The tropical superfood has reached celebrity status, making appearances in everything from hummus to vinegar to butter to chips.

Coconut has definitely made its mark on the specialty food world. Whether as an ingredient or flavor, it is invading specialty food products, supporting diet choices, and boosting category sales.

“Coconut has been around for a good while but every year we see a new expression of it,” says Kara Nielsen, an independent food trend analyst. “It’s gaining ground with specialty foods because people now have a deeper understanding of how good it is for them. Its dietary and nutritional message has finally caught up, giving it more momentum than ever.”

Coconut’s foothold in the specialty food world may have begun with coconut water. After being endorsed by pop stars like Rihanna and Madonna and offered at trendy hot yoga studios for quick hydration and potassium replacement, consumers were soon drinking coconut water like it was streaming out of the tap. Then came coconut oil, with media outlets touting it as equally good to cook with, swirl in the mouth to detox, or use to remove makeup or moisturize. In time, specialty food manufacturers began using coconut in a variety of inventive ways.

Coconut is popular in vegan baking as an alternative to butter as well as in the Paleo diet because of its healthy fats, B vitamins, and the idea that it can be consumed in its ‘natural state.’ It’s also popular with fitness fanatics who are using MCT (medium chain triglycerides) oils like coconut in their coffee for a quick 
energy boost.

According to “Today’s Specialty Food Consumer,” annual research published by the Specialty Food Association and Mintel, for the past two years, shoppers have been more likely to cite dietary or health reasons as drivers to try specialty foods. Coconut is an example of how well the industry has incorporated a better-for-you ingredient into sometimes decadent foods and beverages.

“Coconut’s versatility and appealing nutritional profile have caused manufacturers to take note and, in turn, produce unique and innovative products,” says Tania Ortega, director, customer insights growth solutions, at KeHE Distributors, LLC.

GroundBreaking Categories and Trends

1. Coconut Oil
“The coconut craze has most certainly disrupted the market share in specialty food categories, some more so than others,” says Ortega. The oil category is a prime example. “Coconut oil has a 30 percent market share in the natural channel compared to canola and corn’s five percent,” she notes.

With healthful vegetable cooking oils accounting for the largest share of the fats and oils market (in terms of value and volume), according to global research marketing firm MarketsandMarkets’ “Fats & Oils report, 2015,” coconut oil still maintains a strong position on store shelves. Ortega says that while coconut oil is resonating more in the natural channel, it will eventually gain additional market share conventionally and also innovate with different delivery formats.

For instance, coconut oil spray is big at Woodstock Farmers’ Market in Woodstock, Vermont, according to grocery team leader Amelia Rappaport. At The Good Earth Food Co-Op, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Kelsey Kapsch, grocery manager, says that customers are gravitating toward Ellyndale Foods Coconut Infusions (flavor infused coconut oil) and Liquid Coconut Cooking Oil.

The introduction of organic, cold-pressed, on-the-go packets like those from Carrington Farms, “address consumers’ need for convenience [and] is one trend here to stay,” Ortega says.

Overall, retailers believe the popularity of coconut oil will continue to rise. “It’s the raw ingredient that everyone wants to have to satisfy their health issue,” says Paul Knowles, grocery buyer at Rainbow Grocery Co-operative in San Francisco. “It’s definitely here to stay.”

2. Alternative Dairy and Water
“The beverage category has always been on the cutting edge of innovation,” observes Ortega, who notes that soy and rice milk are taking a back seat to coconut milk beverages, especially those blended with other nut milks like almond or cashew.

According to a Mintel report, “Non-dairy Milk—U.S., April 2016,” total non-dairy milk sales are expected to continue upward as consumers search for better-for-you alternatives to dairy milk, and as plant-based alternatives continue to trend, with flavor, function, and nutrition attracting new audiences.

“We have more and more requests for dairy alternatives at our coffee bar and coconut is everyone’s top choice,” says Bethany Barron, grocery manager at Rocket Market in Spokane, Washington. The store makes a popular espresso drink specifically with So Delicious coconut milk.

CoYo Natural Coconut Milk yogurt is a huge seller at Rainbow Grocery for both the dairy and non-dairy crowds while Nutiva Coconut Manna, organic whole coconut puree with coconut flesh incorporated in it, has a huge following at The Good Earth Food Co-op. “Customers love it spread on toast as an alternative to butter,” Kapsch says.

Coconut water also continues to fuel the beverage craze. According to a Wall Street Journal article featuring the beverage research firm Canadean, global consumption of coconut water jumped 13 percent from 2014 to 2015, following a 24 percent increase the previous year.

“Now, the smaller, more expensive niche waters, like Harmless Harvest, distinguish themselves in the same way as chocolate, coffee, and other items made from imported ingredients, calling out terroir,” says Nielsen. “They are helping to take the coconut water conversation to the next level,” she adds.

Other coconut water innovations to watch out for: Sparkling varieties, says Ortega.

3. Snack Attack
With snacking a way of life for consumers, now often replacing meals, the category is benefiting from coconut’s healthful disposition. According to a recent report from Mintel, “Snacking Motivations & Attitudes, US 2015,” nearly all Americans (94 percent) snack at least once a day, with 33 percent saying they are snacking on healthier foods this year compared to last year.

