What next for coconut’s millennial appeal?

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The popularity of coconut-based products continues to rise thanks, in part, to their particular resonance with millennial consumers: What will the next big trend for coconut applications be?

New consumer research, out this week, suggests that coconut has been “reborn” as a “star ingredient” in better-for-you foods and beverages.

According to research and consultancy New Nutrition Business, this can largely be chalked up to the affinity millennial consumers feel for coconut, which is perceived as a naturally healthy food by this demographic.

In a series of focus groups, people aged 24-33 from 13 different countries tasted and then provided feedback on several coconut-based milks, yoghurts, snacks and an ice-cream.

Julian Mellentin, director and founder of New Nutrition Business, said the response from these panels revealed coconut is “cemented as a healthy food in consumers’ minds”.

“People like foods and food ingredients that are ‘naturally healthy’,” Mellentin told FoodNavigator. “People are willing to look at a wide range of naturally healthy foods. The online discussion about coconut began to increase… as the amount of published science on coconut's health benefits began to increase. Attention was also fuelled by the rise of coconut water, which prompted people to think afresh about the humble coconut.”

The online buzz around coconut – and coconut oil in particular - has been fuelled by celebrity endorsement. High-profile backers include Dr Oz, Angelina Jolie, Miranda Kerr and Jennifer Aniston.

Coconut has been hailed as a body fat burner and a treatment for Alzheimer's, arthritis, diabetes, and viral infections, among other claims. Indeed, New Nutrition Business revealed a rise in the number of Google searches for 'coconut' and 'health' show consumer interest in coconut’s health benefits has been growing globally since 2010.

While coconut is perceived as a healthy ingredient by many millennial consumers, public health bodies are less wholeheartedly behind the ingredient. According to the British Heart Foundation, coconut oil is about 86% saturated fat. This is around a third more saturated fat than butter and high sat fat consumption has been associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke.

“There has been speculation that some of the saturated fat present in coconut oil may be better for us than other saturated fats, but so far there is not enough good-quality research to provide us with a definitive answer,” the health body observed.

“For the time being, if you like the taste of coconut oil, then, as with butter, it’s fine to use it every now and then. However, it’s best to restrict yourself to small amounts and use unsaturated oils as an everyday choice instead,” the British Heart Foundation recommended.

The next wave of coconut innovation

Despite these misgivings, rising demand for coconut products looks set to continue to propel innovation in the sector.

According to figures from Euronomitor International, coconut water has led the way in global volume growth. Between 2011 and 2016, global consumption of coconut water increased by around 228% in volume terms.

Coconut oil has also become a mainstay product throughout Europe while coconut has been incorporated as an ingredient in an array of finished goods. New Nutrition Business revealed there has been a 318% increase in the number of products launched with coconut from 2010 to 2016.

Innovation has been critical to the increase in coconut’s popularity and it will remain key as demand for coconut products continues to evolve, Mellentin suggested.

“Creatively-minded NPD [has] led more and more companies to experiment with using coconut as an ingredient - partly for its health halo - in snacks and drinks of all kinds. Coconut became more available, more visible and present in more product types than before. This, in turn, raised the profile of coconut in the store and fuelled consumer interest."

Growth has been supported by coconut’s appeal to a number of popular trends, Euromonitor analysts suggested. “Besides the roaring success of coconut water, based on the concept of ‘natural hydration for active people’, it is the free-from trend, and in particular the dairy-free trend, which is a key driving factor…. Promoted as soy-, GMO-, dairy-, trans-fats- and gluten-free, the product keys perfectly into several major health and wellness trends.”

However, according to coconut specialist The Coconut Company, there is a need for food makers to look beyond some of the well-established areas for coconut use and think outside the box when working on innovative new products.

“There is an increase in demand and there is an appetite for new products and formats,” a spokesperson explained. “But coconut oils are pretty saturated. All the supermarkets are doing their own labels and it is now a commodity. Water is now in decline in my opinion. The quality of coconut water is of varying levels.”

Alongside coconut oils, The Coconut Company has developed a range of organic, vegan approved coconut produce. This includes coconut sugar, “naturally gluten-free” flour, coconut milk powder, coconut nectar and naturally fermented organic coconut vinegars and amino sauces.

Using coconut milk as an alternative to dairy products is an area that can still be developed, The Coconut Company’s representative continued. “A lot of people are looking for alternatives to milk and coconut milk is viewed as a good option. We are selling a lot of milk powder to food manufacturing. Smoking coconut is becoming more popular.”

Based on the feedback from its consumer panels, New Nutrition Business identified a number of other applications for coconut ingredients. The “most appealing” categories for coconut were bakery and confectionery, while – interestingly given the drive for dairy-free - coconut-based yoghurts were the least well-received. “These results reveal a gap in the market and an opportunity for companies to develop coconut yoghurts,” New Nutrition suggested.

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