June 3, 2008

13 Min Read
Strange Fruit

This article has been derived in part from a series of entries in Douglas J. Peckenpaugh’s blog, Doug’s Domain.

Step backward in time just a handful of years and, outside of globally oriented botanical circles, a mention of fruit with names like “açaí,” “goji” and “mangosteen” would have likely elicited curious shrugs and blank stares.

Now, those fruit and others are emerging as major flavors and additions to food products from coast to coast as consumers grow increasingly hip to the unique flavors and nutritional benefits they offer.

The success of these formerly exotic fruits has led many in the industry to look to other candidates for the so-called “superfruit” category, as well as others that might simply help add a differentiating twist to a beverage, bar, cereal, dessert, trail mix or other application.

From Shipova to Medlar—and Beyond

I’m frequently drawn to the exotic and strange, but I admit that shipova and medlar were new to me when I ran across them in a New Farm article that cites them as potentially profitable crops, as well as good demand. (Granted, “exotic” and “strange” are, of course, relative terms ... shipova and medlar probably aren’t as strange in Alsace, France and Piedmont, Italy, respectively.)

Consumers increasingly seek an exotic accent in their foods and beverages, so deviations from the norm might prove profitable in the near future. It’s always worth your while to stay abreast of what’s coming down the agricultural pike—particularly when the crops in question might raise an eyebrow or two.

Several indicators point to the continuation of the tropical-fruit trend for the foreseeable future. Health benefits—both real and perceived—as well as the addition of flavor diversity and an emerging consumer desire for unique food experiences, should help usher more previously little-known fruits into the American food-processing arena.

Case in point: Whole Foods has started carrying fresh yuzu on occasion, as noted in an article in The New York Times. Flavors inspired by this hot Japanese citron—which have been circulating around fine dining for a couple of years now—have started popping up in sauces and other products.

Citrus Alternatives

In this country, citrus brings to mind states like California and Florida. And every winter, whenever the mercury begins to drop close to freezing in those typically temperate states, those immersed in the cultivation of primary citrus crops like oranges and grapefruit find themselves occupied with one obsession: the weather. Cold snaps can wreak havoc with citrus. Crop damage drives up prices in the wake of decreased supply, adversely affecting several corners of the food industry.

In the case of such unfortunate events, if you’re going to pay more for citrus—where commodity-sourced ingredients are vital—why not experiment with some of the more-exotic citrus fruits in different products or menu items?

In recent months and years, various sources have shed light on exotic citrus like baboon lemon (scroll a bit down the page), blood orange, buddha’s hand, clementine, pummelo, Satsuma, ugli fruit, and yuzu. Ingredients like curry leaf and kaffir lime leaf can lend a citrusy note to foods. Less-exotic key lime, kumquat, and Meyer lemon are also options.

Modern Love Apples

As far as fruit is concerned, tomatoes have a rather storied, colorful history. At first considered poisonous—like many of the tomato’s Solanum brethren, save the eggplant and potato—once folks in Italy, and eventually England and the United States, began eating tomatoes, many immediately assumed that what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger, and the tomato soon took on curative properties. Early on, the Pueblo believed that those who ate tomato seeds gained powers of divination. By the 1820s, according to writings by Thomas Jefferson—who sampled tomatoes in Paris—people had begun believing that tomatoes kept the blood pure during the hot summer (no idea what that means...). A handful of years later, tomatoes were also thought to help cure ailments like diarrhea, dyspepsia and cholera, with tomato pills even hitting the apothecary’s shelves. The Puritans shunned the famed love apple since they thought it was an aphrodisiac (see “Tomato Legends” for more fun tomato facts).

Today, science has shown that tomatoes, in fact, do have a positive impact on health, most notably due to their lycopene content. Actual levels of lycopene vary from cultivar to cultivar, and plant researchers have been actively working to breed tomatoes with high lycopene content for the last several years (see "Breeding for Color and Lycopene Content in Adapted Tomato Germplasm" and "A Better Tomato" for two examples). Since lycopene is a caroteniod, the color of the tomato—which includes yellow, orange, pink, purple and black, apart from the common red—directly relates to its lycopene content.

Oregon State University has even developed a truly purple tomato; other “purple” and “black” tomatoes tend to just have blotchy shades reminiscent of purple and black in them). Reportedly, the tomato will deliver healthful anthocyanins in addition to some lycopene. Plant breeders are reportedly still working on hybrid variations to boost its flavor. The eggplant-colored tomato traces its roots to South America.

