Urgent action is needed to protect the coconut water success story

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I still remember the damning verdict of ITI Tropicals’ Gert van Manen, when I spoke to him for my investigation into the coconut water market last year: “We tried to get the attention of the retailers and regulators, but they have bigger fish to fry. It’s not a safety issue, but the consumer is being cheated.”

Van Manen is arguably the original whistleblower on the coconut water boom. He saw rapidly rising global sales, opaque supply chains and intensely sweet drinks with squeaky clean labels, and concluded: something can’t be right.

Lab tests on coconut water brands in the US confirmed his suspicion; undeclared added sugar in these supposedly pure and 100% natural drinks was rife. Yet when van Manen tried to raise the alarm, he found very little appetite to take action.

That’s why it is so pleasing to see the UK’s Food Standards Agency, through its National Food Crime Unit, take the issue seriously. As we reveal this week (p4), a probe it ran earlier this year uncovered widespread problems with undeclared added sugar in coconut water imported into the UK.

Added sugar was precisely the issue we flagged up in our investigation in August 2016, which also revealed growing concerns among UK brands and explained why the sector - with its complex supply chains, colourful ‘health’ claims and bewildering number of brands - is so vulnerable.

The FSA’s crackdown will do much to hold the sector to higher standards. Several brands caught up in the probe tell us they have re-audited their supply base and introduced new testing regimes. But while brands must make sure their products are as described on the label, retailers also have an important role to play in protecting consumers by robustly vetting brands. Moreover, the lack of an agreed compositional standard for coconut water must be addressed with some urgency. Regulatory efforts will ultimately fail if testing is undermined by disagreements over standards and protocols - either because potential transgressions are not caught or because brands are being implicated unfairly.

Read in full: The Grocer’s 2016 investigation into coconut water 

Coconut water is one of grocery’s outstanding success stories. Retailers, regulators and brands must now work together to protect that.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Well said Julia.

    Brands are paying lip service to this issue. How much additional testing do these 'new regimes' really undertake? Meanwhile retaillers can now easily screen for added sugar using a low-cost handheld scanner to perform a simple test.

    Which retailler will be the first to introduce effective consumer protection?

    Paul Hiscoe

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  • Sophia Nadur

    A perfect opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to embrace the Sugarwise certification system.

    Its fast becoming a trusted sign guaranteeing that the sugar claims made on packaging have been independently verified, and that the product is low in any of the sugars or sweeteners people need to limit, referencing World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

    It is the only international certification body for sugar claims, Sugarwise assesses the following claims: sugar free, low sugar, no added sugar, reduced sugar, low calorie and calorie free.

    [My startup brand Tg green tea has been assessed and certified - as labelled - to be low in total sugar <2.5g/100ml.]

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  • Sophia Nadur

    Julia, coconut water's so-called healthy credentials have rightfully taken a hit following revelations of undeclared added sugars on nutritional labels and ingredient lists.

    It's unacceptable though that it took years before Gert van Manen's assertion was taken seriously especially since he is in the know as a longtime flavour/ingredient supplier.

    The question is why should we protect coconut water's success when much of it was built on a half-truth?

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