Trendy Fruits, Nuts, And Vegetables

From heirloom potatoes and tomatoes to near-superfruits cranberries and blueberries, consumers are nuts about nature’s health benefits.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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The trendy spud?

For decades, the most popular American vegetable has been the potato, and its most popular application has been the french fry. Although association with fast food has damaged its image as a healthy carbohydrate, the misunderstood spud also found itself involved in a much more important trend.

Ever heard of the Baby Dutch Yellow? How about the Ruby Gold? Those varieties of potatoes are among the trends to watch in the coming year, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc. (www.melissas.com), Los Angeles. It turns out colorful specialty potatoes are rich in anthocyanins, the potent polyphenols that first drew attention to red wine and then to colorful berries as protective foods for cardiovascular health.

 

If you can identify their variety, even the simple spud can become trendy.

 

The May 2007 issue of Carcinogenesis carries the article “Anthocyanin fraction from potato extracts is cytotoxic to prostate cancer cells through activation of caspase-dependent and caspase-independent pathways.” It says extracts from specialty potatoes killed specific cancer cells in vitro by a previously undescribed mechanism. While there is little reason to believe this article noticeably altered potato consumption, it is a further demonstration of one of the most persistent trends in fruit or vegetable consumption: Rich, bright color is hot.

Of all the mixed messages one may glean from the nutrition headlines, this colorful and highly palatable one seems to have resonated, converting both common and obscure foods along with their applications into “trendy” items.

Consider the composition of AnthoComplete, a new anthocyanin-rich nutritional blend ingredient created by FutureCeuticals Inc., (www.futureceuticals.com), Momence, Ill., a division of Van Drunen Farms. AnthoComplete is a proprietary blend that includes anthocyanins from wild bilberry, blueberry, acai, blackcurrant, sweet cherry, raspberry, elderberry, blackberry, black soybean hull and blue corn. Though seasonally popular, none of these foods was trendy until the antioxidant wave hit the shores.

 

Blueberries’ high score on the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale boosted their popularity.

 

“Blueberries aren’t new, but the technology behind developing a proprietary blueberry extract and measuring its biological impact on conditions such as inflammation and elevated cholesterol has helped to drive its popularity,” says Colleen Zammer, sales director for FutureCeuticals. Anthocyanins have turned many humble fruits into “superfruits.”

Rise of the superfruits

“Superfruits have seen strong popularity growth recently due to their high antioxidant levels and, for some, their exotic nature,” Zammer continues. A few of the more exotic superfruits include acai, camu camu, whole coffee fruit and goji berry. “Now, blends of superfruits are seeing growth as companies look for ways to differentiate their finished products.”

And just as healthy foods vary in nutrient levels, they also have different antioxidant profiles, each providing a set of unique anthocyanins. A broad range of anthocyanins would normally be obtained from a healthy diet. “Combining traditional berries with more exotic superfruits allows a manufacturer to optimize health benefits while maintaining a proprietary edge that is less easily copied,” adds Zammer.

 

While their health message isn’t widely known, tart cherries have the most anthocyanins 1 and 2, and are finding their way into more applications.

 

Research conducted at Michigan State University found tart cherries, the ones we stuff into cherry pies, contain the highest concentrations of anthocyanins 1 and 2. These unique anthocyanins act like popular pain medication, hindering the ability of the Cox I and II enzymes to convert arachidonic acid to inflammatory prostaglandins, which may explain why some people find tart cherries ease the pain of arthritis and gout.
In addition, tart cherries are among nature’s richest sources of natural melatonin, a chemical produced also in the pineal gland of vertebrate animals.

Melatonin acts both as a protective antioxidant and a sleep aid, helping to regulate circadian rhythms.
Tart cherries are now making regular appearances in juices, jams, and raw food bars.

For example, a popular flavor in the Lara Bars lineup (by Denver-based Humm Foods Inc., www.larabar.com), a raw food combination of dates, nuts, and tart cherries, is appropriately named cherry pie. The Cherry Marketing Institute (www.choosecherries.com), Lansing, Mich., is promoting tart cherries as a “superfruit” with vast potential outside of the pie.

