Superfruits: What Really Makes Superfruits Super?

December 1, 2010

Consumers may have embraced superfruits, but superfruits also face some probing questions, including whether enough human science has been done to justify their marketing hype. Nutritional Outlook spoke to two executives from Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA): Brien Quirk, director of research and development, and Lauren Clardy, senior director of sales and marketing. They talk about both the science and the marketing pushing superfruits.

What can take an exotic fruit mainstream?
Brien Quirk: Market drivers can be a study, especially a human clinical study, with exciting results published in major media—or a succession of studies that over time continue to capture attention. Large, multilevel marketing companies also play a role, if they have garnered publicity with successful, major product launches for fruits such as noni or mangosteen—fruits that until that point had been relatively obscure.

Lauren Clardy: The science has to be the “backbone” of moving a superfruit from the fringe to the mainstream; however, marketing “spend,” media interest, and strategic branding are also crucial to move a fruit from the fringe to the mainstream. It costs millions of dollars to fund the research and branding needed to cross a fruit over into the mainstream. It really is a convergence of all of these factors.

What are some factors, such as Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC), that are now being used to market superfruits?
Clardy: I think we will see less of ORAC and more personal-benefit marketing. The history/romance (such as that associated with apples) and exotic names (such as yumberry) will always play into the popularity of a superfruit.

Quirk: In many instances, it’s the usual characteristic of the superfruit that draws interest, but it’s also the comparison to fruits we all know so well. Blue honeysuckle berry has an unusual, oblong shape, but several other aspects are also being utilized by growers as marketing, including the fruit’s native geographic origin of Russia and Japan; its hardy ability to adapt to harsh climates in which other berries wouldn’t grow very well; folk medicinal uses; its antioxidant levels, which are touted as five times higher than blueberries; and its dark-red interior covered by a skin that looks just like that of a blueberry.

Yumberry’s appearance and name seems to be a magnet, as the fruit has a strange, bumpy texture, but a brilliant, intensely red color. And again, yumberry is being compared to a better-known superfruit, pomegranate, because they both have ellagitannins.

Why is there a need for continued science to investigate how superfruits function in the human body? Can you provide some examples in which more research is warranted?
Quirk: There is a need for more science of some superfruits. The studies that have been done so far are often just animal-based or phytochemical analysis. However, it’s very likely that human studies will demonstrate some of the same effectiveness for wellness outcomes such as cardiovascular health or anticancer benefits that superfruits like pomegranate, rich in ellagitannins and anthocyanins, have already shown. It’s even possible that new health discoveries will be found as well. Additional science will help uncover what health benefits there are for people, not just animals. For example:

Blue honeysuckle berry is reported to be five times higher in antioxidant phenolics than blueberries, but even with this great result, what studies have been done demonstrating potential new product applications? For skin health, it has been found that blue honeysuckle berry extract can help protect against UVA ultraviolet rays, which can increase aging. The fruit has traditional folk uses for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular diseases, so it would be advantageous to conduct human studies to see if it is effective for these specific conditions. Since it has also shown COX-2 inhibition, it may also be shown to be effective for joint health.

Euphoria fruit is the aril of the Dimocarpus longan plant used in traditional Chinese medicine for “tonifying the heart, nourishing the blood, calming the spirit, insomnia, palpitations, and blood pressure lowering, some of which may be related to its corilagin content.” Further studies would help establish dosage and efficacy of standardized extract preparations.

Blackcurrant is actually rich in many of the same deep-red anthocyanins as blackberries, sour cherries, and blueberries, including glycosides of cyanidin. Animal studies support the potential use of blackcurrant for treating the common flu, cold sores, boosting the immune response, and addressing the inflammation and free radicals involved in joint discomfort, gout pain, and gouty arthritis. Human studies would show just how effective this would be for people.

Purple passion fruit, according to analysis, contains many of the same flavonoids and harmaline alkaloids as passionflower, which is known for its calming benefits. One animal study revealed that the purple passion fruit’s extract has hypnotic, sedative effects.

Jackfruit is an enormous fruit, weighing dozens of pounds and containing luscious mango-like fruit. Research has shown that it has potent antihistamine effects for treating allergies, and it is a strong COX-2 inhibitor potentially useful for healthy joint support. It also contains a natural androgen in the rind, according to the British Medical Journal, that may help explain its wound-healing ability and potential to promote protein synthesis.

Yumberry juice is used in ways similar to pomegranate juice, for upset stomach and diarrhea in its traditional preparations in China. The fruit is used as a cardiac tonic in traditional Chinese medicine. The high antioxidant levels and flavonoids will likely be shown in future studies to help support cholesterol reduction, cardiovascular health, and skin antiaging health.

