The numbers are still coming in from around the country, but ideal growing weather is resulting in one of the best crops of berries of all kinds in recent history. The fruits are beautiful and plentiful and, as a result, prices are attractive – and berries are showing up in many new food product applications.
“We expect this to be the largest cherry crop in the last 40 years,” says Brent Bradley, vice president of sales and marketing at Graceland Fruit Inc. (www.gracelandfruit.com), a Frankfort, Mich., supplier of infused dried fruits and vegetables. “The weather has been ideal in the major growing regions, specifically northwest Michigan, where the largest portion of the crop is produced.”
The blueberry crop is at an all time high of 432.2 million lbs. for 2009, according to Thomas Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberry.org). “At the same time the portion of the crop that goes to freezing is down slightly. The reason is the fresh market is extremely strong [so] demand has switched some production to this area.”
Still he says, there are plenty of supplies for food processors. “In July and August, we saw extraordinary movement of blueberries, including launches of a number of new blueberry products as manufacturers capitalize on the positive image of blueberries and reasonable price compared to years past.
Bradley claims blueberry prices “have dropped to nearly half of what they were just three years ago.” Although cranberries are yet to be harvested and USDA is projecting slightly less than last year’s record crop, “It likely will be one of the largest crops of cranberries during the last 20 years,” Bradley continues. “The growing region has been expanded, predominantly in Wisconsin, where significant additional acreage has been added. The northeast region, however, is expected to be down dramatically due to exhausted vines and cool, wet weather during pollination season. Cranberry pricing has softened over the past year, and we anticipate that it will stabilize at current levels.”
“Overall, fruit prices are coming down and we’re seeing progressive research and development work,” Bradley continues. “We are hoping to develop new products across the board to take advantage of reduced prices and abundant crops.” On that note, Graceland Fruit added a dryer this spring, increasing the company’s capacity by 40 percent.
One of the biggest selling points of berries is their across-the-board high level of antioxidants. The Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale developed by USDA and Tufts University is a measure of both time and degree of free-radical inhibition by certain foods and spices (spices are especially high in ORAC value). The antioxidant capacity measures are estimated by ferric reducing power, and are expressed as micromole Trolox equivalent (TE) per 100 grams (µTE/100 g).
Wild blueberries have a score of 13,427, higher than domesticated ones. Some other scores follow.
The absorption of antioxidants is another matter; it all depends bioavailability. “Bioavailability has to do with absorption or metabolism in the gut,” explains Ronald Prior, a chemist and nutritionist with the USDA’s Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock, Ark. “What’s absorbed will be impacted by the mechanical structure of different antioxidants in food -- if they’re tied up with fiber or if they have sugar molecules attached.” He told WebMD that by mildly steaming blueberries, for example, the antioxidant level was enhanced, making more antioxidants available to the body.
Red, black and blue
Bright and bold blueberries combine the best nature has to offer: nutrients and luscious flavor. Their natural ORAC score is 2,400. With 80 calories per cup, blueberries are an excellent source of vitamin C. In fact, a serving contains about 14mg or almost 25 percent of the recommended daily value (DV).
Blueberries are a good source of dietary fiber, an excellent source of manganese and polyphenols -- specifically anthocyanins, which give blueberries their blue hue and help neutralize free radicals.
Red raspberries rank in the top 10 antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and they provide important anti-inflammatories, including anthocyanins (the pigments in red, purple and blue fruits), which may help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, macular degeneration and improve memory. Their ORAC score is 1,220.
With only 70 calories, one serving (1 cup) provides 50 percent of a day’s requirement for vitamin C, 32 percent of fiber, 6 percent of folate and magnesium, 5 percent of potassium and 4 percent of calcium, niacin, B6 and phosphorus, plus a touch of zinc.
One of the most exciting developments is that red raspberries, especially the seeds, may become important in the booming cosmeceuticals market (skin care products with health benefits), according to the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, Lynden, Wash. The oil in raspberry seeds is rich in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids and has a natural SPF (sun protection factor) of 25 to 50.
Blackberries are a top fruit source of fiber, an excellent source of vitamin C and are jam-packed with antioxidant phytonutrients that help promote heart health. Harvard and University of North Carolina researchers found that for each 10g of fruit fiber eaten per day (blackberries provide 7g), you may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease death by 30 percent.
Prescribed to cure scurvy in the past, blackberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps protect against infections, cancers and aging. At 75 calories, one cup (144g) is an excellent source of vitamin E, which is beneficial for the heart and circulatory problems. A good source of potassium, manganese and folate, blackberries also contain the soluble fiber pectin, which helps to eliminate cholesterol and protects against environmental toxins.
