Coconut water – simple production process gives coconut growing communities key to booming sports drinks market

Players in the world’s market for “sports beverages” may find themselves facing an unexpected new competitor: coconut water. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has taken out a patent on a new process that would allow manufacturers to bottle coconut water that is biologically pure, very tasty and full of the salts, sugars and vitamins demanded by both sweating urban joggers and serious athletes.

The process was invented by Morton Satin, Chief of FAO’s Agricultural Industries and Post-harvest Management Service, whose previous food inventions include high fibre white bread and wheatless bread.

Coconut water is a natural isotonic beverage, with the same level of electrolytic balance as we have in our blood. It’s the fluid of life, so to speak. Most coconut water is still consumed fresh in tropical coastal areas – but once exposed to air, the liquid rapidly loses most of its organoleptic and nutritional characteristics, and begins to ferment. But the production of coconut beverages, particularly as a byproduct of processing operations such as coconut cream processing and coconut dessication, has long interested food manufacturers.

“Most commercial production today is carried out in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, using high-temperature/short-time pasteurization (the same technology used in UHT long-life milk). But thermal processing has a drawback – it eliminates not only the risk of bacteria, but some of coconut water’s nutrients and almost all of its delicate flavor. This severely limits the product’s marketability,” Morton Satin said.

“The way we saw it, coconut water only had a future if we could invent a new cold sterilization process that retained its flavor and all its nutritional characteristics,” Satin explained. “The answer was microfiltration technology: you filter the water through a medium – such as porcelain or a polyacrylic gel – that retains all microorganisms and spores and renders the permeate commercially sterile.”

Late in 1997, FAO officially submitted the new process to patent offices in Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom. The UK patent was granted in May 2000. FAO is now developing a licensing policy so that the process can be made freely available to wide range of manufacturers in developing tropical countries. The main beneficiaries – apart from sportspeople – will be small farmers who grow coconut for livelihood.

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