Superfruits: Up, Up, and…?

December 1, 2010

Is the superfruit category subject to the law of gravity? The definitive answer is "Yes," "No," or "Maybe," depending on who you ask.

Is the superfruit category subject to the law of gravity? The definitive answer is “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe,” depending on who you ask.

At least one recent report has suggested a slowing, if not an outright decline, in the segment’s upward trajectory. Focusing on functional beverages, a popular delivery format for superfruits,

Chicago-based Mintel reported 2009 sales of $9.1 billion compared to 2008 sales of $9.3 billion. That’s a 2.2% dip.

But SPINS Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) offers a brighter picture. Brent Coons, director of the SPINS Product Library, states, “Validation of superfruit efficacy and the continued buzz in mainstream media of antioxidants position superfruits for continued growth success.”

And Kerry Watson, SPINS Product Library manager, adds, “The general growth of superfruit ingredients is partly due to the number of new products launched over the past year. Product innovation, success in mainstream markets, and the expansion of superfruit ingredients into new food and beverage categories have also fueled the trend.”

SPINS has reported overall combined-channel sales growth of 7.2% this year for the five top-selling superfruits-açai, pomegranate, coconut oil, elderberry, and goji berry. Not that there aren’t some dark spots. Pomegranate sales were off by more than $8 million, or 31.3%, and goji berry slipped slightly-about $148,000 or 1.5%-from its year-ago total.

SPINS determined that the five fastest-growing superfruit ingredients were blueberry, elderberry, cranberry supplements, coconut oil, and noni. Watson proposes that elderberry, noted for its “antiviral properties,” probably benefited from the severity of last year’s flu season.

Statistics like these point to continued success for superfruits. Few, if any, suppliers would disagree.

Nevertheless, as pointed out in a recent white paper from Belleville, NJ–based Ecuadorian Rainforest, “every superhero has its kryptonite...and even the powerful consumer interest in superfruits has its limits.”

The document emphasizes four issues that ingredient suppliers and supplement manufacturers must address to keep them on target-despite the recession, despite the maturation of the category, and despite the ever-present calls for stricter regulation of nutritional products. According to Ecuadorian Rainforest, superfruit suppliers should:

   1. Make a convincing argument that choosing these exotics is superior to simply using commonplace fruits and juices.

2.    Differentiate products by more than just listing the superfruit ingredients (because there are now so many items on the market that consumers are having difficulty distinguishing one from another).

3.    Never let down on product quality, but demonstrate how effectively the fresh fruits’ health powers are translated into new, processed forms. (When it comes to imports, consumers are even more wary.)

4.    Pay close attention to sustainability issues, since increasing numbers of shoppers are factoring environmental concerns into their buying decisions.

Among the superfruit ingredients marketed by Ecuadorian Rainforest are breadfruit, amla, açai, goji, wolfberry, mangosteen, pomegranate, and maqui, which the company identifies as “very popular this year.” Ecuadorian Rainforest literature says that the maqui berry (Aristotelia chilensis) is native to the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, and notes that the leaves “have been used to treat throat troubles, ulcers and febrifuge,” as well as help relax muscle fibers. The plant may even be useful in connection with intestinal tumors, tonsil inflammation, burns, and diarrhea.

Nutraceuticals International LLC (Elmwood Park, NJ) also features maqui in its line. But marketing director Nichole DeBlock thinks that baobab-sometimes called the “upside-down tree” for its peculiar, sparsely leafed branches that resemble root structures-may be an even more exciting new star on the horizon.

She says her firm’s trademarked Baozene ingredient contains high levels of potassium, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, with a 70% fiber content that contains water-soluble polysaccharides with excellent binding properties. Nutraceuticals International is recommending Baozene for use in tablets, capsules, soft drinks, smoothies, cereal, cereal bars, ice cream, yogurts, and more.

Other items in the line include EuphoraBerri (from Euphoria longan, rich in vitamins and minerals), BilBerri (from Vaccinium myrtillus, with high concentrations of tannins, substances that are known to act as both an astringent and an anti-inflammatory), and LycheeBerri (from Litchi chinensis, known for vitamin C and a significant amount of flavonoids).

DeBlock says, “The formula for creating successful products in today’s crowded antioxidant market depends on the age-old method of ‘marketing, marketing, and marketing.’

Consumers demand proof that these antioxidants actually work and often gain confidence once they see ads from large, well-known companies.”

According to Marina Linsley, marketing director of NP Nutra (Rancho Dominguez, CA), “Açai is still the clear leader in the superfruit sector.”

