Happy Yogurt #5: an Interview With Fruta Fruta, The Company Behind The Coconut Yogurt

Fruta Fruta is a fruit company that strives to create innovative products that contribute to the health of its customers

Hello, Market Shakers! 

This week we are very excited to introduce you to Fruta Fruta, the Japanese company that built up the acai berry market in Japan, developed countless fruit-based juice products, and Japan’s sole coconut yogurt. 

We sat down with Keiko Matsuda (PR) and Keita Kuzuhara (Planning Department), who kindly talked with us about Fruta Fruta’s activities, engagements, and latest product development.

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A company committed to bringing the best natural products to consumers while supporting Amazon’s agroforestry. 

Founded in 2002 by Makoto Nagasawa, Fruta Fruta is a fruit company that strives to create innovative products that contribute to the health of its customers with high-quality ingredients mainly issued from agroforestry. The company aims to realize a sustainable society where the economy and the environment coexist and prosper together.

The company mainly wholesale raw materials for acai and fruit puree to the foodservice industry and food manufacturers. They also have an antenna store and opened an acai energy bar in Shibuya, Tokyo. Overseas, they are developing their business mainly in Taiwan. 

Fruta Fruta opened the Japanese acai market from the ground up. 

Pioneer of the acai market in Japan, Fruta Fruta started importing acai in 2002. The company had to work hard to convince Japanese consumers of the qualities of this brand new fruit. At that time, acai berry was nicknamed the Amazon fruit—a name full of negative connotations for consumers. 

Japanese people tended to think of the Amazon as a scary, suspicious place, with piranhas, anacondas, and other such flickering images. So we had to develop the vision of acai fruit as healthy and good for you and cool and trendy.

To do so, Fruta Fruta sought the endorsement of prominent celebrities and sports figures. The strategy worked, with their products first adopted by athletes, then by models and celebrities, particularly women. 

Word of mouth through blogs and social media helped start a boom around 2010, and within 14 years, we turned the perception of the acai fruit around. Today, the fad has died down, but people aware of the fruit’s nutritional benefits are now loyal consumers. Our CEO Makoto Nagasawa has been in this business for 19 years. We have consumers using our products for as long as the company has been in business! 

In its product research and development, Fruta Fruta had to keep the authenticity of the fruit’s freshness, flavor, and good nutritional values at heart. Their commitment to supporting the acai’s natural taste played a good part in the success of acai with Japanese consumers, who recognized the quality of the company’s products. Their line-up counts cold-pressed juices, regular juices, and puree, and the Acai Energy Drink, a thick smoothie series—their most popular one. 

Special Rich Smoothie, with no sugar, flavoring, coloring, or preservatives, is recommended for an energy boost before or after exercise and even as a meal replacement. 

Interestingly, their cold-pressed juice series is also called Acai Energy. It was the company’s very first line-up of products, created when Fruta Fruta entered the retail market. Originally, Fruta Fruta developed a cold-pressed juice for export overseas. The company had planned to manufacture its products in Taiwan for exportation. 

While this project didn’t get beyond the early stages yet, Fruta Fruta came up with a great product in line with their values of bringing quality products to Japanese consumers. The cold-press technology, coupled with high-pressure sterilization minimizing heat treatment, allows delivering fruits’ authentic flavors—a manufacturing process in line with CEO Makoto Nagasawa's strong belief in providing fresh products to consumers. In terms of ingredients, the cold-pressed juice is very close to the smoothie version. However, the manufacturing process and ingredients do slightly differ.

This year marks Acai Energy’s 15th anniversary. Our juice has become a standard mixed juice of acai and banana. Adding bananas to the mix was a strategic move since acai was relatively unknown at the time. So the first step was to combine acai with a fruit that everyone knew and liked to lower the hurdle and make our product easy to pick up. This strategy was a success! Acai Energy has been a best-seller for a very long time, and consumers keep drinking our juices because they like the flavor and feel it’s good for them.

Fruta Fruta’s original packaging design appealed to the taste and authenticity of the fruit, with a fuzzy green color inspired by the acai tree leaves swaying in the forest light. Today, most Japanese consumers will think of Fruta Fruta’s products right away when asked about the acai fruit. 