The high tannin content and resultant antiseptic properties makes them good for tightening tissues as well as treating minor bleeding. They have been found to be beneficial for those suffering from diarrhea, intestinal inflammation and hemorrhoids. Blackberries have been used to treat mild infections, like sore throats and mouth irritations.
Strawberries, the most popular berry fruit in the world, contain unique antioxidant phytonutrients that promote heart health. Anthocyanins, which give berries their red and blue hues, also act as potent antioxidants. Specific antioxidants present in strawberries include quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid, p-coumaric acid, ellagic acid and vitamin C.
At a mere 50 calories, one serving of strawberries (about eight, or 1 cup) is an excellent source of vitamin C, more vitamin C than an orange. Strawberries also contain fiber (2.9g), potassium and folate.
Research suggests the high antioxidant activity of strawberries may help reduce levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and flavonoids may also provide cardio protection by inhibiting platelet aggregation and thromboxane synthesis, according to the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, Calif. In addition, anthocyanins in strawberries may help protect the neuronal cells from inflammation that is linked to declines in cognitive function.
In addition to traditional nutrients, strawberries are also rich in phenolic compounds such as flavonoids and elagic acid, which are the focus of intense study due to their antioxidant, anticancer and antimutagenic properties. They help control three of the risk factors associated with heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high homocysteine levels.
More than nine out of 10 Americans want to know where their food comes from, nearly 80 percent say they’re purchasing locally produced products, and the majority is defining “local” as made in America. About 95 percent of cherries consumed in the U.S. are grown here, with most coming from Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania and New York, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, Mich. Coupled with potential health benefits, this homegrown advantage makes cherries an ideal ingredient for food product development in beverages, snacks, and cereals.
There are some 7,000 cherries on an average cherry tree, which results in more than 100 lbs. per tree per season, and it takes 8 lbs. of cherries to make 1 lb. of dried cherries. Cherries are available in dried, frozen and juice forms.
Cherries contain beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, iron, foliate, fiber and phytonutrients quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid, p-coumaric acid, gallic acid, perillyl alcohol, and D-glucaric acid. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that eating just 1.5 servings of tart cherries can significantly boost antioxidant activity in the body. In the study, healthy adults who ate a cup and a half of frozen cherries had increased levels of antioxidants, specifically five different anthocyanins - the natural antioxidants that give cherries their red color.
“This study documents for the first time that the antioxidants in tart cherries do make it into the human bloodstream and are coupled with increased antioxidant activity that could have a positive impact,” says Sara Warber, co-director of University of Michigan Integrative Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “And while more research is needed, what’s really great is that a reasonable amount of cherries could potentially deliver benefits, like reducing risk factors for heart disease and inflammation.”
Previous animal studies have linked cherries and cherry compounds to important benefits, including helping to lower risk factors for heart disease and impacting inflammation. Cherry-enriched diets can lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce triglycerides. Other benefits of cherries found in animal studies include a 14 percent lower body weight and less “belly fat,” the type linked with increased heart disease risk and type-2 diabetes.
Tart cherries are one of the few known food sources of melatonin, a potent antioxidant that helps regulate our circadian rhythms and natural sleep patterns, and who isn’t sleep-deprived these days?
Also notable, a study from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University supports findings that suggest foods containing quercetin, a natural anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory compound, may be a natural way to help boost the immune system and help fight off infection during flu season.
Amazin’ raisins and plums
Raisins (dried grapes) rank high among antioxidant foods, as well, containing 3,037 ORAC units in 3.5 oz. (about 2/3 cup).
Research has shown that oxidized LDL cholesterol is more likely to be deposited on the artery wall. That buildup has the potential of causing a blockage. Therefore, protecting the LDL from oxidation is an important strategy for heart health – and antioxidant-packed raisins can help. In an 18-week University of California–Davis study, one serving a day of raisins actually helped lower LDL cholesterol and its oxidation in people with high LDL levels.
Raisins also contain catechins, a family of readily absorbed antioxidants which research shows may promote colon health. These helpful compounds are found in apples, grapes and raisins and beverages, such as chocolate, tea and red wine.
Formerly known as prunes, dried plums are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, according to the California Dried Plum Board, Sacramento, Calif. At only 100 calories, a single serving (four to five) has 3g of fiber, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, boron and antioxidant phenolics. In addition to helping maintain healthy blood sugar levels and healthy cholesterol, dried plums promote satiety and may help reduce skin wrinkles.
Perhaps more important, an animal study suggests eating dried plums slows the development of atherosclerosis, which leads to heart disease and stroke. And regarding the laxative effect, research suggests that generally healthy adults can eat 10 to 12 dried plums per day without significant changes in their bowel habits.