Photo: Vita Coco
By now, you’ve probably noticed that Vita Coco, Zico and O.N.E. are on the shelves of grocery and health food stores across the U.S.Coconut water has taken on the status of a “super-hydrating” miracle drink, and the major brands have celebrities like Rihanna and Madonna promoting its products.
But as it increases in popularity, so too does the scrutiny. Is coconut water as nutritious as promoters say it is? Last month, consumers filed a class action lawsuit against Vita Coco and O.N.E. over false advertising claims.
We took a look at the evolution of the coconut water trend.
For thousands of years, farmers, hunters, warriors and general laborers of the tropics have known of the coconut's hydration abilities
A few centuries later, Vita Coco's founders got the idea for coconut water after meeting two Brazilian women in a Manhattan bar
Vita Coco founders Ira Liran and Michael Kirban asked the women what they missed about home, the Brazilians replied 'coconut water.'
That was in February 2003. When Kirban went to visit his now-wife in Brazil a few months later, he did some research on coconut water.
Vita Coco officially launched in 2004 and is one of the most dominant market players, with products in 17,000 stores nationally.
Liran and Kirban visited Brazil several times to map out their strategy to bring Vita Coco to New York.
They also capitalised on the growing interest in 'functional beverages' -- drinks that do something positive for you.
Zico, and later O.N.E., emerged as the two biggest competitors to Vita Coco, and now all three help each other while they jockey for market share
The three brands have all created a demand for coconut water.
O.N.E. founder Rodrigo Velso grew up drinking coconut water in Brazil and launched his product via Whole Foods in 2006.
Zico founder Mark Rampolla got hooked on coconut juice while serving in the Peace Corps in Central America. He brought his product to market in 2004.
And the trend is still catching on: Naked came out with its own version of coconut water in 2010.
Plenty of sports drinks, like Gatorade, are loaded with electrolytes. What gives coconut water a natural advantage is that it's fat-free, cholesterol-free, and low in calories. Its electrolyte levels are through the roof (in fact, Vita Coco claims to have '15 times the electrolytes found in sports drinks'), with a potassium level equal to more than two bananas per 11-ounce serving. And yet coconut water is still just 95 per cent water.
This makes coconut water a 'more natural' alternative to sports drinks, energy drinks, and sodas.
Coconut water is expensive: it's $2 per bottle. Manufacturers justify the cost by claiming that the electrolytes and vitamins found in coconut water improve circulation, slow the ageing process, fight viruses, boost immunity and reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer.
In 2010, PepsiCo bought out a majority stake in O.N.E., the Brazilian-based company, while Coca-Cola took a stake in Zico, based in California. These investments will helped coconut water move from warehouse distribution to direct store delivery, a huge step in becoming a major player in the U.S. beverage market.
The list of celebrity spokesmen, investors or simply public drinkers is a long one: Madonna, Matthew McConaughey, and Demi Moore are Vita Coco investors, Rihanna is a Vita Coco spokesperson, Molly Sims works for Zico and celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Anne Hathaway, Nicole Scherzinger, Nick Cannon and Brooke Shields have all been seen with a coconut water drink around town.
Despite its popularity, fitness experts and enthusiasts are realising that the most important element in a sports drink -- protein -- is noticeably absent from coconut water, which only has a couple grams per serving when 15 to 17 grams would be optimal. A sufficient amount of sodium is also lacking.
In fact, Vita Coco and O.N.E. are now under fire for lying about the nutritional value of their product
Vita Coco manufacturers face a $5 million class action lawsuit filed last month from consumers who claim the products 'super-hydrating' benefits are false. A false advertising suit was also brought against O.N.E.
According to Thomson Reuters:
'The lawsuits, brought by Kevin Shenkman on behalf of coconut water consumers, were spurred by a new study by ConsumerLab.com that tested the contents of three brands of coconut water: Vita Coco, O.N.E. and Zico. Only one of the drinks, Zico, delivered on its nutritional claims in the study. The other two had 'far fewer' electrolytes than claimed, according to the report issued last week, with considerably less sodium and magnesium than the amounts listed on their nutrition labels.'
As is the case with many health food products, coconut water is likely no more nutritious than fresh fruit and water.
But with continued aggressive branding and investment by big-name companies, expect coconut water to gain global market share in the coming years.
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