As nutrition research continues to unearth health connections to specific components in our harvested bounty, plant breeders will take that information and run with it. Once these new tomatoes hit the market, I’ll be looking forward to my first purple pomodoro and, of course, purple ketchup. Maybe kids will even drink tomato juice if it’s purple.

Just don’t tell them that it’s good for them.

Stars Aligning for Sea-buckthorn

When a crop has so many different beneficial aspects—think healthful, profit potential and farm-friendly—science tends to find a way to come to terms with any troublesome spots. A case in point is the berries of the sea-buckthorn plant (Hippophae rhamnoides). The general health benefits of the berries have been known for years, and the plant has a long history in Northern Europe and Asia. The plants are valuable in part due to their ability to grow where other plants can’t (salt-, cold- and drought-tolerant). The crop is also increasingly attractive to North American growers (see a University of Guelph piece and an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada backgrounder for two Canadian examples, and I’ve heard of a couple of projects experimenting with the crop in the States). In addition to potential uses in foods and beverages, ingredients from the buckthorn berries currently find their way into a variety of cosmetics and products in the so-called “cosmeceuticals” category. The berries are reportedly highly acidic and astringent, so blends with other fruit would likely make sense for most markets, although I bet truer-to-flavor demand would also exist (in adult-oriented drinks, for instance).

Harvesting and processing aspects were key factors in reducing the viability of use of sea-buckthorn ingredients in foods and beverages. But now a group of Indian researchers might have mitigated the processing issue. From what I’ve gathered, effective harvesting is still an ongoing issue (dense, thorny shrubs). Perhaps plant breeders can develop cultivars that permit easier harvest while retaining—or boosting—the healthful and flavor aspects of the berries.

Now that most of the ducks are lining up for the sea-buckthorn, expect to see more research, such as this Finnish investigation, into the vagaries related to the berries’ health benefits. For further reading on the emerging buckthorn berries, visit Purdue’s Center for New Crops database, and, of course, Wikipedia has something to say on the subject.

This is one to keep your eyes on, as I’m sure we’ll see more on buckthorn berries in the coming months.

Going Goji

Of late, the tiny mountainous fruit goji berry, also known as wolfberry, demonstrates that the superfood world has not taken some sort of strangely Amazonian-Ptolemaic turn and begun to solely rotate around South America.

Although the term wolfberry was, until recently, a more-common term for these Tibetan treasures, “goji berry” has surfaced of late, particularly in the health-food segment (perhaps as a derivation of gouqizi the Chinese name for the fruit). The little red berries produced by the Lycium barbarum and L. chinense plants have long been associated with traditional Chinese medicine and have a stellar reputation in Asia—and for good reason. Research shows the fruit contain 19 amino acids (including all essential amino acids), 21 trace minerals (including germanium, a trace mineral rarely found in food), lots of antioxidants (including beta carotene, and zeaxanthin), lots of vitamin C, some B-complex vitamins and some E, beta-sitosterol, fatty acids, alpha-cyperone, and solavetivone (an antifungal and antibacterial compound), physalin (inhibits leukemia) and betaine.

Much ado surrounds these little berries. They look to deliver much in the way of healthful characteristics, but let’s see how different ingredients fare under the sometimes-harsh realities of processing. Considering some claims of goji related to cancer, I would bet yuan to yóu tiáo that studies will prove forthcoming. I also look forward to more-standardized availability of fresh product. A good percentage of available goji these days is dried, which undoubtedly compromises the integrity of the fruit’s flavor.

In the meantime, “goji” on the label—likely in minimally processed products like some types of juices—will still garner consumer attention even without clinical proof of efficacy.

Oh Açaí

Over the last few years, açaí (“ah-sigh-ee”) berries have gone from not even on the radar to super-hot.

The berry has a flavor reminiscent of a cross between berries and chocolate. Some juices I’ve sampled have a very pleasant, bright-raspberryesque flavor with a darker background note—but not quite cocoa.

When highlighting use of superfruits like açaí in products—and I’m talking about the actual fruit, not flavors—it helps to communicate some of the health points. Some labels I’ve seen include a definition of antioxidants and even ORAC comparisons. And as sustainability moves more to the forefront of the American consciousness, investigating the greener side of açaí makes sense. (A nice—although a bit dated—paper on sustainable management of açaí palms as a move against deforestation in the Amazon is available online.)

In a Natural Products Insider article, Paul M. Gross, Ph.D.—senior author of “Wolfberry: Natures Bounty of Nutrition and Health” and publisher of The Berry Doctor’s Journal—notes the following about the sweet little Amazonian treasures:

“Long used among Brazilian Amazon peasants as a staple mixed with tapioca or sugar, açaí gained popularity in the United States first as a juice ‘energy’ drink and additive to smoothies. Now, its pulp powder is being applied in a variety of other consumer products and has great potential for expansion into numerous food and beverage products.”

