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The Coconut Could Be on the Verge of Collapse

high demand of coconut supply

Story at-a-glance -

  • The coconut is a fibrous, one-seeded drupe with three layers: the exocarp, mesocarp and endocarp, the latter being the woody layer covering the flesh
  • Coconuts have sustained a third of the world population for millennia as food, medicine, oil, and now as coconut water, valuable for hydration and the focus of a billion-dollar business
  • This one fruit-slash-nut has been shown to protect against, treat and relieve symptoms and improve everything from diabetes to Crohn’s disease, ringworm to gonorrhea, tapeworm to athlete’s foot
  • High demand has impacted the coconut crop, as have disease, farming practices and unawareness that the palm trees that bear coconuts are under threat, so prices are going up fast

By Dr. Mercola

For many years, orange juice was the "go-to" beverage for breakfast. In the 1950s and '60s, it was considered one of the world's most nutritious drinks. Many people had special miniature glasses in their cupboards just for this purpose. 

But good old o.j. isn't the fashion so much anymore. In fact, last year, commercial orange juice sales reportedly sank to a new low over the previous 15 seasons.1 One reason is because it's been found to be not quite as healthy or necessary for a "balanced diet" as it was once thought to be.

Another reason orange juice no longer flows at every breakfast table is because it's been replaced by the nectar of another fruit: coconut. How well is this exotic beverage expected to fare, especially for those who have more invested than a fondness for a refreshing new drink?

Coconut Water: The Next Big Wave Is Here

Currently, Technavio estimates that coconut water sales rake in about $2 billion a year, and will probably reach $4 billion in the next five years.2 Celebrities have jumped onto the coconut water craze for profit, backing brands with their names attached.

More than 200 brands of coconut water are now being sold. As for the big companies, in 2007, a 25 percent stake in Vitacoco, a coconut water brand, was sold for $7 million to Verlinvest. Another 25 percent stake in Vitacoco sold to Red Bull China for about $166 million in 2014.3

Not just PepsiCo, but Coca-Cola has its own version of coconut water called Zico. Deryck van Rensburg, president and general manager of the company's Venturing & Emerging Brands division in North America said:

"Over the past four years we have watched the coconut water category see an impressive spike in revenue and household penetration and ZICO solidify its position as one of the leading brands in this category.

With our acquisition, we plan to innovate in all aspects of the consumer experience and increase both velocity and distribution to position ZICO for even more growth." 4

Who knew the clear coconut liquid described as sweet and nutty would start taking over the planet? But the Cocos nucifera has sustained at least a third of the world population continually, possibly since the beginning of humankind.5

What Is It and Where Did It Come From?

The Library of Congress notes in Everyday Mysteries that while coconut is a fruit, it's a few other things, as well:

"Botanically speaking, a coconut is a fibrous one-seeded drupe, also known as a dry drupe. However, when using loose definitions, the coconut can be all three: a fruit, a nut and a seed. Botanists love classification."

More specifically, the coconut is a fibrous, one-seeded drupe, a drupe being a fruit containing a single seed, the part that reproduces, covered by a hard casing. Other drupe examples include olives and peaches. Drupes have three layers:

  • The exocarp, or outer layer
  • The mesocarp, or fleshy middle layer
  • The endocarp, the woody layer surrounding the seed

Coconuts you buy at the supermarket are generally the endocarp only, with the other layers removed for you. Endocarp is the scientific name for the sweet, white and chewy, fibrous food that we know as coconut and so yummy in trail mix and muesli.

A "nut" is a one-seeded fruit, so you can also call a coconut an actual nut (and in this case, a hard one to crack). Nevertheless, scientists have been scratching their heads for more than two centuries over the question of where coconuts came from. According to Everyday Mysteries:

"Odoardo Beccari, a renowned palm specialist from the early 20th century, suggests that the coconut is of Old World origin and more than likely came from the Indian Archipelago or Polynesia.

To strengthen his argument, there are more varieties of coconut palms in the Eastern hemisphere than in the Americas."6

In trying to determine where foods originated, some scientists say that areas of the world where you find the most varieties of a certain plant type is most likely where it got its start, so perhaps Beccari's theory is true, as more coconut palm varieties can be found in the Eastern hemisphere than in the New World; 80 altogether.

Traditional and Modern Uses for Coconuts

Called the "healthiest oil on earth," coconut oil has also emerged in the marketplace and landed in peoples' kitchen and bathroom cabinets because of its dramatic health benefits.