We also chose to display the word acai in large font so that the consumers can spot our products right away. The current design plays with a yellow, green, and purple look reminiscent of acai fruit. Many people now associate this color set with Fruta Fruta’s brands.

Beyond turning consumers’ opinion around, Fruta Fruta faced other hurdles. 

One of the first issues Fruta Fruta faced when launching their acai juices in Japan was pricing. Their original bottled-typed product was priced at around 300 yen (note: Japanese VAT has increased since then) when it is now available at 265 yen (VAT included). 

Fifteen years ago, we came out with a product priced at 300 yen when a regular chilled coffee cup was 120 yen. Working with this price was challenging, but the priority was to offer a high-quality product. We couldn’t cut costs on manufacturing methods that would have undermined the value of acai at a time we were building this new market. By doing so, we were also the first to open the premium juice market.

Today, you can find juice products that cost well over 300 yen at premium supermarkets like Seijo Ishi or Kaldi. But while the premium category became commonplace recently, whether their sales are successful or not remains to be seen. 

When it comes to packaging design, the company initially released bottled juices and, later on, juices with “CartoCan” - compact paper-based beverage containers. Fruta Fruta cares about sustainability and developing environmentally friendly products. Paper packaging helps lessen the burden on the environment. But the brand’s fans seem to have a preference for smaller, bottle-type packaging. Convenient and easy to carry around, the bottle wins over the eco pack version, and better fits consumers’ busy lifestyles.

We receive comments from consumers who purchased our cartons saying that they can’t cover the lid when they cannot finish our product. So bottle-type juices are more practical from that perspective. We also get this kind of evaluation from our customers at our antenna store. I feel like I often heard such comments when I was working in our shop.

An expansion to overseas markets is in the making.

Fruta Fruta is considering expanding to nearby Asian countries given the opportunity. However, the company has not yet taken concrete steps toward new overseas expansion. They had opened a store in Taiwan, where they have a good partnership, but the pandemic forced them to shut down their activities for the time being. 

We had started to receive some inquiries from mainland China and Hong Kong with people interested in our products. So, we’re currently working on that in a small way, but we are making progress. But, as our founder says, it may take a little longer to mature our vision before making a full-scale entry into the market.

One of the barriers to exporting juice products to Asian markets is the shelf life and storage method. To maintain the freshness of the juices, they have to be delivered frozen and must be refrigerated. But compared to Japan, other markets may not have well-developed frozen-chilled logistics. 

Exporting to Asia brings up some challenges. Preserving the freshness and quality of the products is one issue. In addition, the shelf life, especially for returned products, is shortened. These are challenges we need to overcome. 

While Fruta Fruta is mainly a company that imports fruits from the Brazilian Amazon, they developed a pineapple cold-pressed juice with their Taiwanese partner as part of a friendship project. 

This spring, Taiwan has been under the spotlight in the media a lot in Japan and the world. It’s a country with really delicious fruits, but it is tough to travel there with the pandemic. So our product is a way to communicate our support to Taiwan and bring their fruits to Japanese consumers.

The launch of the Coconut Yogurt

After opening up the market for acai berry, Fruta Fruta is now a pioneer of coconut yogurt in Japan. As a fruit company, developing more plant-based products was all-natural for Fruta Fruta. The company already pays extra attention to its ingredients and avoids ultra-processed ones. Most of their products are, in fact, plant-based, using, for instance, acai protein. 

The spark came from the United States. After traveling there, CEO Makoto Nagasawa was inspired to develop a coconut-based yogurt. He noticed how yogurts made from coconut milk appeared to be very common in supermarkets. Impressed with their taste, he decided to launch a similar product in Japan. 

In the United States, the market for plant-based foods seems to be rapidly growing. Our CEO has been carefully watching the trends, and the coconut yogurt caught his attention. We launched our product with competing in the plant-based market, opening up in Japan, in mind.

As an experiment, they first launched a single-serve container in 2018. But at the time, the plant-based market was too small. In 2021, Fruta Fruta released a new product changing the quantity from single to family serving. 

With the pandemic, we noted the growing need for family-type products. Therefore, we thought switching to a large volume for family home consumption would work well.

