It’s hard to find fault with anything as virtuous as…fruit. But the relentless buzz surrounding the “superfruit” phenomenon has left some observers surveying the category with jaundiced eyes. Julian Mellentin, director for New Nutrition Business (London), even goes so far as to rank superfruit a “term we recommend companies don’t use.”
Is it really that bad?
Well, “it’s certainly not as trendy as it was ten years ago,” says Hope Lee, senior beverages analyst, Euromonitor International (Chicago). Even POM Wonderful, the iconic superfruit brand, suffered a sharp slowdown in growth globally, “with value growth at 2.5% in 2012 to 2013,” she says, citing data from Euromonitor’s Health and Wellness database.
The backlash has several sources. For one, the term “likely began losing some of its luster as a byproduct of mainstreaming,” says June Hope Lanners, natural products researcher for SPINS, a leading information provider for the natural and specialty products industry (Chicago).
For another, the heavy presence of superfruits in the beverage sector left the concept vulnerable to stiff competition from “alternative plant-based beverages,” surmises Lee. Given that recent concerns about sugar have weighed down beverage sales generally, she adds, it’s only natural that sales of superfruit beverages would flag, as well. And new beverage technologies, like high-pressure processing (HPP) and cold-pressing, also “divert consumer attention from the superfruit concept itself,” Lee says, “with the processing and technology that keep the juice fresh and preserves its nutrients mattering more” than the fruit getting juiced.
But perhaps the biggest beef with superfruits lies in the difficulty consumers—not to mention the rest of us—have had understanding just what makes them super. Per Mellentin, it all boils down to “health benefits that have some basis in science and that consumers find credible.” A fruit needn’t secure an FDA-approved health claim; it merely need capture the attention of science or health journalists “who love writing about naturally healthy foods.” Having done that, he says, “social media will do the rest.”
That said, Mellentin still advises companies to “let the media and journalists decide whether a fruit is super or not.” The marketer’s job, by contrast, is to “focus on convenience, taste, and making sure that news about health benefits gets out to people.”
And if consumers respond well, perhaps it’s proof they haven’t gone sour on superfruits after all. Lanners certainly doesn’t view the current backlash as signaling superfruits’ demise. “On the contrary,” she says, “superfruit and superfood ingredients continue to make their way into products spanning all channels. If anything, we’ve witnessed a sort of leveling-off phase and could very well begin to see the popularity pendulum swing in favor of newer superfruits presently making their way to market.” And if you’re looking for an upside to the fad, look no further than “the massive media coverage” that, says Lee, “helped educate consumers as to the health benefits of specific plants and fruits.”
What’s not to like? According to Maider Gutierrez, marketing manager for Frutarom Health (Ede, Netherlands), “The superfruit trend is very dynamic and fast-paced. Every season there’s something new. They add freshness to an industry that sometimes can be a bit slow to innovate.” So take advantage of superfruits’ second wave with these expert suggestions for superfruit success…
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For a superfruit to succeed, its superiority has to be believable. Unfortunately, says Frutarom’s Gutierrez, “superfruits have sometimes seemed too good to be true.” As consumers grow more demanding and get schooled in the basics of nutrition, she explains, “they no longer will believe in ingredients that can ‘cure’ everything. More and more, consumers will want proof of efficacy, and to see the science and studies that prove a superfruit’s claimed benefits.”
New Nutrition Business’s Mellentin agrees. Moreover, he notes, “there’s a positive relationship between the number of scientific studies published about a fruit’s health benefits and its superfruit status. In the future, it’ll become more important to offer a demonstrable benefit to achieve differentiation from all the superfruit ‘wannabes.’”
Dragon fruit photo © Shutterstock.com/Coffee Lover
Tell Me A Story
“Superfruits are made, not born,” New Nutrition Business’s Mellentin says. “They’re the product of a deliberate strategy, and not the produce you find growing on a tree.”
