Fruit has an unbeatable aura when it comes to processed food. Fruit tastes good, looks good, and is good for you. No wonder then that fruit continues to play an outsized role in processed snacks.
This has never been more true than right now.
“COVID-19 has turned consumer attention to immunity,” notes Gary Augustine, director of marketing for Van Drunen Farms. “More than ever before, consumers are looking for ways to boost immunity and their overall health — leading to a high demand for snack foods that feature fruits known to support immune wellness.”
Of course, snacks aren’t generally consumed for their nutrient value. But snacks containing fruit do have the appeal of being better for you than other snacks.
“Consumers’ interest in healthy foods is continuing to grow,” notes Greg May, a business development manager for ingredients at Welch Foods Inc. “Fruit ingredients are a great way to incorporate great taste while developing healthier products.”
Van Drunen Farms is known for fruit ingredients ranging from apples to currants to dragon fruit. But for pure, dramatic health appeal, nothing comes close to their newest products.
“We are now offering maqui berry and açai, two exotic superfoods known to be antioxidant powerhouses,” Augustine says. “Maqui berry and açai are ideal for better-for-you indulgences — like dark chocolate and on-the-go bars.”
Van Drunen offers these two exotic fruits freeze dried, which helps maintain their color, flavor and nutritional value. Açai, which is native to central and south America, is rich in the antioxidant known as anthocyanin, which improves skin health and may play a role in cancer prevention. Maqui berries, grown in Chile and Argentina, also are loaded with anthocyanin.
A snack on the market now that includes maqui is Righteously Raw Macqui Rose Truffle Bars. A snack with açai is Matt’s Munchies Mango Acai Fruit Snack.
Augustine adds that Van Drunen is making it easier for food processors to include fruit and vegetable servings in their shelf-stable snack foods through a program called TruServ. “By connecting our ingredient production data to the USDA nutritional database, we are able to provide verified servings of fruit and vegetables. TruServ offers an expansive variety of freeze-dried fruit ingredients that are being used in on-trend applications — like functional bars, healthy indulgence baked goods, chips, and more — to deliver real serving or piece claims.”
Familiar but fun
Another fruit that provides a big dose of antioxidants – and is more familiar to American palates – is the blueberry. Though everyone knows this tasty little berry, its use in snack foods is still growing: According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, blueberry snacks increased worldwide by nearly 22 percent between 2017 and 2019.
In addition to antioxidants, blueberries contain vitamins C and K, manganese and fiber.
“Blueberries are an on-trend fruit,” says Alicia Adler, vice president of USHBC. “Most innovation among blueberry-containing snack products has taken place in the energy bar, fruit snack and snack mix categories.”
Blueberries come in a large variety of formats, increasing their appeal among snack manufacturers.
“There is high demand for frozen and intermediate-moisture blueberry products such as dehydrated, infused-dried, crumbles and other ingredients,” Adler says. “Over the past three years, low moisture (4% or lower) products such as powders, fibers, and flakes have become extremely popular in extruded products such as cereals, snacks, and powdered beverage mixes.”
Recent examples of bars containing blueberry include the Blueberry Almond Plant-Based Protein Bar from Orgain and the Mixed Berry & Chia Seed Collagen Protein Bar from Kind Rebels. Blueberry powder adds color, flavor and the appearance of blueberry particulate in Marich Dark Chocolate Blueberries. And whole dried blueberries are a key ingredient of Kroger Probiotic Dried Berries & Plums.
Adler notes that pairing blueberries with plant-based proteins may be a growth opportunity for food processors.
“Given their healthful image and richness in vitamins and minerals, this type of combination seems natural,” she says. “Based on a snack market analysis by Mintel, in the post-COVID-19 era, consumers will be interested in products that not only provide energy, but provide functional benefit.”
The great grape
Grapes also add a nutritional punch, Welch Food’s May says.
“Polyphenols give Concord grapes their vibrant purple color, and research has shown they can act as antioxidants and deliver benefits for health,” May explains. “Nearly 20 years of research shows that Concord grape juice helps support a healthy heart. And, while more research is needed, early studies suggest that Concord grape juice may provide benefits in other areas of health, including mind health.”
Grapes are most commonly added to snacks as juice concentrates or purees, May says, adding that grape puree adds texture and a defined fruit presence to snacks. Popular snack products that contain grape puree include Outshine Grape Fruit Bars, Welch’s Concord Grape Fruit Snacks and Stretch Island Grape Fruit Leather.
Like most other fruits, a major appeal of grapes in snacks is that it adds sweetness. But that sweetness comes without added sugar, which is a benefit consumers love.
“Fruit purees deliver natural sweetness, but their sugar content isn’t considered to be added sugar by the FDA,” May explains. “This means they offer a good option for food companies who prefer not to see added sugar on their Nutrition Facts panels or wish to minimize the amount of added sugars they are obliged to declare.”
Cranberries: Beyond sweet
One healthy fruit that is finding more snack applications, but that is not particularly sweet, is the cranberry. Cranberries are high in antioxidants and fiber and are known for helping prevent urinary tract infections.
A recent trend in cranberries is the topical addition of a flavoring, says Haley Noonan, regional sales manager of Graceland Fruit Inc. which produces dried cranberries, blueberries and cherries.
“Historically we’ve mostly seen fruit flavor topically applied, but now some companies are trying to add flavor to the fruit itself,” Noonan explains. “Like a chile cranberry or a chipotle cranberry. So the flavoring doesn’t have to be sweet – it can also be savory.”
Dried cranberries and other fruit pieces are often found in trail mixes and other bagged snacks – consider Ocean Spray Craisins and Nature’s Garden Omega-3 Trail Mix. Noonan says Graceland performs a lot of lab work to make sure the fruit pieces flow well on processors’ equipment.
“Food processors tend to want something that is flowable and doesn’t clog up bagging machines,” Noonan notes. “They want singular pieces that run nicely through the process, not big clumps that clog up their equipment. That affects their downtime.
“We are trying to find a correlation between firmness and moisture content and how that affects the stickiness of the product. Producers want things that are flowable, but they don’t want it too hard and dry either.”
Graceland Fruit has innovated for its Soft-N-Frozen product line. These are cane sugar-infused frozen fruit pieces – including cranberries, blueberries, cherries and other fruits – that are easy to scoop and deliver an appealing texture and taste.
“Because it is infused, the Soft-N-Frozen pieces have better fruit piece integrity and are softer than IQF fruit, which can get frosty and hard,” Noonan says. “The primary application is premium ice cream.”
“Obviously I’m biased, but it seems to me that peaches evoke a little different passion than other fruits,” McGehee says. “They’re a member of the rose family. That’s why the scent of the peach is intoxicating. I feel that’s why peaches are so popular for ingredients. You can smell them.”
And peaches are healthy, he adds. They offer vitamins C and D and potassium.
Peach products – primarily puree, slices and dices – can be found in fruit snack bars, fruit roll-ups and ice cream.
“It’s a great way of delivering nutrition without taking a pill,” McGehee says. “And when you add purees, slices or dices, you’re not cooking the goodness out of it. You’re passing those nutrients on to the consumer.”
Popular peachy snacks include Nature’s Bakery Peach Apricot Bars and Plum Organics Peach Teensy Snacks.
Of course, other fruits not mentioned above – apples, oranges and pineapples, to name just a few – also offer the aura of healthiness to snacks, while providing a taste boost.
“Fruit ingredients offer great taste and make a compelling option for today’s health conscious consumers,” concludes Welch’s May.