The effort to get consumers to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets presents food manufacturers with a challenge, due to the perishable nature of fresh produce. Luckily, a concurrent boom in variety, availability and demand for dried fruits and vegetables provides the perfect solution to processors.
It's no secret fruits and vegetables are healthy and contain a wide variety of disease-fighting compounds. Yet consumers still aren't eating enough to achieve national objectives for consumption. Current USDA recommendations call for up to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. For most adults, that's about two cups of fruit and two and half cups of vegetables.
"Our customers want to make a claim about 'real blueberries,' not blueberry flavor and, if possible, to report how much of a serving of the fruit a consumer gets in the product," says Irv Dorn, sales manager for Van Drunen Farms (www.vandrunenfarms.com), Momence, Ill. "Being able to claim antioxidants also is becoming very important."
The Produce for Better Health Foundation (www.5aday.com) encourages Americans to consider all forms of fruits and vegetables -- fresh, frozen, canned and dried -- in order to meet national recommendations. "Every little bit of fruit you eat in a day counts," says Kathy Hoy, nutrition research manager at Produce for Better Health, "even dried fruit in cereal or trail mix."
Fresh fruit provides juicy flavor and fresh taste, yet dried fruit offers convenience and shelf stability. Both are healthy, but if consumers are having a tough time getting enough fruit in their diet, dried fruit, popping up in more and more convenience foods, may provide opportunities for greater consumption.
According to Produce for Better Health, a serving of dried fruit is one-fourth of a cup compared to one-half cup of canned or fresh fruit. The nutrient value of dried fruit, though not directly equivalent to fresh, comes extremely close depending on the type of fruit and the method of drying.
Methods of drying
There is a lack of scientific evidence quantifying the nutrient retention of fruits after drying, probably due in part to the varying chemical structure of fruits. Because fruits contain so many different nutrients and compounds, isolating them and comparing them across the board is challenging and expensive in comprehensive research studies. Despite some concern, health experts agree there is still great value in eating dried fruit, no matter how it is processed.
"We drum dry, air dry, spray dry, freeze dry," says Dorn. "Freeze drying retains the most color, flavor and shape as well as nutrients. And if a customer wants a 100-percent natural or organic product, freeze-drying is probably best because no additional ingredients are introduced. But freeze-drying also is the most expensive."
"Drum-drying dries fruit at high pressures and temperatures and can remove nutrients, minerals and vitamins. Freeze-drying leaves all of these important items in the product," agrees Jim Merryman, senior vice president at Oregon Freeze Dry Inc. (www.ofd.com), Albany, Ore.
The freeze-drying method of fruit offers processors a number of solutions with minimal drawbacks. Freeze-drying produces fruit that has low moisture content, a long shelf life, less weight and maintains its nutrient integrity. When rehydrated, freeze-dried fruit takes on its original form and taste.
"One of the biggest drawbacks to freeze-dried fruits is they get so dry they pull moisture right out of the air and will get soft over time if not protected from moisture," says Merryman. Other concerns include the expense and energy consumption associated with freeze-drying.
"High energy consumption is part of the reason freeze-drying technology hasn't been applied in many other areas of food manufacturing," says Angela Liu, president and founder of Crispy Green Inc. (www.crispygreen.com), a West Orange, N.J., manufacturer of dried fruit snacks. "On the other hand, the process yields a product that is a close equivalent to fresh fruit, and that's what consumers are looking for."
According to Liu, some fruits are more amenable to freeze-drying, depending on the cell structure of the fruit. For instance, apples will hold their structure when air dried, while peaches won't. Peaches hold their shape and texture better when freeze-dried.
Graceland Fruit Inc. (www.gracelandfruit.com), Frankfort, Mich., uses the infusion method to process a long list of dried fruits and vegetables. The process involves soaking fruit in a medium such as sugar. Heat is added to allow the water to migrate out and the medium to set in. Infused fruit has a shelf life of 12 months.
"Compared to sun-dried fruit, infused fruit is more shelf-stable," says Suzi Mills, marketing and public relations director for Graceland. "Sun-dried fruit is chewier while infused fruit has a soft and moist mouthfeel and a full flavor profile."
However, one processor we talked to voiced concerns over the use of high-fructose corn syrup as the "sugar" medium in infused fruit. This also could create problems for organic certification. Many drum-dried fruits also require a carrier, which can raise concerns for label-conscious consumers, adds Dorn.
Almost every variety of dried fruit from cranberries to raisins is high in fiber. Depending on the fruit's color and chemical makeup, each type of dried fruit has something unique to offer nutritionally. Vitamins A and C are abundant in many dried fruits, but more than fiber or vitamins, it's the antioxidants and phytochemicals found in dried fruits that are making them praiseworthy additions to products.
