iTi identified 12 canned and bottled coconut water brands packed in Thailand that contain undeclared added sugars, which account for an estimated 15% of sales by volume in the US.
Using Krueger Food Labs data, iTi identified 12 canned and bottled coconut water brands packed in Thailand that contain undeclared added sugars, which account for an estimated 15% of sales by volume in the US.

Related tags Coconut water Vita coco Coconut

Bulk coconut importer iTi Tropicals claims that about 15% of the coconut water sold in the US is tainted with unlabeled added sugar, and the firm is calling on retailers and manufacturers to crack down on economically motivated adulteration. 

“When I drink 100% fruit juice, I don’t want to have added sugar in there without my knowledge. That’s what’s going on with coconut water," ​iTi president Gert Van Manen told FoodNavigator-USA. "This is a classic case of 'economically motivated adulteration', and we feel we are unfairly competing with these adulterated brands as it’s cheap. We wanted to bring this to light and level the playing field.” ​ 

Van Manen insists that the leading brands all label their products properly (applauding Vita Coco and Goya for calling out added sugar), but he claims that based on tests others don't, though he declined to name names. 

The coconut water market can be dually categorized as sweetened and unsweetened, per IRI data. The sweetened group comprises 75% of the volume sold and includes such big names as Vita Coco and Goya (who together represent 60% of all volume sold in the US). The remaining 25%, which includes brands such as Coco Libre, Naked, Zico and Zola, is made up of 100% pure coconut waters without added sugars declared on the label or found in products.

Sweetened coconut water manufacturers use added sugars from cane, beet and corn to help mask the taste of the naturally occurring minerals in pure coconut water and, in some cases, replace coconut water sugars themselves, iTi claimed. 

But the firm was becoming suspicious that coconut water sugar content declared in the Nutrition Facts panel for many products on the market “far exceeded the level of sugars that iTi typically observes in freshly collected coconut water,”​ it said. That, combined with comments from an executive at Vita Coco to Beverage Daily​ acknowledging the widespread incidence of added sugars and preservatives in coconut water, prompted iTi to engage independent food testing lab Krueger Food Laboratories to conduct tests on commercially available coconut water.

12 brands packed in Thailand fail to label added sugars; use of third parties makes supply chain vulnerable 

All told, iTi identified 12 (unnamed) canned and bottled brands packed in Thailand are adulterated with unlabeled added sugars from corn, beet, cane or rice, according to test results. iTi used “simple deduction”, with help from IRI data, to determine that these products comprise roughly 15% of coconut water sales by volume in the US.  

Van Manen attributed this in large part to the use of third parties by certain coconut processors in Thailand. “The infrastructure is such that many manufacturers have third parties breaking the coconuts before they're transported to the factory to be packaged, so they lose control of the raw materials,”​ he claimed. "Obviously this leaves a lot of room to 'dilute' the raw materials and at very least makes the supply chain very vulnerable." 

The coconut water iTi imports from Indonesia and the Phillippines, on the other hand, is from socially audited, GSFI-certified facilities, he claimed, adding that the bulk importer has invested heavily in such infrastructure since Codex labeled coconut water a juice in 2004. 

These brands are taking advantage of being sold in Whole Foods and natural food stores without letting consumers know they are drinking something with sugar added. ​If you add sugar, just put it on the label and let the consumer decide.”

iTi questions Vita Coco's 'fruit sugars' description; it's from pears and apples, Vita Coco says

In the white paper, iTi also took issue with the way certain manufacturers refer to added sugar derived from fruits on their product labels, which it alleges might not be sufficiently descriptive.

"According to Vita Coco’s product label, it contains 'less than 1% natural fruit sugar.' While we applaud that Vita Coco admits it adds 'fruit sugars', we question whether 'fruit sugars' is an appropriately descriptive name to describe the ingredient. Moreover, in the event the added sugars are indeed derived from fruits, we suspect they would be concentrated from the fruits and question whether it is appropriate to position a product with concentrated fruits as 'never from concentrate,'"​ iTi claimed.

In response, Vita Coco spokesperson Arthur Gallego told us that Vita Coco manufacturers a premium beverage brand that subscribes to the highest levels of sourcing, production, quality control and consumer satisfaction on a global level. The company added “less than 1% natural fruit sugar” to its labeling and ingredient list over two years ago in order to standardize the sweetness level of its beverages regardless of harvest, time of year, or country of origin, Gallego added. 

"The beverages continue to contain the same amount of sugar as stated on its regulatory agency compliant Nutrition Facts panels, The fruit sugar in Vita Coco's non-flavored coconut water is natural and derived from fruit such as pears and apples,"​ he said.

The manufacturer notes that “taste may vary” on all product packages to accommodate for this and the core proposition that all Vita Coco’s beverages are natural.

"All this is part of the brand’s transparency for consumers and complements the brand’s longstanding commitment to using only fresh coconut water in its beverages, unlike other brands that use coconut water concentrate," ​Gallego added. 

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