Strange Fruit

I’ve just had my first taste of Wolfberry, and before I’ve even had the opportunity to drop my sample cup in the trash, the selling has begun.

An ingredient company rep is running through a litany of advantages owned by this burgeoning “superfood,” including its antioxidant properties and its link to Tibetan monks, who, in the process of living a long, blissful life, apparently eat these things by the fistful. She doesn’t mention that it’s also known as Goji berry, but it is.

Skeptic that I am, of course, I think it’s a bit farfetched, although I’m always willing to be convinced. But before I even have a chance to hear her argue for the consumer appeal of a product whose main selling point appears to be a tenuous link to the Dalai Lama – not a real licensing wizard, the Lama – I’ve got another sample in my hand, for a ginger/mango extract that’s supposed to clear up my face. And then a green tea and mangosteen blend that’s supposed to “help with stress.” What do they mean by that? It increases stress? What happens if I drink it with Wolfberry? Will I be cranked up but not cranky?

And what about these other products, all of which are bubbling away down the aisle at this gathering of food technologists? These various mixtures of juices and extracts designed to create the next functional beverage craze? How many of them will be adopted from their obscure origins to become another mainstream juice, then launch a set of juice coolers, followed by a dozen or two purple- or yellow-looking enhanced waters fortified with that fruit, in what has become an established pattern of dissemination: high-end, glass-bottled juice to enhanced water flavoring and gourmet soda, to sports drink and energy drink flavor, followed by an excursion into the cocktail world, either as a mixer or a flavoring, and then finally the arrival of the fruit as either a high-end vodka or a DeKuyper flavor. That was certainly the path followed by both pomegranate and Acai, the most popular exotic, antioxidant-laden superfruits of recent vintage.

At a time when natural foods and functional foods are colliding in the supermarket and smoothie bars of the world, the search for the next great fruit is one of global proportions. The idea that a massive Indonesian mangosteen from South America, or a stinky durian from Thailand, or even a handful of tiny Maine blueberries might be the main ingredient in the next great American juice craze is one that has beverage companies scouring the planet for odd patches of saleable cellulose.

“This guru group of people, these ‘early adopters,’ are all over the globe,” says Barr Hogen, a former chef who now provides flavor and nutrition advice for companies that include the Coca-Cola Co.-owned Odwalla. “It’s all about keeping the palate intrigued with new flavors and fruits.”

Fortunately, as a retailer, you’re not going to have to hack and slash your way across the five continents. But you’re still going to have to find your way through the miracle juice jungle, where Wolfberries and Dragonfruit lurk to sink their fangs into your shelf space – or maybe to provide an exotic boost to your bottom line. That’s because the right kind of juice can indeed becoming a raging beast at the register. Again, look at pomegranate, which, over a two-year period, launched a fresh juice-based incursion into the produce aisle almost entirely by itself. Or the cranberry, that once inedible bogfruit that became the source of all juice cocktails, as well as a remedy for all manner of physical problems. Or the once-unknown Acai berry, a jungle product whose popularity has soared so much in the past five years that it has caused price spikes that have reportedly made it hard to acquire for the Brazilian villagers who have lived off it for years.

We can’t predict the future completely, but our discussions with various beverage marketers and flavor houses have left us convinced that the high-end juice market will indeed be one that continues to expand geographically to include a wide variety of what are now considered exotic fruits. The reason for this expansion is the ongoing influence of functionality on the beverage market overall, combined with the potential for naturally-occurring functionality within the fruits themselves. As customers “shop the perimeter” of groceries with increased frequency, and as packaging and shipping improvements allow more of the nutritional qualities of juices to remain intact on their journeys to various sales channels, juices will become more closely associated with functionality than ever before.

A study from the Hartman Group, food market research firm in Bellevue, Wash. recently indicated that 100 percent juice is considered the 2nd most popular “healthy beverage” consumers seek out, behind plain water, and is a more popular source for vitamin and mineral fortification than fast-growing products like enhanced waters. And that fortification often happens through the proper blending of various juices.