Persimmon fruit contains many of the same epicatechin gallic acid esters as green tea, contributing to its varying degrees of astringent property. Besides having lipid-lowering effects like green tea has, it also has a skin-whitening effect and is even considered as effective as the drug arbutin in whitening skin, according to one study.

Is there an example of a wellness claim based on animal studies that was later shown to be valid in a human study?
Quirk: Animal studies demonstrated that in atherosclerotic mice, pomegranate juice significantly inhibited the development of atherosclerotic lesions that may have been related to the protection of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol against oxidation. Later human studies showed that it partially reversed clogged arteries.

Has there been a growing trend of more-traditional fruits being positioned as superfruits?
Clardy: More-traditional fruits such as apples, pineapples, grapes, and strawberries are entering the superfruit marketing game. Companies are realizing the value of marketing spend and branding for these fruits. So yes, we will continue to see more traditional-type fruits push into the market with superfruit status by companies that have the money to fund the research with clinical studies, as well as the branding expertise and huge marketing spend that is required.
We saw this with Ocean Spray Cranberry, which had declining sales and was turned around by effective brand communications and innovative marketing. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council changed the landscape of blueberries by branding, funding research (there are more than 100 studies on blueberries), and smart marketing. Their focus was to launch a marketing campaign to educate consumers about the potential health benefits of “blue” fruits, such as wild blueberries.

Quirk: Yes, even apples have been poised as a superfruit because of the richness in their polyphenols, which are similar to those in green tea, grape seed, and pine bark and that confer benefits for weight loss, healthy cholesterol support, and allergies.

Cranberries have become known as a superfruit for urinary tract health, but some research is even pointing to its possible value in treating Helicobacter pylori infection related to stomach problems, and for reducing gingival bacteria for improved gum health.

Blueberries have always been thought of as a superfruit based on numerous animal studies over the years related to cognitive health and antiaging benefits. This has brought about consistent consumer growth, even while there weren’t many human studies being done during much of that time.

In your opinion, do consumers have a clear perception of what a superfruit is? Moreover, is there a clear definition?
Clardy: The consumer has a general sense that superfruits are good for them, and certainly there is some awareness in the mainstream of antioxidants and why they are good for you. Overall, however, the mainstream consumer does not have advanced understanding of polyphenols, ORAC, or other antioxidant-scoring systems.

There is no legal or standard definition of a superfruit, and the term is subjective and often vague. In most cases, it refers to a fruit—sometimes exotic, sometime not—that has a superior nutritional profile and health benefits. Most superfruits have some scientific support, and most contain high antioxidants.

Quirk: Yes, a superfruit is any fruit that has one or more benefits related to therapeutic health effects or bioactivity beyond it being merely a source of vitamin and mineral nutrients. Further, it may have garnered media focus based on scientific studies or some exotic characteristic, but this is not necessary to be considered a “superfruit.”

What will be the best approach to marketing superfruits in the future?
Clardy: The trend in the future will be to market superfruits with functional and condition-specific benefits. Consumers now care more about memory issues, urinary tract health, or cardiovascular heath, and not as much about ORAC values as they once did because of its overuse—and in some instances, exaggeration of the ORAC value.
Superfruit benefits have to be relevant to consumers, with a personal benefit. There will always be the fascination with exotics or savvy names like yumberry or Miracle Fruit, but that will only take the marketing and popularity so far. There has to be the science, the mode of action, and the clinical studies for specific health claims, as well as pertinent applications.

One area that is evolving is topical and cosmeceutical applications for superfruits. This is still in its infancy stage, as most of the studies that are available are for ingestion as beverage/food or supplement applications. More studies need to be done on the topical and cosmeceutical applications of superfruits.

Quirk: Yes, superfruits that have been shown to have some valuable health benefit will take off with the greatest market impact. Noni and mangosteen were shown to have immune-enhancing and anticancer benefits that made them big sellers in the multilevel marketing community. Yumberry contains the flavonoid known as myricetin that upregulates the same SIR1 gene as resveratrol.
 
References:
1) E Okuyama et al., “The Anxiolytic-Like Principle of the Arillus of Euphoria longana,”  Planta Medica, vol. 65, no. 2 (March 1999):115-119.
2) JT Cheng et al., “Antihypertensive Effect of Corilagin in the Rat,” Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, vol. 73, no. 10 (October 1995):1425-1429.
Additional references can be requested from Brien Quirk at [email protected].