Anthocyanins and related phytochemicals have sent many foods through an image transformation. Decas Cranberry Products (www.decascranberry.com), Carver, Mass., has been supplying cranberries for decades, back when we only thought of them around Thanksgiving. Their image began to change when some doctors started recommending cranberry juice for urinary tract infections.

When anthocyanins made antioxidant news, the cranberry image changed forever. Decas now supplies 40-50 million lbs. of cranberries and cranberry products to consumers, retailers, food processors and other customers each year.

A similar transformation occurred with pomegranates when the word of its role in preventing plaque formation in cardiac vessels hit the airways. Pomegranates went from an exotic Middle Eastern fruit to a trendy juice. An early advocate, Pom Wonderful LLC (www.pomwonderful.com), Los Angeles, is now the largest grower of pomegranates in the U.S.

Research presented at the 37th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November of 2007 suggests the addition of both walnuts and blueberries to the diet might reduce the loss of cognitive brain function that occurs with disease and aging. The study on blueberries, conducted by researchers at the University of South Florida and the UDSA Human Nutrition Lab at Tufts University in Boston, found supplementing the diet of aged rats with 2 percent blueberry extract for eight weeks resulted in maintenance of neuronal connections that are associated with younger brain circuitry. Two percent blueberry extract is the equivalent of adding about a half-cup of blueberries to a person’s daily diet.

U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberry.org), Folsom, Calif., maintains an extensive list of foodservice recipes and industrial applications for blueberries, from smoothies to sausages, and wines to teas. The Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission (www.oregon-berries.com), Corvallis, Ore. supplies detailed guides on the selection and use of not only raspberries and blackberries, but also of marionberries, boysenberries, and loganberries, all with similar properties to blueberries.

Americans aren’t rushing in hordes to the produce isle just yet. Healthy trends in the use of fruits and vegetables, super or not, are inseparable from the application. “Consumers are increasingly demanding healthy beverages in convenient, easy-to-use formats,” says Zammer. In response, FutureCeuticals and other ingredient manufacturers now find it necessary to develop high-tech nutraceutical beverage formulations.

“Consumers [want to] derive the benefits from fruits, vegetables and grains in handy snacks that don’t require refrigeration or clean up,” she says. As a result, applications also are being developed in breakfast cereals, bars, confection-type products and snacks (including recently introduced fruit- and vegetable-fortified chips).

'You coulda had a vegetable’

The dark fruit and berry craze is invading some unexpected places. The attraction to V-8 juices always has been that nine out of 10 Americans don’t meet the recommended daily intake for vegetables and fruit. “I coulda had a V-8,” reminded consumers there was an easy, convenient, and painless way to get healthy vegetables into the diet.

Campbell Soup Co.’s new V8 V-Fusion line (www.v8juice.com) Camden, N.J., is aimed at consumers who don’t need to know they are drinking vegetables, but who do want to take advantage of the health benefits of superfuits. Pomegranate Blueberry flavor recently was joined by Acai Mixed Berry. Most consumers don’t notice they are also drinking sweet potatoes and purple carrots in their blast of berry.

Just as the trends have followed function in fruits, the same is true of vegetables. “Vegetables that can be shown to activate Phase II Enzymes are gaining in popularity in nutraceutical research and in the marketplace,” says Zammer. Phase II Enzyme-inducing vegetables, which have potential to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, include the well-known cruciferous family: broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower.

In addition to colorful potatoes, Schueller sees trendy gourmet vegetable items like mini sweet peppers, purple baby artichokes and mixed baby heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a throwback to the era when farmers markets carried dozens of varieties of tomatoes. They were juicy, rich in real tomato flavor and nutritionally superior to many modern varieties.