During the research and development phase, the challenge was that they had no precedent to work with being the first in this category. So, while respecting the company’s value of keeping ingredients as natural as possible, they had to come up with a convincing taste. 

Coconut milk is distributed worldwide, but many products have many additives and don’t taste very good. It was quite a challenge to offer the authentic flavor of coconut milk while developing a product as healthy as possible. 

Another challenge for Fruta Fruta was the pricing of their yogurts. Even for a family-size container, the price remains in the premium range. But the company cares to offer only the very best to their customers. Therefore, to preserve the quality of their products, they cannot cut costs on ingredients —they want to use the very best. 

We should provide only genuinely delicious products, but it’s challenging to convey that message to the consumers. We had a lot of internal discussions about how to create a design that would make sense and help customers accept the price range. We received compliments from consumers on social media, so I think we somewhat convinced them to some extent.

The Coconut Yogurt packaging design creates a natural quality, with a cream-colored base reminiscent of the yogurt and a soft green representing plants. Compared to their other line-ups, the colors are paler and represent a healthy, nurturing food product. 

The product is exclusively available in Aeon and Aeon-style supermarkets. The Aeon group has been actively working on opening up the market for plant-based products, notably launching their Vegetive line-up in 2020. Compared to conventional yogurt and soy yogurt, a coconut base can cater to consumers with lactose intolerance or soy allergies. It’s also an excellent source of nutrients. 

Our coconut yogurt contains medium chain fatty acid, making it a perfect choice for people following a low-carb or ketogenic diet which people suffer from epilepsy follow. We received enthusiastic comments that it’s a product for everyone and that mothers are giving our products as a snack for their children with allergies. 

A quick look on social media in Japan reveals that many people suffer from lactose intolerance. The launch of Fruta Fruta’s yogurt was warmly welcomed. 

These days, the number of people who are allergic or have food restrictions is increasing, and their options are somewhat limited. We were happily surprised to see that our coconut yogurt was being welcomed with such enthusiasm.

Sustainability and long-term market vision

Beyond positive feedback from consumers, Fruta Fruta also received many inquiries about their ingredients and production. After their launch, people asked about manufacturing processes, notably coconut milk production and coconut harvest. 

A few years ago, people realized that some farms are using monkeys to harvest their coconuts. The outrage sparked a boycott of Thai coconut milk in Europe and North America. The movement reached Japan, and that’s why some Japanese consumers are knowledgeable about the conditions of coconut milk production. We reassure them and explain that we do not source our ingredients from these farms, and they’re happy to hear that.

Ethical concerts are not yet mainstream in Japan, but consumers seem to care more and more about the SDGs. They seek sustainable products, especially food and beverage. Fruta Fruta did not specifically emphasize sustainability on its agenda with its coconut yogurt because they are not from Agroforestry but cared very much about the quality. Sustainability came as a natural outcome. 

We first wanted to develop a high-quality plant-based yogurt and initially didn’t think about SDGs and this particular animal welfare issue related to coconut products. But as a company, we have to be more conscious so we can better cater to the needs of our customers in the future. 

When looking at the overall plant-based market in Japan, whether it will expand or not remains to be seen. At the moment, mainstream consumers are trying these new products, partially influenced by the media. As models and celebrities publicly embrace soy meat or yogurt, people grow curious. But can plant-based products take root in consumers’ habits? 

I think the rapid expansion of this market could be a temporary boom. According to a theory, many manufacturers are commercializing more and more such products in anticipation of the inbound demand for the Olympics. But the local population counts only a tiny population of vegetarians. So even if they are purchasing these products, the market would be negligible. That is unless the mindset of the population changes.

In some ways, the market is going through an experimental phase. The demand for plant-based yogurt and milk products may have been established by the manufacturer's persistent marketing efforts. However, companies need the strength to keep their spots on store shelves long enough. 

It can take about five years or even longer for a new product to take root on the market. So, the goal is to persist and manage to sell your plant-based products long enough to go beyond the trends.

See you next Tuesday!

Next week, we kickstart our next cycle dedicated to plant-based cheese. Grab some bread and wine to discover with us the latest delicious products on the market.

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