Maqui, she adds, is seen as an emerging superstar. “We have seen very strong demand for this product due to its astonishing levels of antioxidants, including anthocyanins, delphinidin, malvidin, petunidin, cumarins, triterpenes, flavonoids, and cyanidin.”

Other items in the NP Nutra line include noni, mangosteen, pomegranate, goji, aronia, amla, bilberry, elderberry, cili, gac, lingonberry, mulberry, papaya, red raspberry, and yumberry.

Linsley describes the key factor in the success of the company as “consistency in terms of quality, supply and price.”

At San Jose, CA–based Draco Natural Products, several of the usual superfruit suspects are represented, including cili fruit, persimmon, yumberry, blue honeysuckle, euphoria, pomegranate, blackberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, goji berry, and jackfruit.

Brien Quirk, the company’s director of research and development, is particularly high on two products, Blue Honeysuckle Berry Extract 20:1 and Yumberry 20:1. The former, he says, is his choice for the “most promising new superfruit because it contains phytocompounds that are found in many of the other superfruits but at levels that are five times higher than blueberries.”

Yumberry, he notes, contains a high amount of myricetin that has antiaging bioactivity similar to resveratrol. Quirk says, “Draco’s water-extraction and juicing process allows us to claim GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status because the extracts are derived from these foods in the most natural way possible to reconstitute the naturally occurring ratio as found in the whole foods.”

He’s less hopeful about the continued popularity of pomegranate, blueberries, and goji berries as supplements because, he says, “more people may be using the whole foods and juices.”

Nevertheless, he adds, these three still offer opportunities for “cosmetic applications requiring water solubility, low plate count, and the full spectrum of plant bioactive compounds that is difficult to use from the whole fruit.”

Indian gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), also known as amla, amalaki, and amlaki, is the leading superfruit ingredient at Sabinsa. The company, which has U.S. offices in both East Windsor, NJ, and Payson, UT, markets it as a proprietary product under the trade name Saberry.

Lakshmi Prakash, PhD, vice president of innovation and business development, describes Saberry as “a leader among water-soluble phytonutrients in terms of broad-spectrum antioxidant activity.” She says that Saberry has a combined ORACTotal + NORAC value of 358,600 µmol TE/100 g, a HORAC value of 34,500 µmol CAE/100 g, and a SOAC value of 135,100 µmol VitE/100 g. Noting that amla is supported by centuries of traditional use as a health food, and as an adaptogen in Ayurveda, she adds, “Sabinsa’s studies revealed that the standardized extract effectively supports wellness and healthy aging.”

Christian Artaria, marketing director and head of functional food development for Seattle-based Indena S.p.A., lists bilberry, olive fruit, and grapes as the three most important superfruits promoted by his company. He says the major applications investigated so far for Indena’s Mirtoselect bilberry extract include vascular pathologies (chronic venous insufficiency) and ophthalmology (eye protection at the retina level).

There are two olive fruit products-Opextan, which Artaria says supports healthy and beautiful skin, and Oleaselect, which is targeted to cardiovascular health.

Grapes are the basis of Leucoselect, which, according to Artaria, offers such benefits as cardiovascular protection and weight management.

The Indena executive says his firm favors “classic” superfruits with flavors that work for Western consumers. He suggests that some varieties that have achieved recent popularity, such as açai and noni, need to be combined with other ingredients to mask their taste. In Artaria’s view, “Pristine noni juice smells like gorgonzola cheese, and açai has a fatty note that not many people will like.”

Aside from flavor, Artaria calls for solid and well-established science to provide shoppers with evidence of proven biological activity.

In this, he finds himself in agreement with many of the sources for this article. Prakash, for example, says, “This is a very trendy category right now. Time will tell if it goes the way of shark cartilage or has staying power. That depends largely on the efficacy of the products.”

Clinical investigation not only provides shoppers with confidence, but may even point to new applications, she reports. Research on Saberry, for example, “established its efficacy in offering protection against skin damage by ultraviolet radiation. This finding suggests potential applications in sun-care and after-sun-care formulations both from within, in the form of nutritional compositions, and externally as cosmeceutical formulations.”

Looking toward the future, all sources for this article predict strong growth for superfruits. NP Nutra’s Linsley says, “An educated, older population is actively seeking products that will increase their energy and assist them in leading a healthy, active life. Interest in sustainability is growing, increasing the popularity of organic and fair trade products.”

Meanwhile, today, even in an economy clouded with uncertainty, the sector’s sales light still shines green. As Ecuadorian Rainforest points out, even though “superfruit products cost a pretty penny, they may be just the kind of indulgence consumers can afford and want right now.”