Besides softening your skin, relieving dandruff and reducing skin sagging and wrinkles, coconut in some form or other has a myriad of functions and has the potential to heal, treat, relieve and improve numerous maladies throughout your body, such as:





Urinary tract infections





While being completely non-toxic and causing zero harmful or even uncomfortable side effects, coconut water contains antioxidant properties8 and overall may help:

  • Protect against kidney stones,9 liver disease, osteoporosis, heart disease,10 atherosclerosis, diabetes11 and breast, colon and other cancers
  • Relieve symptoms of gall bladder disease, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, prostate enlargement, stomach ulcers, and reduces health risks associated with diabetes
  • Kills fungi and yeast infections that cause candidiasis, diaper rash, ringworm, thrush, and athlete's foot; parasites such as  lice, giardia and tapeworm; and viruses like measles, hepatitis C, influenza, herpes, SARS and AIDS

One Big Draw for Coconuts: Hydration

One of the big draws for the seeming overnight success of coconut water is its remarkable ability to hydrate. Examples of this aren't new; during World War II, troops were given medical drips of coconut water for hydration when saline was unavailable.12

More recently, tennis player John Isner, who won the longest tennis match in history at Wimbledon in 2010 (11 hours and 5 minutes over three days,13 ) attributed his incredible stamina to the coconut water he swilled when the ball wasn't in play.

One study compared the hydration ability of sports drinks, water and fresh coconut water after exercise and found them all to be comparable. Still, the coconut water reportedly caused less nausea and fullness without causing an upset stomach, plus, volunteers said they could drink more.14

The freshest coconut water, clearly, is from the coconut itself. All that's needed is to insert a straw into the soft portion of a green coconut and enjoy it. You can refrigerate it and continue enjoying it for up to three weeks.

The Coconut Research Center says coconut is considered a "functional food" because it has uses far beyond nutrition, and every part of it is useful.

Demand Is Catching Up to the Supply

All this clamoring for coconut water has impacted the coconut crop in the Philippines, the largest producer in the world, and for several reasons, one being the fact that
young coconuts are needed to produce the water; but older coconuts are needed to produce coconut oil, so prices are going up fast.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] of the United Nations)15 considers 35 food crops to be crucial for global food security.

Global coconut production is estimated to be more than 61 tons per year, supporting more than 11 million farmers in 94 countries.

"The main products are copra — the dried inner meat of the nut, used for oil — and the husk, which provides a vital source of fib[er] ... There is also high demand for tender coconut water and virgin coconut oil.

Over millennia, humans have slowly selected and maintained numerous coconut varieties, used for many purposes. This has resulted in an extraordinary morphological diversity, which is expressed in the range of colours, shapes and sizes of the fruits.

But the extent of this diversity is largely unknown at the global level. The huge amount of work that has gone into coconut breeding by farmers over millennia, and by scientists during the 20th century, remains greatly under-valued."16

Rare varieties are being carefully preserved, such as the horned coconut in India and French Polynesia. Millions of farmers are also involved in conserving the "germplasm" to ensure the coconut's genetic diversity. Two small islands in Samoa have recently replanted a renowned variety, niu afa, which produces the largest coconuts in the world.

Other Reasons Why Coconuts Are Threatened

Still, it typically takes up to a year for a coconut to fully mature and many varieties thought to be imperative can no longer be found, theoretically due to loss of traditional cultivation methods, changed agricultural areas and ecosystem fragility. Disease is killing millions of palms in the South Pacific, Africa, India, Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida and New Guinea.

According to the Goa Herald (Goa being a state in western India with coastlines and palm trees stretching along the Arabian Sea), another problem is political:

"It is indeed shocking to note that the Goa cabinet has decided that the iconic coconut palm tree isn't a tree at all. The decision allows palm trees to be cut without permission from the Forest Department as it will be removed from the purview of the Preservations of Trees Act, 1984.

It is understood that the logic behind the decision is that the definition of a tree is a plant with main trunk and branches but a coconut palm does not fit into this criteria as it has no branches. The coconut tree could now be downgraded to the status of grass if not protected under the regulation."17

While the hubbub over coconut water seems to have drastically increased interest in coconuts and their many uses, the people who grow them are often unorganized and unaware of the threat to their very livelihood. Further, enough concern to invest in research, which has been termed bothtime and labor intensive, is scarce. As The Conversation asserted:

"Coconut water brands will only make billions as long as coconuts are plentiful and diverse. More importantly, people all over the world rely on the security of this vital crop. Securing its future must be a priority for everyone who farms, eats and profits from the coconut."18