Lycopene, the natural carotinoid antioxidant associated with prostate health, is found primarily in tomatoes and tomato products. In fact, a derivative of one of the heirloom tomatoes called the tangerine tomato is the richest source of the cis isomer of lycopene, which tends to increase lycopene concentration in blood.

V8’s Vegetable Juice and new High Fiber version contains about four times the amount of lycopene found in a medium-sized red tomato. As yet there is no tangerine tomato sauce.

Nuts about antioxidants

Research presented at the Society for Neuroscience in November of 2007 indicated the protective effect of walnuts on aging rat brains was partly due to the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content, the shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids characteristic of plants. Often overlooked is that walnuts are also a rich source of omega-6, the first described family of essential fatty acid. And while there is no short supply of omega-6 in the modern diet, many of the richest sources are also loaded with trans fatty acids.
“The good fat in walnuts [omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids] causes them to oxidize more quickly than other types of tree nuts so, you often will not see walnuts in items that require a shelf life longer than 12 months,” says Michelle McNeil, marketing director of the California Walnut Board & Commission (www.walnuts.org), Folsom, Calif.

Walnuts contain a variety of other compounds that may contribute to their overall antioxidant activity, including melatonin, ellagic acid, gamma-tocopherol, carotenoids, and polyphenolic compounds.

Will walnuts follow the trend of other nuts into the milk category? “I have not heard that a walnut milk will be coming to the U.S. domestic market however; walnut milk is a popular item in South Korea, one of our export markets,” continues McNeil. She does point out recent walnutty retail products including Cranberry, Walnut & Gorgonzola salad dressing from Trader Joe’s and Caramel Nut Cereal from Post. “A personal favorite is the Butternut Squash Ravioli from Lean Cuisine with a walnut cream sauce,” she adds.

Alpha-linolenic acid is the form of omega-3s found in the increasingly popular organic roasted flax seeds, another trendy member of the nut and seed category, and a favorite for all vegetarian applications. Flax seeds are also rich in lignans, plant chemicals known as phytoestrogens, which are similar to soybean isoflavones and may act as potent antioxidants.

Omega-3s can be found in other trendy places. Decas found them in the seeds of cranberries. OmegaCran oil is expeller process cold-pressed from the seeds of the cranberry via a proprietary method that uses no solvents or chemicals. It is rich in tocotrienols (vitamin E), the omega-6 and omega-9 families of fatty acids and has no fishy taste.

The almond trend continues to boom with each new bit of research. In fact, 2006 saw a 13 percent jump in new products featuring almonds. Even though almonds aren’t antioxidant stars, their use can help to reduce the oxidative stress created by processed foods.

“In baking, for example, culinary experts and research indicate almonds’ good fats can act as a replacement for other fats [generally trans fat-rich partially hydrogenated oils] and even reduce the addition of carbohydrates,” says Harbinder Maan, manager of foodservice and industrial marketing for the Almond Board of California (www.almondboard.com), Modesto, Calif. “Almonds’ meatiness is a great binding agent in baking and cooking, and they decrease the specific gravity in batter.”
Trends are fickle, and trying to predict what will catch the consumer’s eye can be a tricky and expensive business. But certain basics do apply when attempting to understand the increasingly health-conscious consumer. Maybe they could be summed up by the expression “form follows function.” First make sure the food provides value; increasingly that means well-researched benefits. Then you can be as creative as you want.

Note to Marketing

There are two great opportunities here. First, consumers currently are showing a great interest in heirloom fruits and vegetables or any food product for which you can identify the source location. A Ruby Gold potato or Black Krim tomato has cachet.

Second, a health claim is a powerful statement on any food product label. Of the 12 FDA-accepted health claims meeting “significant scientific agreement,” seven are related to fruits, nuts and vegetables:
* Fiber-containing grain products, fruits, and vegetables and cancer.
* Fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and risk of coronary heart disease.
* Fruits and vegetables and cancer.
* Folate and neural tube defects.
* Soluble fiber from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease.
* Soy protein and risk of coronary heart disease.
* Plant sterol/stanol esters and risk of coronary heart disease.

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