“Better-for-you snacking has helped drive the coconut craze with many different food companies doing a good job using coconut in their products,” says Mitzi Dulan, RD, and team nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals. Dulan says examples of coconut snacks that are both healthful and functional include, Matt’s Munchies Banana Coconut Fruit Snack, Bare Organic Toasted Organic Coconut Chips, and SimplyFuel Chocolate Coconut Peanut Butter Protein Balls with whey and probiotics.

At Good Earth, Kapsch says Boulder Canyon potato chips fried in coconut oil are “so popular they are hard to keep on the shelves,” while at Rainbow Grocery, granola with coconut—like Stone Age Kitchen Paleo granola that is made with coconut oil—are best sellers.

“Coconut occupies a huge space in the snack category,” observes Nielsen. “Companies are using the superfood to their advantage and calling out its usages on packaging. This can only help sales.”

4. A Flavor Catalyst for Sales
While coconut penetrates categories across the specialty food board, it also helps turn profits, retailers say. “Anything coconut definitely has staying power and if there’s coconut in it, it sells. And it’s given a boost to the chocolate and yogurt category for sure,” says Meg Cononica, grocery buyer at South Royalton Market in South Royalton, Vermont.

Cononica adds that it’s not just people with dietary issues seeking out coconut. “Many customers just like the flavor, she says.

On the innovation front, coconut ash—the charred and processed remains of the coconut shell—has become a detox fad and hot ingredient in juices. It is also appearing in both chocolate, made popular by Vosges Chocolate in Chicago, and ice cream at New York City’s Morgenstern’s, as a recent summer staple that temporarily turned your mouth black.

“We are in the storm of the coconut craze,” notes Rainbow’s Co-op’s Knowles, “and can expect to see big sales with coconut palm sugar and coconut flour in the future. But, whether or not there is enough supply to meet the demand, is another conversation.”

Featured Recipe: Coconut-Tamari-Mustard-Glazed Chicken Thighs With Scallions and Cranberries


Spotlight on Coconut Products

Check out these products causing a buzz around the country with both retailers and customers.

Boulder Canyon Coconut Oil Kettle Potato Chips. Cooked in coconut oil, these chips are gluten-free, non-GMO, low in sodium and contain only three ingredients: potatoes, coconut oil, and sea salt. bouldercanyonfoods.com

Carrington Farms Coconut Avocado Oil. This blend of two superfood oils has a high smoke point, but remains liquid for cooking convenience. It’s also high in medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s)—used for energy production—and healthy monosaturated fats. carringtonfarms.com

Coconut Beach 100% Natural Honey Coconut Chips. Dairy-, gluten-, and preservative-free, these chips are crunchy with a subtle taste of honey. coconutbeach.com

Coconut Organics Chipotle CocoSalt. Unrefined Celtic sea salt is combined with organic low-gylcemic coconut sugar and organic chipotle to make a salty, sweet, and smoky seasoning. coconutorganics.com

Coconut Secret Raw Coconut Vinegar. This raw, unpasteurized vinegar comes from the sap of the coconut tree. It is organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, and high in amino acids, vitamin B and C, and naturally occurring prebiotics that aid in digestion. coconutsecret.com

Hope Hummus Dark Chocolate Coconut Hummus. Organic garbanzo beans, organic cacao, and organic coconut make up this spread, which can be eaten alone or used in recipes for gluten-free baked goods. hopefoods.com

Julian Bakery Paleo Wraps. Raw, organic, vegan, starch-, gluten-, yeast-, grain- soy- and GMO-free, these wraps are made with only three organic ingredients: coconut meat, coconut water, and unrefined virgin coconut oil. julianbakery.com

K’ul Chocolate 70% Dark Chocolate Electrobar. Inspired by runners and cyclists, this post-workout bar contains evaporated coconut water to rehydrate and restore potassium and electrolytes. Vegan, gluten-free, and non-GMO. kul-chocolate.com

Marou Ben Tre Coconut 55% Milk Chocolate Bar. Hailing from Vietnam, this bar is made from coconut milk sourced from the Ben Tre region in Vietnam. Gluten- and dairy-free. marouchocolate.com

Miyoko’s Creamery European Style Cultured VeganButter. Made with organic coconut oil and 
organic cashews, this non-GMO, vegan spread melts, cooks, bakes, spreads and tastes like butter. miyokoskitchen.com

Natural Sins Crispy Coconut Chips. This Paleo-friendly ‘Un-Potato Chip’ is baked and made from wild coconuts from Costa Rica. Non-GMO and only 4 grams of sugar per 1-ounce bag. natualsinsonline.com

Sanavi Sparkling Spring Water, Coconut. Sourced from spring water with higher levels of naturally occurring minerals and electrolytes, Sanavi has no preservatives, artificial ingredients, caffeine, or sodium. Zero calories with natural coconut flavor. drinksanavi.com

Vosges Coconut Ash & Banana Super Dark Chocolate Bar. Sri Lankan coconut, charcoal coconut ash, and Hawaiian banana make up this 72 percent cacao dark chocolate bar. Rich in potassium, antioxidants, vegan, and gluten-free. vosgeschocolat.com

Related: Dieticians Weigh In on 2017 Food Trends; Coconut Trend Goes Beyond Water, Fitting into Many Diets


Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.