The process was invented by Morton Satin, Chief of AG's Agricultural Industries and Post-harvest Management Service (AGSI), whose previous food inventions include high-fibre white bread and wheatless bread. "Fresh coconut water is already highly valued in tropical countries," he said. "A young coconut between six and nine months contains about 750 ml of water - really, it's juice that eventually becomes the flesh.
"It's 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." In fact, during the Pacific War of 1941-45, both sides in the conflict regularly used coconut water - siphoned directly from the nut - to give emergency plasma trasfusions to wounded soldiers.
Most coconut water is still consumed fresh in tropical coastal areas - 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.
Present processing has a drawback. 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 flavour. This severely limits the product's marketability.
"The way we saw it, coconut water only had a future if we could invent a new cold sterilization process that retained its flavour 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."
Drawing on his experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Satin conceived the new process "in about five minutes" and tested it on four coconut varieties with the help of an Italian consultant food technologist, Giuseppe Amoriggi. They also processed coconut water with added sucrose and L-absorbic acid, to approximate the vitamin and energy content of major sports drinks. When the inventors noticed some discoloration in the water of one coconut variety - albeit an "attractive pink" - they added lime juice to retain its original transparency. Finally, they called in a panel of tasters, who could detect no difference between fresh coconut water and what came out the other end of the FAO filtering laboratory. (Get technical details of the coconut water process.)
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. The Organization is now developing a licensing policy so that the process can be made freely available to a wide range of manufacturers. The main beneficiaries - apart from sportspeople - will be tropical countries that process or export coconuts, and small farmers who grow them. "Final details for licensing of FAO patents have not been firmly established," Satin said. "However, it is extremely unlikely that the nominal licensing arrangements would ever be a barrier to the uptake of this technology."
Morton Satin sees coconut water as a natural contender in the sports drink market. "Just think of it," he said. "What could be better than a natural beverage product with the delicate aroma, taste, drinking characteristics and nutritional value of pure, fresh, tender coconut water, plus all the functional characteristics required of a sports drink?"
In one hour of sustained physical exercise, the body can lose up to three quarts of water through perspiration. In that water are small amounts of "electrolyte" minerals - mainly sodium but also potassium - and carbohydrates (sugars), whose loss leads to fatigue. For most of human history, the remedy to fluid loss was simple: drink water. But since the 1960s, sporting enthusiasts have an alternative - the "isotonic drink", containing not only water but electrolytes and other minerals, plus vitamins, complex polymer carbohydrates and amino acids.