He notes that freeze-dried açaí pulp powder contains 9% protein, 33% carbohydrates, 12% dietary fiber and 50% fats (38% mono- and polyunsaturated), as well as several antioxidant compounds: anthocyanins, procyanidins, protocatechuic acid, epicatechin, gallic acid and vitamin C. “At an ORAC of 34,000 µmol TE per 100 grams in freeze-dried pulp powder,” he notes, “it appears to be among the most antioxidant-rich edible plants.”

Gross goes on to note that although clinical studies highlighting açaí’s potential are scarce, reports have shown it might inhibit leukemia cell development in vitro, and its “rich phenolic content indicates potential benefits for all diseases that are purportedly also affected by blueberries and black raspberries, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic inflammation, cognitive disorders, aging and age-related visual decline and bacterial infections, among others.”

As long as açaí remains an economically sustainable, viable crop for the Amazon, the little antioxidant bombs should continue to grow in popularity.

Funky Five-Flavor Berries

Until the FDA officially takes offense to the legion of energy drink “herbal supplement” or “dietary supplement” products making wild claims, we will continue to see all sorts of craziness afoot.

A while back, a press release on a beverage—with the company’s head going by the title of “love doctor”—claiming to help increase desire and heighten the senses trailed its musky scent across my virtual desk.

The real gist of the bit was the drink’s inclusion of another “strange fruit.”

The beverage contains schisandra (sometimes misspelled “shizandra,” known as wu wei zi in China), a berry from the Schisandra chinensis plant common to China. The fruit has reputed medicinal properties (considered one of the “50 fundamental herbs” in traditional Chinese medicine) and is generally classified as an adaptogen (apparently for its protective effects on the liver). In addition to its reported health benefits, the so-called “five-flavor berry” is also said to deliver five distinct tastes: salty, sweet, sour, pungent (spicy) and bitter (although I don’t think I would classify pungent as a taste, more of a sensation—and if we let pungent in the taste door, astringency, coolness and tingling might sneak in, as well—but this concept is not without precedent, as Indian Arusuvai tradition taps spicy as a basic taste).

Regardless, one berry that can deliver such simultaneous sensations is mighty cool—and could prove quite a hot item in some markets.

Fanning the Fruitaceutical Flames

When it comes to the next big health-food trend, nothing sets fire to product sales quite like a touch of the exotic. One need only consider the state of a notoriously irritating fruit like pomegranate—from a handling perspective—five years ago and today. Through better processing technology and research on the benefits of antioxidants and other healthful compounds in the fruits of nature’s bounty, an increasing array of ingredients is currently filtering into our processing pipeline.

Now, hip, tropical fruits like noni, goji, açaí and mangosteen are seeing increasing play in select product-development circles (and gaining more attention in the media). Call them superfoods, superfruits, nutrafruits or fruitaceuticals... Whatever the moniker, they’re hot, and despite the advances with some fruits—including the aforementioned pomegranate, as well as all things grape, to mention two—ingredient manufacturers are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.

Five years from now, these erstwhile oddities will be as common as, well, pomegranates and green tea. And ingredient R&D will undoubtedly have hatched a host of concentrated fruitaceutical ingredients for addition to our growing pantry of healthful—hopefully everyday—foods and beverages.

Putting Strange Fruit to Use

Although new flavors continually emerge as possible candidates for use in various foods and beverages, product developers should use a couple of guidelines when considering them.

To boost the actual relative healthfulness of a product—as opposed to simply adding a halo--whenever possible, include a whole-fruit ingredient, like a purée, along with any necessary added flavor. That way, if the fruit is connected to its antioxidant potential, consumers can get a real benefit—as opposed to perceived—from the product.

Also, keep in mind that some of the flavors delivered by our strange fruits can, at first blush, come across as rather foreign to consumers (too acidic, too earthy, etc.). When experimenting with various fruits, try blends with common and accepted flavors that make sense. Some recent product offerings along these lines have included blends of açaí with blueberry, or pomegranate with tart cherries. Also, different blends will make sense for different target markets (youth, adult, etc., and even between the sexes).

Finally, some fruits get hot and then fizzle out after the initial buzz dies down. Such moves in and out of fashion can alter supplies of the fruit, so make sure all ingredients tapped for new products and lines are available in sufficient supply for the foreseeable future.

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