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."