Have Superfruits Assumed the Role of Traditional Berries?

English poet John Gay once wondered if he could ever find anything "ruddier than the cherry, sweeter than the berry." In the current antioxidant-infused superfruit blitz, would Gay express the same sentiment about the glow of the mangosteen, the sweetness of acai, or the ORAC value of the goji berry?

Many wonder if the "cutting edge" superfruits trend will dampen demand for distinguished staples such as blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries. If so, has superfruit popularity affected the future of marketing traditional berries?

The superfruit beverage industry sold 77.5 million gallons in 2007, up from 37.7 million gallons five years earlier, and saw a 13% sales increase from $662 million in 2006, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC; Houston). BMC attributes much of the category's dynamic growth to successful marketing, namely due to the use of terms such as superfruits, antioxidants, and antiinflammation.

With barrels of chic superfruits like mangosteen, maqui, and acai marketed for their exotic nature and new-fangled presence, the glaring fact remains that only so much science and substantiation exists for their benefits.

"Antioxidants are great no matter where they come from, but fruits like blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and even cranberries have been dietary staples for so long that they have much greater history and studies conducted on them," said Colleen Zammer of Futureceuticals (Momence, IL).

"When people talk about superfruits we always like to remind them that blueberries, cranberries, and cherries are some of the most super ones we have with real benefits that have been studied and measured," she added.

Indeed, research presented at last October's American Dietary Association's (ADA; Denver) Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo linked tart cherry consumption to lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease in animals. Earlier this year, a Texas A&M University study also lauded the simple cancer-fighting capability of plums. The study found the phytonutrients in the fruit inhibited in vitro breast cancer growth without adversely affecting normal cell growth.

"Stone fruits are superfruits, with plums as emerging stars," concluded Luis Cisneros, PhD, the study's coauthor, claiming that one relatively inexpensive plum contains approximately the same amount of antioxidants as a handful of more-expensive blueberries. In turn, even "blueberries have some stiff competition."

While exciting, superfruits take the backseat when compared with more-established fruits. This is mostly because superfruit studies are "restricted to the early stage of animal studies rather than the human clinical trial stage," said Brien Quirk of Draco Natural Products (San Jose). Quirk admitted that the greatest number of blending requests at Draco are for blueberries and goji berries for their standard, established high ORAC values.

Perhaps the exploration of new superfruits should then be coupled with more-effective extraction processes. Stephen Talcott, PhD, of Texas A&M University, for example, developed an extraction process for the acai berry in 2007.

"The starting material to obtain acai oil has a high concentration of acai fruit solids, which are included in the acai oil, and have very low moisture content," Talcott said.

The process used to extract the acai oil simultaneously extracts the phytochemicals, thus serving to concentrate acai phytochemicals into the oil. "This is why the acai oil processed this way has considerably more phytochemicals than the original acai fruit."

ORAC VALUES CAN BE EASILY INFLATED

Because there is no industry standard for measuring ORAC values, manufacturers can easily overinflate the value of their foods and supplements. "Different labs may measure these ORAC values differently, and each batch of an herb, fruit, or vegetable could have a slightly or moderately different ORAC value based on ripeness, soil, season of grown, and other factors," commented Ray Sahelian, PhD, of Los Angeles.

The values of a particular food vary based on growing conditions, processing conditions, analytical procedure, and variety. Thus, although ORAC values are useful, they only measure the degradation of fluorescein and do not identify free radicals involved. In turn, there is a weak relationship between ORAC values and health benefits because there are numerous other health factors involved, such as metabolism of phytochemicals and their absorption into the body's blood and cells.

As consumers hear more about the concept of ORAC value, they may give more importance to this value than is perhaps justified. "There are many beneficial substances in plants and herbs that have no relation to their ORAC value. It is simplistic to think one can know the ideal diet or supplement use by ORAC value alone," Sahelian continued.

Many fruits, he says, in addition to their antioxidant properties, have an influence on other aspects of health, for better or worse.

"For instance, goji berries have a high antioxidant value, but if too high a dose is taken of the supplement, it could cause alertness and shallow sleep. By preventing deep sleep, high doses of goji could actually be harmful," he warned.

Every product has benefits outside of its ORAC measure, showing that numbers on a label are not the health be-all and end-all of the antioixdant world.

Manufacturers could follow suit with more-advanced methods to isolate phytonutrient levels to ensure the greatest amount of bang for the consumer's buck.

Regardless of the fruit, solid clinical studies must be present to substantiate what's advertised. Otherwise, lack of studies severely "limit the confidence in structure-function claims that product manufacturers are able to make," Quirk said.

Only time will tell what new fruit, if any, John Gay would have added to his sweet, sweet poem.