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Coconut water: Living La Vida Coco

Britain has gone mad for a tropical tonic with an acquired taste. So how, Clare Dwyer Hogg asks, did it go from unavailable three years ago to coconut water everywhere?
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On Sunday, Nike hosted its annual half-marathon through London, Run to the Beat, with more than 19,000 runners pounding around the city. For the past two years, the event's "hydration partner" – the sponsor that hands free drinks to the athletes as they run – has been Powerade, an isotonic sports drink, with its bold graphics and intimations of muscle-making.

This year, the runners were drinking coconut water. Goodbye machismo endurance, hello palm trees: and it didn't seem in the slightest bit strange.

That's because it's more than just a clever marketing deal – it's a symbol of a significant shift in the way we think about a drink that here in the UK we couldn't even buy before 2010.

Three years after we were introduced to the exotic idea, Pret A Manger now stocks its own brand of coconut water, and last week, Waitrose reported a rise of 183 per cent in the sale of coconut water and oil. How did something so niche get so mainstream?

Of course, what the Europeans and Americans consider a new trend usually started somewhere else. This one, coconut water, was pretty much the preserve of Brazilians and anyone else living near palm trees who could manage to poke a drinking straw through the shell.

Different to coconut milk, the water comes from young coconuts, is clear rather than creamy, and was used for emergency plasma transfusions during the Second World War. The Indians call it "miracle water". It's not a new discovery. But maybe all those people overlooked its market value. At any rate, they didn't do the tests that the new wave of sales-pitch-ready salesmen have done.

The tests revealed that coconut water contains more potassium than a banana, has naturally occurring electrolytes which can replace those we lose through sweat when exercising, has no fat, and no cholesterol.

In 2004, when Vita Coco and Zico launched their branded coconut waters in the United States, they quickly found that yoga fans and sporty types liked the first two properties, and celebrities liked them all. In a very natural trajectory, Madonna invested almost $1.5m in Vita Coco in 2010, Demi Moore and Matthew McConaughey came on board to buy stakes in the brand, too, and coconut water seemed to arc effortlessly from humble origins to the preserve of the A-listers.

It makes perfect sense that Rihanna is the face of Vita Coco in the US. Huge billboards show her sipping a carton of Vita Coco on a beach. It's not a great leap to imagine that her image was what finally brought coconut water out of the yoga class and into the grit of real life. People began to say how much it helped hangovers. Unofficial celebrity spokespeople helped, too, because they were famous and they looked good holding it: a quick internet search will find any number of them (Gwyneth Paltrow, Sienna Miller, Jessica Simpson et al) papped with a container of coconut water.

Naysayers claim that coconut water is just another passing fad, but the figures suggest otherwise. In 2011, there were six brands in the UK. Today, there are 36. Vita Coco, the leading brand, had a market share of 76 per cent in 2011. Now it has 91 per cent, which is commensurate with the fact that, since 2010, it has doubled its business each year. Vita Coco is a privately held company, so profits are not available, but what it calls "retail value sales" are substantial. This year, they will have reached almost £40m. Mintel predicts that the company will be worth £100m in the UK by 2014.

Put this in context, and the figures are even more baffling: the awareness level of coconut water in the is less than 3 per cent of the population, and only 1 per cent of households buy it. "It's all about untapped potential," Giles Brook, the CEO of Vita Coco Europe, told The Independent. Brook was on the board of Innocent Drinks until four years ago, so knows how an idea can work its way from health freaks' standard to standard item on the weekly shop. It's the humble made desirable. Key ingredient: aspiration. But it's no mean feat letting people know what their aspirations should be. Brook says that although Vita Coco's "big advertising campaign" kicked off yesterday – all beach and palm trees – the approach here is very much grassroots.

"In the UK, it's about taking the brand out to consumers, not just dropping the brand onto a billboard," he says. "We build the brand bottom up… lots of sampling," he says. If you've tasted coconut water, you might wonder whether this technique is perhaps about more than spreading the word.

Let's just say, coconut water can be an acquired taste. When the staff of the Huffington Post did a blind taste test of 12 brands of coconut water earlier this summer, comments included: "Tastes like rotten old plant water that results after leaving your flowers in a vase for way too long", "something's off", "Dear Lord murder me" and "inspired my gag reflex".

Such views were slightly more engaging than the good comments – Vita's version drew "fresh tasting", "palatable", "mild, pleasant". Brook laughs about these initial reactions, explaining that if people don't have great memories about the first taste, they often like it more second time around. "It grows on people."

Coconut water is the fastest growing category in non-alcoholic beverages in the UK, and which brand will come out on top is about survival of the fittest – Vita Coco is already in more than 10,000 outlets in the UK, and in around 16,000 across Europe; it's a lucrative business. Is it lucrative for the growers, though? It should pay to be a coconut farmer these days – coconuts are more in demand than ever before.

O.N.E, a brand in which PepsiCo has the majority stake, ran out of Brazilian coconuts in 2011, and had to turn to the Philippines and Indonesia for supplies. It's hard to believe that companies are fiercely competitive over this strange-smelling liquid that was until recently considered a waste product. It wasn't unusual for factories in Asia and Brazil to wait 14 months for a coconut to mature enough to harvest the coconut oil and the milk, and then dump rivers of the unwanted coconut water. It's a different world now, and an entirely different form of industry has been spawned. Pret A Manger's coconut water comes from a single plantation in Thailand; Zico – a brand in which Coca-Cola has a major stake, and which produces its drink from concentrate – says that it is "continuously searching the world for the best-tasting and most nutritious coconuts".

It's coconuts are from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. However, the company doesn't give away much about the deals it strikes with the farmers.

Harmless Harvest, a brand that creates a raw organic version of the drink, practices agro-forestry. Its promise of "constructive capitalism" was tested this summer: on its Facebook page last month, fans in the US were desperate to find out why the product had disappeared from the shelves.

There were, says co-founder Justin Guilbert, "challenges in building up manufacturing capabilities with a safety stock that got gobbled up by surging demand". But unlike some of Harmless Harvest's rivals, when its source in Thailand couldn't provide as many coconuts as were needed, the company didn't move on.

"We chose to invest in communities and at the source," Guilbert says. "We also chose not to compromise. If we did, consumers would lose all interest. The beauty of an ecosystem-based business model is that you're only as good as the way you treat the other agents, from plant source to consumer." He thinks the reason that none of the retailers or consumers abandoned the brand in the brief drought is "the result of not taking people on a marketing ride" and investing in the product instead.

His hope is that Harmless Harvest's way will "reach a critical mass" and agri-business will eventually be seen as a competitive option. "We launched a couple of years ago in a world of aseptic concentrate big business or venture-capital-owned companies. Against all, we decided to build a supply chain from scratch… The result has been astounding." The company is now one of the fastest-growing in the American food and beverage sector.

Vita Coco also talks about ethics: it says that it harvests from seven countries and works directly with farmers. Its corporate social responsibility, the company says, is shown by how it uses the coconut: once the water is extracted, the flesh is used for food products, and the husk used for fibre in products or as a renewable energy source.

It is startling what a trend, and a hefty amount of investment, can do – it can alter a country's industry, and nudge the workings of an ecosystem into an entirely different direction. And just like that, drinking pure coconut water a million miles away from a palm tree seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Video: Rihanna on her new collection with River Island