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities of different foods. It was developed at the National Institute on Aging. Fruits, especially berries, score high on the chart, with prunes at the very top with a score of 5,770, raisins next at 2,830 and blueberries and blackberries in third and fourth places, both scoring above 2,000 (for a complete ORAC chart, see www.FoodProcessing.com and type "ORAC" into the search bar).
Dried tart cherries, which proponents claim to be one of the new "superfruits," pack a large dose of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which possess antiaging, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. They are present in large quantities even after the fruit is dried, negating the argument these compounds are lost after processing.
Cranberries, well known for their role in preventing urinary tract infections, contain proanthocyanins, compounds that exhibit anti-adhesion properties preventing bacteria from adhering to the cell walls of the urinary tract.
Blueberries also boast a stellar nutrition and antioxidant profile with beneficial effects on eyesight, memory and other aspects of aging, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Raisins were the first dried fruit ingredients to be added to cereals. Today, granolas and bran flakes with raisins still line the shelves left and right. "Raisins and prunes are the leaders in the overall dried fruit industry in terms of growth," says Robert Schueller, spokesperson for Melissa's/World Variety Produce (www.melissas.com), Los Angeles. "The processors we sell to are most interested in our dried cranberries and blueberries."
Air-dried cranberries, cherries and apricots do well in granolas and trail mixes. Freeze-dried strawberries, blueberries and bananas are good choices in flaked cereal. Dried blueberries are best suited for thick, heavy batters where fresh or frozen berries may be ruptured.
At Kashi Co., now a part of Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., new Mountain Medley Granola offers sun-dried cranberries and raisins with a pinch of coconut. Two cold cereals stand out in terms of freeze-dried fruit ingredients. Heart to Heart Oat Flakes and Wild Blueberry Clusters were created as a result of consumer attitude surveys. Kashi formulators found Heart to Heart consumers like to top their cereals with fresh blueberries. Meanwhile, organic freeze-dried strawberries are the feature in Kashi's Organic Promise Strawberry Fields cereal.
Dried fruit boasts fiber, vitamins and antioxidants and are part of a healthy diet. Eating dried fruit can be a healthy substitute for sweet desserts or unhealthy snack food products. As an ingredient or stand-alone product, dried fruit can provide nutrition, flavor and satisfaction.
Dried cranberries and blueberries are choice ingredients of VitaTops VitaMuffins from Vitalicious Inc. (www.vitalicious.com), New York. "In developing our first product, we incurred problems using frozen cranberries. We experienced too much water, the muffins were mushy, so we switched to dried," says Aryeh Hecht, president and founder. "You have to take the moisture of the fruit, whether it's fresh, frozen or dried, into consideration when adding fruit to the product."
Minneapolis-based General Mills (www.generalmills.com) is promoting its new dried fruit snack as an easy way to get kids to eat fruit. Fruit Ripples snacks are made from dried apples and contain the nutritional equivalent of one serving of fruit. "We've heard from both parents and kids they really enjoy the fun, ripple shape and crunch of Fruit Ripples snacks," says Sonal Gerten, Fruit Ripples marketing.
Another option in the snack category is Crispy Fruit from Crispy Green, premium freeze-dried fruit packs with 40 or less calories per serving. They come in four varieties: apple, apricot, peach and pineapple. Portability and long shelf-life are two key selling points of Crispy Green snacks.
Cranberries are the star of the show in Ocean Spray's Craisins trail mix. They offer two varieties, one with mixed fruit and nuts and another with chocolate.
Pure Bar (www.thepurebar.com), Holland, Mich., makes raw fruit and nut bars using dried tart cherries, blueberries, raisins, apples and cranberries. "We use minimal processing -- as soon as we can get dried fruit into the bar to maintain the nutrient content, the better," says Veronica Bosgraaf, president and founder. "We don't subject our bars to heat, they are cold-pressed."
Pure Bar also doesn't use fruits that are dried with added sugars. It's more expensive to source dried fruit with no sugars, but according to Bosgraaf the results are worth it.
Vitalicious also uses all-natural, juice-infused, dried fruits in its products. "We try to work with as natural of a product as possible, even though all-natural dried fruit with no added sugar is three to six times more expensive than frozen fruit," says Hecht.
Two makers of bagged salad have gone gourmet with dried fruit additions. Cincinnati-based Fresh Express offers Complete Salad Kits in several varieties, including an Asian style boasting dried cranberries. ReadyPac, Irwindale, Calif., offers a Parisian Complete Salad kit with dried cranberries and a New Asian Complete Salad Kit with dried sweet pineapple.
Dried fruit has held its place as a value-added ingredient for many years, especially in cereal products. A recent surge of healthy dried fruit snacks is evidence processors and marketers know consumers are looking for convenient ways of getting more servings of fruit in their diets. As long as consumers aren't meeting national guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption and as drying technology evolves, the sky's the limit in terms of opportunities for new dried fruit formulations.