Interest in superfruits into new phase

by David Phillips
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Superfruits made a splash as a popular beverage ingredient around 2005 with suppliers and product developers promising myriad health benefits due to the levels of antioxidants in the fruits. As a result, the ORAC levels of different fruits became an intense subject of debate.

ORAC is an acronym for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity,” and it is a measure of the ability of a substance to remove oxygen free radicals and demonstrate the power of a particular antioxidant. In recent years, marketers of superfruits, which is a marketing term and subject to no regulatory standards, have promoted ORAC levels for various ingredients of 3,000 per serving to nearly 40,000 per serving — well beyond the 5,000 units per-day recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the popularity once enjoyed by the superfruit market faces several challenges today. Not the least of which is the U.S.D.A. has withdrawn its list of ORAC values for ingredients, because of “mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols, on human health,” according to the department.

One additional challenge is competition, according to Mintel International, Chicago. Superfruits are now sharing the spotlight with coconut water, a beverage that has some of the same appeal as superfruit juices.

And yet ingredient companies continue to search for new fruits that may offer an even broader array of health benefits in addition to above average ORAC values.

“Beverage formulators are still asking for superfruits,” said Don Giampetro, vice-president of innovation at iTi Tropicals Inc., Lawrenceville, N.J. “The biggest challenge, and it has been that way all along, is sourcing. A new and fantastic superfruit found in some far reaching area of the world is great. However, if the fruit cannot be commercially processed/sourced so that it can be supplied to the retail juice processing industry, that presents the biggest challenge.”

Mintel’s “Category insights juice and juice drinks 2012” report reflects Mr. Giampetro’s sourcing concern and some others, including price pressures.

Increased competition from other beverage categories such as ready-to-drink teas and vitamin-enhanced drinks offering comparable health benefits is taking share from the category. To add to the increased competition, the category also is facing a challenging market environment as North American consumers have become increasingly focused on price and value. The premium price asked for by many beverage processors who include superfruits in their products may be an additional deterrent.

Despite the challenges, new sources of superfruits are appearing in the category. One of the latest superfruits in commercial use is the maqui berry, also known as the Chilean wineberrry. It was brought to market in 2009 and is a product that boasts a substantial ORAC value.

But other superfruits are now coming to market with a focus on more than ORAC levels. An example is baobab fruit.

Baobab Foods, Seattle, is a subsidiary of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Tryline Group, an importer and exporter of chemicals. Baobab Foods was formed in 2010 to commercialize an ingredient based on the fruit of the baobab trees that grow as forests throughout much of southern Africa.

“During the last seven or eight years the fruit has become a cash crop, harvested from the wild mostly by women, so there is an ethical consumerism aspect of it, too,” said Stephan Broburg, general manager of Baobab Foods. “It has more antioxidants than most fruits and 50% soluble fiber.”

The company processes the fruit into cubes and powders, but because it dries and forms a hard shell on the tree, no freeze drying is needed. In addition to fiber, the baobab ingredients may provide a significant source of calcium and electrolytes.

Baobab Foods has developed prototypes and is working with food and beverage companies to develop retail products that may enter the market in 2013.

The ethical aspects of baobab harvesting and marketing may help the fruit gain traction in the marketplace. Mr. Broburg said non-governmental organizations helped initiate development efforts as a way to create a more environmentally and economically stable way to utilize the baobab tree resources. Entire trees are sometimes harvested for lumber, and leaves are harvested for food and fiber uses. Harvesting fruit has a lesser impact on the health of the individual trees and the forests.

Mr. Broburg, who worked in the development of goji berry ingredients before joining Baobab Foods, anticipates continuing opportunities for superfruit products, and continued interest from consumers.

“We look at superfruits as a category that is not going away,” he said. “This whole thing really started with tart cherries and blueberries and has continued for tart cherries. At the Olympics you would see athletes drinking cherry juice as a recovery beverage. Tart cherry juice has also been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and because auto-immune diseases are caused in part by inflammation, antioxidants have an impact there.”

In early November, during the Supplyside West Global Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, Baobab Foods exhibited two products: fruit cubes and fruit powder. The cubes are intended to deliver portion-controlled nutrition in a variety of flavors while the fruit powder may be blended into juices and smoothies. The company said the powder consists of 50% fiber by weight of which 75% is soluble.
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