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Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.
The opportunities are closer than you think.
Superfruits occupy a big share of the health foods market, with growing consumer awareness of foreign fruits such as açaí berry, goji berry, mangosteen, and noni berry. These and others have earned their special marketing status because of unusually high concentrations of antioxidants and phytonutrients, on top of more familiar macronutrients like vitamin A and C. But, as much as manufacturers are eager to exploit the superfruit trend, is superfruit nutrition really worth the environmental and financial costs of importing these products from halfway around the world?
Not necessarily. A more local option that could capture sustainable-minded shoppers is North America. Thanks to historically fertile land and optimal farming climates, uniquely nutritious crops-let’s call them North American superfruits-have grown here for centuries. It’s just a matter of rediscovering them.
The Concord grape (Vitis labrusca) is as American as apple pie. Known for its characteristic grape taste-it’s the go-to grape variety for jellies-this fruit first grew in Concord, MA, during the mid-1800s, before eventually finding a home in Washington State. Washington is now the world’s largest grower of these grapes, followed by smaller harvests in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.
The Concord grape bears a deep purple skin, and this is not just a coincidence. Its color is derived from extraordinarily high levels of anthocyanin, a polyphenol that acts as a pigment and, likely, a health-promoting compound. Despite controversy over whether anthocyanins are even absorbed into the human bloodstream, studies on purified anthocyanin extracts hint at anti-inflammatory and glucose management support among a slew of other possible benefits for both animals and humans. If anthocyanins aren’t absorbed in the bloodstream, it at least appears that their byproducts are. And this could have implications as deep as the digestive tract.
“Anthocyanins develop short-chain fatty acids, and these short-chain fatty acids are definitely absorbed,” says Eric Johnson, R&D manager for Concord grape ingredient supplier Milne Fruit Products Inc. (Prosser, WA). “Research has shown that these are bioactive compounds, and that they stay in the body for a while. They’re a byproduct of microflora.” A 2012 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that when anthocyanins were mixed into a culture system made to mimic the human large intestines, growth of beneficial bacteria (Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli) increased significantly.
Concord grape is rich in still other polyphenols such as resveratrol, produced as a result of the grape’s immunity to fungal infections. Scientists believe that resveratrol and other polyphenols present in Concord grape may influence immune status, cardiovascular health, preservation of memory function, and improvement of age-
related behavioral deficits. Research is ongoing, and there’s a lot of it.
The Concord grape is available for manufacturer use in a number of formats. Milne Fruit Products offers it as not-from-concentrate juice, juice concentrate, purée concentrate, and extracts of juice byproducts such as skins and seeds.
Brighter in color than the sweet cherry, the tart cherry (Prunus cerasus) grows primarily in Michigan. It has ample stores of red-bearing anthocyanins, and it’s these cherry anthocyanins that motivate the idea that tart cherry consumption can lower inflammation and support muscle recovery. Studies on cherry juice and cherry extracts have found various markers of inflammation to decrease following cherry consumption. The effects appear beneficial for athletes and subjects with gout or arthritis.
Tart cherries are also quite rich in melatonin, a compound involved in the human sleeping cycle. This unusual gift has made tart cherry the subject of recent preliminary sleep studies. While it’s unclear as to why cherries are so high in melatonin, one theory is that melatonin serves to protect these fruits from environmental stress. Melatonin levels vary from variety to variety, and Montmorency cherries appear to offer the highest levels.
Tart cherries are available year-round as concentrates, juices, and extracts.
Consumed by natives for hundreds of years, the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) remains a relevant commodity today. Just last year, the U.S. states of Wisconsin and Massachusetts rolled out about nine million barrels of this stuff. And cranberries aren’t just sought for their tart taste; no, as far as we can tell, this red berry rewards its consumer with urinary health benefit.
Much of the scientific community believes proanthocyanidins (PACs) are the key to cranberry’s bladder support. These compounds-especially rich in cranberry-appear to reduce adhesion of bacteria to the bladder, which would otherwise lead to urinary tract infections. This may very well be true, but Naturex-DBS (Carver, MA) makes a case for better efficacy with its whole cranberry extract versus extracts merely standardized for PACs. It’s a convincing argument, since PACran is the first and only cranberry ingredient to obtain a urinary health claim (South Korea).
