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Coconut is the New Kale

America’s race to find the next big superfood has spawned a multibillion dollar industry that is half science, half showbiz

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Curtis Parker

tech

Early in the 20th century, the banana had an identity crisis. In the hundred years since it had been introduced to the U.S. market, sales of this exotic fruit had soared, but success came with a price. The banana’s novelty factor had long been a major selling point, and familiarity threatened to kill demand. What to do?

Enter the all-powerful United Fruit Co., which held a virtual monopoly on the American banana trade and which very quickly took to producing evidence attesting to the fruit’s healthful qualities, delivered to the consumer in “germ-proof packages”—aka the peels. So began America’s long and strange infatuation with miracle foods. 

Now, the cascade of grains, sprouts, berries, roots, nuts, and leaves promising a shortcut to good health is so relentless that we barely have time to learn how to pronounce what we should be eating before it is replaced by something else. Chia seeds, quinoa, amaranth, goji berries, açaí—if they haven’t boosted our well-being, they have at least pepped up our Scrabble games. 

“It’s a perfect storm,” says Suzy Badaracco, the founder of trend-spotter Culinary Tides, Inc. “Marketing people and the media love anything unusual, with a great backstory, even if there are local alternatives that make the same health claims. And consumers are always searching for that latest superstar food.”

Badaracco, a trained criminalist—“I went from tracking serial killers to tracking cereal bars,” she says—is the person food companies call when they need a 20-page report detailing when kale will be ousted by swiss chard, or how quinoa may be elbowed aside by freekeh, or why the next superberry might emerge from Scandinavia rather than a tropical rainforest. 

Right now, she reckons we should brush up on Australian finger limes or practice asking for vegetable and fruit hybrids like the pluot (plum-apricot) and the Broccoflower (broccoli-cauliflower) without stuttering. In the meantime, America’s undisputed superfood du jour is the coconut—or, more specifically, the salty-sweet liquid at the core of the young, green fruit. 

As with all comestibles of its kind, coconut water’s rise can be attributed to a combination of science and show business. It is aggressively sold as a life-giving elixir—a drink that can clear up acne, cure hangovers, reduce blood pressure, and aid weight loss. It is also being touted as nature’s sports drink, rich in electrolytes and potassium and free from pesky added sugars and artificial coloring. 

And if we don’t believe the quasi-scientific reports informing us of such benefits, we can listen to the likes of Rihanna and Madonna, boosters of leading coconut water brand Vita Coco. Indeed, the marketing machine behind this fluid has been so effective that, little more than a decade after it was launched as a packaged drink, coconut water is shaping up to become a $1 billion industry, prompting beverage giants like Coca-Cola (which swallowed No. 2 brand Zico in 2013) to enter the fray. 

Inevitably, however, this year’s headline beverage is being joined by a rabble of young pretenders, along with one or two tribute acts. An outfit called the Vita-V Energy Co., for instance, recently launched an “organic energy shot” with baobab pulp from Africa’s “tree of life,” said to be rich in potassium, calcium, and vitamin C. And New York–based Elmhurst Naturals has launched a product it calls Banana Water.

In fairness to Elmhurst, one of its product’s selling points is that it is not coconut water. “It is such a polarizing flavor,” says Stacey Inglis, who is spearheading Banana Water’s marketing push. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where do refreshment, nutrition and taste meet?’ It was like a lightbulb went on: bananas, of course.” If for some unfathomable reason you don’t like the taste of bananas, the drink also comes in passion fruit and mango. 

The bad news is that coconut water is facing a stampede of upstart challengers; the good news is that one of the main contenders comes from the same tree. According to some, the superfood star of 2016 will be coconut milk, coconut water’s smoother cousin, which can be used as both a dairy and sugar substitute in ice cream and yogurt. (Starbucks now offers it as a non-dairy alternative to milk.) “It has a much bigger personality,” says Badaracco. “If coconut water is the perfect hostess, coconut milk could be the life of the party.”

Another thing coconut milk has going for it is versatility: It’s a drink, it’s a curry sauce, it’s a body scrub. As part of a water-milk double act, the fruit, or drupe, of Cocos nucifera is going to be very hard to knock off its perch. 

“Coconuts can do both sweet or savory, much like the pomegranate,” says Badaracco. “Like Madonna, the survivors are the ones that are able to keep reinventing themselves every year.” 

For others, like the açaí berry—which we may think of as the Ashanti of superfoods—the glory days could be behind them.

Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow would like to point out that cryptoxanthin is an excellent antioxidant, and has the added benefit of scoring 80 in Scrabble. 

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