Gerry's Insights

Wolfberry; Not just another pretty fruit.

few weeks ago, The New York Times accorded three columns to an obituary of Bill Whitman, mainly for his achievement of having popularized the mangosteen fruit. Until just a few years ago, I would have guessed that mangosteen was just Dutch street slang for mango, so the magnitude of the obit brought me up sharply on how much interest and profit potential there can be in exotic fruits.

Judging by recent trends in the beverage business, Whitman truly deserved all the ink he got, because marketers seeking new concepts have begun to ransack exotic fruits with dizzying frequency. Just as I write this, Frutzzo is claiming to have introduced the first beverage based on the yumberry. (Seriously? This is not just some small spherical globule created by a breakfast cereal company out of sugar, xanthan gum and artificial coloring to throw in among the sugar-coated flakes?)

If you think about it, though, the trend seems almost inevitable. With consumers turning to items they would like to believe are natural and authentic, it stands to reason that hitherto unheard-of fruits, in the right hands, can be presented as compelling new news. Throw in the elevated nutrient levels that many of these contain, and they also play right into the push to offer “functional” products to consumers looking for psychological cover for their Big-Mac-and-fries habits.

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s very rich The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you’ll understand why, as a nation of assimilated immigrants unmoored from their traditional cultures, the United States is particularly susceptible to food fads, swapping one ingredient or nutrient for another as we veer from regimen to regimen. By contrast, traditional food cultures have evolved over centuries to blend locally available food ingredients into just the right recipes to provide a balanced nutritional blend – say, via the protein complements of the rice-and-beans diet seen in many Latino cultures.

Viewed through that lens, exotic fruits can be seen as a fad, yes, but one that at the same time manages to tap into this sense that we are missing out on traditional wisdom. So if that longtime mainstay of caring moms, orange juice, has been demonized out of our diets and some consumers have been educated to steer clear of “junk” components like pear and white grape juice in the “100% juice” beverages they used to feel so good about, replacements have been abundant as previously annoying fruits (pomegranate, anyone?) and unheard-of fruits (mangosteen, açai, acerola, wolfberry, yumberry) suddenly take their place as nutritionally correct. If their exoticism adds a mystique that makes consumers want to drink them even more, well, that’s all for the good, right?

Since many of these fruits really are rich in nutrients, I would say, guardedly, yes. The whole setup can be a win-win situation offering better nutrition for consumers and higher margins for producers in a segment that has always suffered from punishing economics. But there are a few caveats. For one, consumers should not delude themselves about the calorie content of many of these drinks. They may be “better” calories but they’re still calories. More ominously, we seem already to have reached the point where bigger companies are beginning to use these ingredients as flavor notes in otherwise conventionally formulated drinks. Take açai. In my newsletter, I’ve been championing this Brazilian rainforest berry for quite a few years, and I think products made with integrity, like Sambazon’s refrigerated smoothies-in-a-bottle, are a potential boon to consumers. (It’s frustrating that Sambazon doesn’t have a shelf-stable version yet, but the delay stems from the best of reasons: the company so far is unwilling to put up with the nutritional tradeoffs that devising one would entail.) Now think of all the other items – from soft drinks to energy drinks to iced teas – that have popped up in the market over the past year with “açai” in the flavor name but the fruit’s ranking in the ingredient list many slots down from water and sugar. Let’s hope those machinations, as inevitable as they are, don’t end up souring consumers on the promise of these very intriguing fruits.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouch is executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.