Recent studies also suggest a benefit for cranberries against lower urinary tract symptoms and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) in men.
The science behind cranberry makes for an attractive story, but perhaps not so much as the cranberry’s unusual harvesting methods. Cranberry farms are flooded to create cranberry beds or bogs. After harvesting tools loosen berries off of their vines, the berries float up to the water’s surface, and helicopters can be used to collect the now-ripe floating fruits. The unassuming look of these red berries gives little hint of just how complex they really are.
Strawberries are a preferred fruit for North American consumers, but the strawberry industry here is more nuanced than one might expect. While California, Florida, and Oregon strawberries yield their usual nutrients-including high levels of vitamin C, manganese, and folate-one Canadian strawberry is actually quite different.
Orléans strawberry (Fragaria ananassa Duch.) is a mid-sized strawberry, slightly smaller and redder than California varieties. The result of a selective breeding process by Canada’s Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 1990s, the berry gets its name from its exclusive harvest site on L’Île-d’Orléans (Orléans Island), an island east of Quebec City. And it may very well get a reputation for diabetes management.
Nutra Canada (Champlain, QC, Canada), the exclusive processor of this fruit, says that the Orléans strawberry is unusually high in a plant hormone called abscisic acid. When in vivo and in vitro assays showed benefits of glucose transport and inflammatory markers with the strawberry extract, the company presumed it could be due to abscisic acid. A trial on rats consuming high-fat diets with or without strawberry and cranberry extracts found reduced incidence of glycemia (high blood glucose), and Nutra Canada hopes that its ongoing 12-week trial on 60 humans consuming Orléans strawberry will reconfirm these effects.
Something peculiar appears to be happening with the fruit’s stability, as well. While a normal strawberry will begin to rot after a few days at room temperature, Nutra Canada says its strawberry can sit significantly longer without issue. An antimicrobial composition particular to the Orléans strawberry may be working here, and who knows what implications this may have beyond product shelf life.
The strawberry is available as an extract for tablets, capsules, and sachets.
Not only are there cultivated blueberries-the type most often found in fresh produce aisles-but there are also wild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), a totally different species of blueberry harvested primarily in Maine, Eastern Canada, and Quebec. Both varieties are charismatically nutritious, and yet limited research finds the wild variety to bear higher stores of phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, total polyphenols, and antioxidant capacity.
The stark difference in phenolics is likely attributed to each berry’s growing conditions, says John Sauvé, president of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, which represents growers and processors throughout the country. Because wild blueberries grow in harsher conditions, “they are stressed to a much higher level than cultivated blueberries might be to protect themselves,” he says. The resulting protection is rife with antioxidants. Manufacturers eager to market a blueberry product rich with anthocyanins should avoid high temperatures, as heat can degrade this compound.
Compared to cultivated blueberries, wild ones may also offer more pronounced taste because of their reduced water content. Visually, wild blueberries may also benefit food processors because of a higher piece count. The smaller size of the wild blueberry enables manufacturers to produce consumer-packaged foods, such as muffins and bars, with more individual berries.
Wild blueberries are available as fresh berries, individual quick-frozen berries, concentrate, purée, powder, and extract.
Technically, the Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) isn’t a berry, but a pome fruit, like the apple. This fruit is rich in anthocyanins, vitamin E, manganese, and unsaturated fatty acid. It also bears a very high amount of fiber, which can benefit heart-health marketing purposes. Despite its abundant nutrients, the Saskatoon berry remains quite unknown outside of its growing regions.
A curious area of preliminary Saskatoon berry research concerns kidney and heart disease. The government of Manitoba’s Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network is now investing financial interest in these berries because of their natural presence of cycloxygenase inhibitors similar to those found in the pain reliever ibuprofen. A Phase 1 human clinical trial will explore the potential effect of these berries on kidney disease patients.
Prairie Berries Inc. (Keeler, SK, Canada) is largely credited with putting these berries on the map for food processing use. An exclusive partnership with Select Ingredients Inc. (San Diego) has made the Canadian company’s “June berries” readily available to U.S. manufacturers as whole berry, purée, single-strength juice, juice concentrate, and soluble juice powder.