But it goes beyond a simple “Extra C” notation these days. One of the hottest label parts for fruit juices in the coming years will be Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity – ORAC – a measure of the strength of the mix of antioxidants present in the fruit juice. Absorbing “free radicals” – those rogue sources of cell decay that are tied to all manner of awful disease, particularly cancer.

The idea that a juice might provide a secret source of longevity or bone health or fight heart disease is one that’s not overly modern – it’s just that the search for the science behind what might once have been considered folk remedy has dovetailed with a society that is increasingly interested in the gourmet.

“In addition to health, people are looking for anything new, as well,” says Paul Riker, the manager of manager of beverage applications for the ingredient company Mastertaste. “There’s always a new story behind a new superfruit. Some of them aren’t necessarily the best-tasting on their own, but in a combination they are very acceptable – particularly as part of a beverage.”

And these superfruits are also potentially healthy for the bottom line – one need look no further than at the growing success of cold premium juices in the produce aisle to understand that consumers will pay up for exotics. Of course, if you’re planning to stock up, you should know what you’re stocking – and what to request from your marketer or distributor. That’s what happened with wonder-fruit Acai, for example, which shot up in popularity after its initial importation by Sambazon only after retailers began demanding it on behalf of their consumers.

“The retailer kept going back and saying ‘hey, how come you don’t have Acai?” Hogen said.

So here’s a list of some of the superfruits of the future. They’re the ones you should be looking for down the line, along with some information on their origin and purpose. Note that upon hearing about these products, you should be prepared to strike, because you might be able to be the only retailer carrying it for a long time to come.

“I met Jeremy and Ryan Black (the founders of Sambazon) seven or eight years ago, and they were basically sneaking into shows,” she says. “Their work is really starting to pay off, but it took a while.”

According to Hogen, there’s still a wide horizon for Acai, which has just broken into mainstream products as both a flavoring and additive. But she’s also very interested in the Lucuma Fruit. “It’s the #1 flavor for ice cream in Peru,” she said. “It’s ground up into a powder for import, and it’s high in potassium, beta carotene and Niacin.”

Another adventurous company is Adina, whose founder, Greg Steltenpohl has looked far and wide for products that will fit into his “miracle fruits” line. While he, too, uses pomegranate, he’s also interested in the Tamarind – a high antioxidant, vitamin C-enhancing product popular in Mexico and India – and has incorporated products like Mangosteen (sweet and creamy, with a high antioxidant count), and even Purple Maize, a nutrient rich corn from South America that is high in anthocyanins, another antioxidant compound.

The reason behind all this interest in antioxidants? “There was an old study that the greatest source of antioxidant in the US diet is ketchup on French fries,” says Steltenpohl. “From an on-the-road, on-the-go standpoint, beverages are the best delivery system for high amounts of antioxidants, and that’s not going to change. The food technologists have to keep working on serious products that can deliver.”

From that food technologist side comes the opinion of Riker and his Mastertaste beverage compadre Steve Fowler.

Both have very high opinions with regard to the Goji berry (there’s that Wolfberry again!), noting it has already made it into products like Anheuser-Busch’s 180 energy drink, in addition to other juices.

“Goji is really an up-and-coming one,” Fowler said. “It’s astringent, almost cranberryish in taste, and in addition to its antioxidant properties, it might enhance the immune system, and help offer insulin resistance.”

For a less astringent high-antioxidant fruit, Fowler has another, more domestic idea: the wild blueberry. “It’s hard to beat – they’re right at the top,” he says.

“Acerola is another one that’s finding some use,” Riker said. “It’s also very sour, but it’s high in vitamin C.”

With all of these juices, excepting mangosteen, blending is the key, the technologists agree. But that might not be the worst thing in the world, Steltenpohl says, both from the standpoint of bringing a variety of potentially salubrious effects to the same drink, and from a straight flavor aspect, as well.

“That’s one of the things I love – people really enjoy exploring new flavors,” says Roland Smart, the marketing director for Adina. “Tasting these beverages is a more complex experience than the others that are on the market. You really get the beginning, middle, and end to the flavor.”

The more exotic, the better for juicemakers.

by: Jeffrey Klineman