If you, like us, have ever sipped Harmless Harvest coconut water, one main question has probably come to mind: “How do they get it to taste so good?” Indeed, the Oakland, CA-based brand sells coconut water that’s lightly sweet, refreshing, and often, pleasantly pink. The taste is not unlike that of a young Thai coconut that’s been freshly hacked open, served straight-up with a straw on a beach in Koh Samui.
But while superior taste has always been top of mind for Harmless Harvest’s leadership team, their devotion to quality is surpassed only by their commitment to sustainability — from the production to the packaging. As CEO Ben Mand, who took the helm in 2018, puts it, “Harmless Harvest is a very lofty goal. And I would be the first to tell you that nobody’s harmless, including us. But we take that as our North Star — how can we be better? It’s actually a really wonderful beacon.”
Mand and the Harmless Harvest team have taken this sustainability mandate into new territory this past year with a delectable array of new innovations. “[When I came on as CEO], we weren’t even using most of the coconut. Our mandate is, ‘How do we start using more of it? How do we get to zero-waste?’” Mand explains. “We are now using the entire coconut.”
To help work toward zero-waste status, Mand oversaw the launch of a host of new products—incuding cup yogurt, drinkable yogurt, and most recently, a smoothie—in an effort to make use of the whole coconut as opposed to just its water. Even the sinuous hull is repurposed for compost or converted into other value-add bioproducts. And, each food product is vegan-friendly, completely free from animal products, and made with an eye toward sustainability.
Part of what’s made the new whole-coconut product range so successful is the uniqueness of Harmless Harvest’s coconuts (more about these guys below) and the company’s commitment to single-sourcing. As Brian Ng, Head of Technology Innovation & Product Optimization explains: “The meat from our coconuts tastes really different from what people usually think coconut meat tastes like; it’s tender, sweet, and refreshing.” That translates to creamy coconut yogurts that aren’t too fatty or heavy, and perfectly pink smoothies made by blending the coconut meat and water. And all are naturally packed with hydrating electrolytes.
Delicious and kindly made, the new yogurt and smoothie products are a natural extension of the brand’s sustainability mission, which, Mand explains, actually sparked the creation of the company.
“[When concepting the business,] the founders, Justin Guilbert and Douglas Riboud, did not have a product in mind; they had a business model in mind. For them it was about constructive capitalism. All the way through the value chain, from the farmer to the consumer, how do we make sure that we leave everybody in a better place — not just the financial investors.”
Guilbert and Riboud zeroed in on food and beverage. They journeyed to South America to explore the possibilities of various superfruits. In experimenting with recipes, they began blending the acidic fruits with coconut water. “What they quickly realized was, ‘Wow, these coconut waters are really terrible,’” Mand says, recalling what was readily available in supermarkets at the time. “That’s when they said, ‘Wait a minute — we need to do coconut water.’”
They were right on time. Coconut water was gaining popularity internationally for its unique nutritional properties. It’s naturally hydrating with electrolytes, including potassium, a mineral which most American diets lack. Over the past decade or so, coconut water has challenged sugary sports drinks and fruit juices as a post-workout pick-me-up. Its nutritive value proposition beats them both. (Ounce per ounce, coconut water contains about half as much sugar as the average fruit juice.)
But when Guilbert and Riboud launched their business in 2011, they found the coconut waters available on U.S. supermarket shelves wanting. Thermal pasteurization, which was the industry standard at the time, alters the taste of the water. This renders it quite different from the straight-from-the-coconut flavor the founders craved.
How to source the world’s best coconut water
Coconuts grow in tropical coastal regions around the world, from Southeast Asia to South America. But they don’t all taste the same. As is true of wine, coconut water’s flavor varies by region, season, and the composition of the soil in which it’s grown. Harmless Harvest’s founders scoured the globe for the best-tasting coconuts, eventually alighting on Thailand’s Nam Hom, or “fragrant one.” The coveted Nam Hom coconut is exclusive to the region, so much so that its seeds are protected from export. Unlike the stereotypical coconut (large, brown, slightly hairy-looking like the emoji) the Nam Hom is small, green, and smooth at harvest time, with sweet flesh and water. “Harvesting it young yields the best coconut water you can get,” asserts Mand. Indeed, as the coconut matures, the sweetness of the water dissipates, so timing is everything.
Caring for the whole coconut
The single-source aspect is critical to Harmless Harvest’s success story. And the consistency it provides is a big part of what keeps devotees coming back for more. “Other coconut water brands buy coconuts on the global market, and they’re just buying on spec,” says Mand. “They’re much cheaper, but they’re not the single varietal of coconut that we know is the best. Some of them might put a little bit of the Nam Hom in there, but they’re using coconuts from wherever, and they mix it all together,” says Mand.
Not only does Harmless Harvest start with the best available cultivar, plucked by hand at the best possible time, but it also treats its products gently every step of the way. The rows of coconut trees on Harmless Harvest’s partner farms are flanked by small canals, down which farm workers float the coconuts after picking them to avoid bruising.
After floating to a collection point, the coconuts are loaded onto trucks and ferried to Harmless Harvest’s processing plant. There they are punched and the water undergoes a proprietary microfiltration process. By way of comparison, Mand asserts that most of the competitive set cooks their coconut water after harvest at ultra-high temperatures to ensure it’s pathogen-free. Sadly, the pasteurization process kills much more than bacteria. It also takes out much of the flavor, as well as the enzymes that give Harmless Harvest coconut water its signature pink hue. Harmless Harvest, by contrast, uses a proprietary micro-filtration process, which accomplishes the same safety goals as pasteurization without compromising taste.
The values and ethics of a truly harmless harvest
Harmless Harvest doesn’t settle on ethics, either. Partnering with the region’s growers, the team sets about converting existing Nam Hom farming operations to organic, and implementing Fair for Life certification. This builds on Fair Trade standards to ensure equitable conditions. Per the org, “Fair for Life Certification assures that human rights are safeguarded at any stage of production, workers enjoy good and fair working conditions and smallholder farmers receive a fair share.” There is also a mandated focus on environmental stewardship and community empowerment. To the latter point, as part of its participation in the Fair for Life program, Harmless Harvest contributes a portion of the price of each coconut purchased to a community fund that is re-invested into the growers’ communities. Local leaders decide how to allocate the funds, which have to date been earmarked for such needs as water filtration systems, school supplies, and lately, PPE.
But despite their whole coconut innovations and advances in equitable production, Mand and company aren’t resting on their laurels any time soon. New packaging made of post-consumer recycled plastic is forthcoming. And they’re currently awaiting the results of a carbon lifecycle assessment from tree to port. This will become a baseline for future sustainability efforts. “Our vision as a company is a world where the net impact from coconut farming is climate postive.” They’ve also just launched the Regenerative Coconut Agriculture Project or ReCAP. It seeks to move “beyond just organic,” according to the brand, and into a truly restorative space. This involves incentivizing farmers to transition to regenerative agricultural practices. This would be a boon for both the producers and the planet. It’s a step towards making coconut farming not just sustainable, but beneficial for the environment—a truly “harmless” harvest.
Ready to try the brand? Of course, a natural place to start is with a swig of their flagship Harmless Harvest coconut water. You can snag some here.
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