Friday, 1 October 2010

Tropical Sun Replies - "Our Additives are Okay"

If you have been following my dialogue with Tropical Sun about the additives in their coconut milk, you'll be pleased to know I have had a response to my most recent email. Here is what they said:

Thank you for your further email and we hope to dispel some of the concerns you raised. First of all, sorry for the contradiction in the previous reply. It was actually meant to read the “quality” has not changed, not the “content”.

Often people tend to misinterpret the natural separation of coconut milk in the can as spoilage, thus we took the decision to change our manufacturer of coconut milk and after a number of trials we selected the coconut milk that you now currently have.

So let’s get some understanding instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We respect the fact that you are trying to ensure people have great tasting food, and in that regard we share the same passion.

Coconut milk is not the liquid inside a coconut (this is ‘coconut water’), although this liquid does make a satisfying drink. Rather, it is made by squeezing the grated flesh of a coconut with some hot water resulting in a rich white liquid that looks very much like cow's milk. This would normally last around 1-2 days if refrigerated immediately.

You also have to understand that due to the nature of our modern diets, various ingredients/foods have been processed and in order to enjoy them in a way that we are now accustomed to various manufacturing techniques are used.

Without passing judgement on these, we, the British public, demand for example strawberries and grapes out of season etc. So whilst I appreciate your sentiment for “food without crap” in it, I also would advise that to label all additives as universally BAD is a little over zealous [and perhaps unrealistic].

An “E” label signifies that something has been added to the product: it doesn’t make it bad in and of itself. In the UK an "E number" has, unfortunately, become something of a pejorative term for artificial food additives. It may surprise some of your readers to learn, however, that there are undoubtedly many products promoting themselves as "free of E numbers" even though most of the natural ingredients contain components that also have an E number such as vitamin C (E300).

If a food additive has an E number this shows it has passed safety tests and been approved for use throughout the European Union. This approval is monitored, reviewed and amended in the light of new scientific data. It is also possible that some labels do not use the dreaded “E” prefix, and instead provide a customary common name (e.g. Citric acid, instead of E330). You decide which you prefer.

I would also like to mention that our coconut milk has one of the highest percentages of real coconut extract inside the can available. This is the amount of pure coconut that is used to make the end product. This determines its richness and flavour and the reason why we believe ours is a PREMIUM coconut milk. Please compare it with some of the other brands you have mentioned previously.

So now our coconut milk contains thickener, stabilisers and acidity regulators. Let’s examine each:

Thickeners help give body to food in the same way as adding flour thickens a sauce, they improve consistency and stabilise emulsions (such as coconut milk). Corn starch imparts no additional flavour to food.

We use cornstarch which is just what it sounds like: starch derived from corn. As with anything, there are pros and cons to its use. Cornstarch is used as a natural thickening agent and does not contain any gluten in contrast to other common alternatives.

Stabilisers and emulsifiers help give food a consistent texture and help mix ingredients together that would normally separate, such as [coconut] oil and water. Stabilisers prevent them from separating again. Without stabilisers you would end up with cream on top and lighter watery milk on the bottom.

We use Carrageenan, Guar gum and Carboxy methyl cellulose. The first two are naturally occurring and extracted from seaweed and shrubs and the latter from cellulose.

Acidity regulators change or maintain the acidity of foods and include buffers, acids, alkalis, and neutralising agents. We use citric acid which is found naturally in citrus fruits.

So, in summary, our product does contain ‘additives’, albeit ones which have been taken from natural sources. Their purpose is to enable us to deliver a stable product of appealing quality: none of the additives is there to introduce or enhance flavour. As far as other similar products are concerned, you must take your enquiries direct to the relevant manufacturers.

We hope this has gone some way to answering your questions. We thank you for concern and hope you will continue to use our products. We would suggest, if it helps, that our creamed coconut is additive free and can be used for many similar purposes to the milk.

We hope this has been helpful and whilst we can’t proclaim to be experts on all things scientific, we can try to help your readers understand what is, I think you’ll agree, an issue which is not quite as clear cut as it might first appear.

Kind regards
Customer Services

Here is my reply:

Hi Kev,

Once again, many thanks for continuing to engage with us. By replying a second time, you have catapulted yourselves into second place in the customer service rankings for Pay Now Live Later. Your honest approach is also refreshing.

The first thing I'd like to make clear is that I appreciate the commercial realities under which you operate, and am aware of the preferences of modern consumers. So of course I don't expect to change your mind about how you make your coconut milk.

However, I would like to help you understand a different position, held by a minority. This is important for you because it's a growing minority. We are the people who scrutinise ingredients on foods and question the motives of companies and those who regulate them. We operate on the assumption that the best form of a food is in it's pure form, and will always choose unadulterated products over the alternatives.

You do make the valid point that not all additives are all unhealthy. I agree that there is a tendency to demonise all ingredients, when some of them are okay.

But why is this? Let me offer you an explanation:

First, consumers don't always understand what the additives are. Often they have complex-sounding names. Even when the names seem familiar, we are not sure what the health implications might be. Familiarity is no guarantee that an ingredient is okay.

Second, there is an issue of trust. Many consumers simply don't trust companies to use only healthy additives - even when it is with the best of intentions (as in your case, perhaps.)

Misinformation is rife in the food industry, and many of us would simply rather be safe than sorry. Your use of the N-word ('natural') is a good example, I am afraid. Without wishing to appear facetious, digitalis can be extracted from fox glove plants, a small amount of which will kill you. There are plenty of natural ingredients that are anything but good.

What this means is that a subset of consumers will avoid your product, regardless of the realities of the reasons for the additives, whether they are 'natural' and whether or not there is evidence they cause harm.

As it happens, this same subset of consumers are probably also trying NOT to eat fruit and vegetables out of season, contrary to the trend you mentioned in your email; for us, finding separated coconut milk that is not creamy is a good sign... because we know that real coconut milk does get separated like this.

So where does this leave us? I guess it leaves me having respect for you as a company because of your honesty and communicativeness, but still no longer a customer; but I hope this exchange has at least helped you to see that whilst your coconut milk may be homogeneous thanks to the stabilisers, your target market is not (sorry, bad joke I couldn't resist) ...and that there may be opportunities for you to exploit the growing trend towards real food.

In the meantime, I am trying my luck with this product. It claims not to need preservatives because of the UHT process and was reassuringly separated. It also seems to have a high coconut percentage because there is a lot of thick cream in there. And yet there is no list of ingredients on the carton - just the claim about being preservative free. As you say in your email, this is something I need to take up with them, not you.

I have one final question I hope you are willing to answer. Reader Matt recently commented:

I'm on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (similar to Paleo) for medical reasons (Ulcerative Colitis), and I'm allowed no starches or sugars. When I read the company's response, my first thought was, They were putting starches in there before, but new labeling requirements made them tell us. This is disconcerting for me because even micrograms of starch or sugar can send me to the toilet for days. When a company says it's PURE, we need to be able to believe that it's pure. They can cause great harm to someone like me who is sick, when they don't label honestly.

This got me wondering how many grams of corn starch are actually added to each tin. Can you tell us?

Clearly, for Matt, no amount is acceptable. But for me, I think knowing the scale of the additive would have the potential to influence how I feel about eating it.

Best Regards,


See Also:
Dear Tropical Sun - "Why is there Crap in My Coconut Milk?"
"Why is there Crap in my Coconut Milk?" - Tropical Sun's Perplexing Reply
After Much Searching... the Perfect Coconut Cream
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