You can say that again. As SPINS’ Lanners puts it, “consumers aren’t captivated exclusively by the nutritional makeup of superfruits, but are smitten with their stories, as well.” A finely tuned narrative, she says, “facilitates consumer trust and generates buzz. And when you can assign a legendary value to a product, it becomes even more enticing.” In other words, backstory counts. “When a consumer learns the backstory of a product like goji,” she says, “they tend to gravitate toward testing it.”
This almost makes superfruits edible ambassadors of culture. “The trend gives us interesting glances at different cultures and regions with local or forgotten fruits that become accessible and known to everyday consumers,” Frutarom’s Gutierrez says. And with the functional food industry “heading toward a more local, traditional and cultural approach,” she says, “superfruits fit right in.”
Goji berries photo © iStockphoto.com/Cio18
Convenience Is King
It’s no coincidence that many superfruits rose to stardom thanks to beverages. “Superfruit beverages,” New Nutrition Business’s Mellentin says, “are fruits at their most convenient.” And if a superfruit’s not convenient, he warns, “you’d better make it so.” Consider the pomegranate. There’s no denying the ingenuity that POM Wonderful put into turning an unwieldy, husky Mediterranean fruit into a wildly popular ready-to-drink beverage and snack-pack of seeds.
With consumers “drinking less volume and looking for functional, healthy, fresh stuff,” Euromonitor International’s Lee adds, superfruit beverages need to be convenient and efficient in delivering the nutrition consumers seek. A new formulation trend she’s noticed is “the blending of fruits and vegetables—spinach, pumpkin, sweet potato, et cetera—which naturally reduces the sugar content. This is called the ‘drinkable salad bowl.’”
Stepping away from beverages, Mellentin notes that it’s also helpful when a superfruit is naturally snackable, like blueberries. “That makes it easier for people to try it,” he says. “Blueberries’ massive convenience advantage over apples and their more consumer-friendly packaging—small 150g packs—coupled with widely communicated high-antioxidant health benefits, enables them to achieve super-premium prices.”
Mangosteen photo © Shutterstock.com/Viktar Malyshchyts
Another “modern trend” that favors the superfruit, Euromonitor International’s Lee says, is consumers’ penchant for choosing foods “specific to their individual health needs.” And with those health needs so divergent, “specific superfruits should be targeted to different consumer segments.”
Alas, consumers’ understanding of superfruit benefits varies just as widely. “Some fruits are better than others,” Frutarom’s Gutierrez points out. “Some have more of ‘this,’ others more of ‘that’—but it’s all about balance.”
That puts the onus on marketers to fine-tune formulations when targeting superfruits to a specific audience. Further, Gutierrez notes, “Whenever a supplier attempts to transform superfruits into powders or extracts, they need to deliver ingredients that match consumer expectations for efficacy and safety. Exotic names with health benefits so broad that they’re too good to be true are attractive for a few months, but easily forgotten.”
Gac fruit photo © Shutterstock.com/Lotus Images
Finally, New Nutrition Business’s Mellentin advises, keep it novel. A superfruit “doesn’t have to be a totally new fruit,” he says, “but it helps to have something that’s not so ‘everyday’. When a fruit’s already a commodity, it’s hard to make it special.”
Marketers have apparently gotten the picture. In the beverage space alone, “there are lots of ideas coming out,” Euromonitor International’s Lee says, and “lots of venture capital firms investing, encouraging startups. Entrepreneurs are looking for the next coconut water.” As for what that’ll be, “it’s hard to tell,” she says. “A wide range of fruit or grain beverages are emerging,” as are plant waters from maple, birch, and Aloe vera. She’s even seen chia and mushroom drinks.
SPINS’ Lanners wagers that some of the superfruits that got the trend started are ready for a revival, as goji, açaí, and golden berries all “still carry weight with consumers. But we can look forward to seeing more use of guanabana, dragonfruit, and baobab this coming year in everything from supplements and functional beverages to bars, snacks, and body care.” One of the more exciting up-and-comers is the jackfruit, she adds, which can function as a meat substitute, “and will be valuable to the plant-based movement currently gaining momentum.”
Jack fruit photo © iStockphoto.com/siwaporn999