The popularity of fruit as inclusions, or as foundations for beverages and desserts and flavorings, always has remained high. Within the trend, certain types of fruits ride a roller coaster of popularity. The 1990s saw pomegranate in everything, and the 2000s saw exotic tropicals, such as açai, go through the roof. However, the economic downturn of five years ago tapped into a return to comfort that led to reinvigorated application of “classic” favorites, like blueberries and stone fruits—especially cherries.
Blueberry and cherry growers could not have timed it better: They were the lucky recipients of several years of bumper crops. In fact, the production of blueberries experienced an incredible raise in the last 10 years. Consumers embraced blueberries, associating them with health benefits, and the flavor is well-accepted and able to complement a variety of different formulations and food applications.
Singing the Blues
New products formulated with blueberry surged to more than 1,300 in 2012, brightening energy bars and sports beverages; dressing up breakfast cereals; balancing sauces; and enhancing dairy products. Blueberries even made it to the plate of the family pet, with dog foods and snacks incorporating dried blueberries.
Developers paired blueberry with mint and floral components (e.g., in a blueberry-mojito beverage) and used blueberry as a flavorant in teas. They also were employed as a base for combined fruit flavors, such as blueberry-lemon, as well as with spices, botanicals and herbs, enhancing and balancing disparate flavors. Blueberry also has been used to counterbalance smoky qualities of sauces and salsas. Some of the more creative examples include ice cream cones with blueberry bits and blueberry sauces paired with nontraditional seasonings, such as tarragon and cider vinegar.
Blueberries also have enjoyed a closer relationship with chocolate. From the Incas and Aztecs to European confectionary traditions, the cacao bean has had an affinity for fruit; and so the earthy fruitiness of blueberries works especially well in chocolate-based desserts, candies and confections.
Blueberries are available in a variety of formats to assure the most effective results, depending on the application. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, dried blueberries offer a substantial amount of blueberry per bite and act as a perfect fit for grain mixes, rice cakes and granola bars. Moisture content ranges from 11-18% for traditional air drying, while freeze-dried, unsweetened blueberries have a moisture content of around 2%. Blueberry purée is available in a concentrated form up to 45° brix and is usually applied in custom formulations of pastes and sauces.
Osmotically preserved blueberries are an example of a fruit format that can be shelf-stable for up to 10 months from shipping, with no refrigeration required. The sugar-infused blueberries have a water activity of 0.5-0.87 and work well in baked foods and in snack bar products. Freeze-dried blueberries are flash-frozen with the moisture removed. They can be stable at room temperature for up to three months. (After that, they should be stored at 40°F/4°C.)
The use of fruit is well entrenched in the baking industry and is found in all types of baked goods, including pies, pastries, cookies, muffins, cakes and quickbreads. Many bakers prefer to use shelf-stable or canned fruits, or fruits in syrup and water packs or fillings. The desired goal is a fruit that maintains its integrity of shape and flavor, but has a low water activity to offer a longer shelflife.
Discussing blueberries, yet applicable to most fruits, Tom Payne, of the U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council, points out that fruits with naturally high sugar levels can help remove the sour taste sometimes associated with fermented dairy products, especially yogurt and kefir. This allows for reduced added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, while the appeal that is attractive to health-conscious consumers gets an equal boost.
These vehicles also allow for use of fruits in a number of desired formats, from whole to chopped to puréed, and even in juice concentrates.
Fruits contain many naturally occurring antioxidants and so are a good choice for consumers seeking protection against the damaging effects of free radicals. For the growing cadre of Baby Boomers, avoiding chronic diseases associated with the aging process is a strong impetus to choose products containing fruits.
“When most people think of cherries, they think of fresh cherries on the Fourth of July,” notes Steve Kollars, vice president of Technical Services for Oregon Cherry Growers, a grower-owned cooperative established in 1932. Kollars explains that while most cherries consumed in the U.S. every day are sweet cherries, the fruit also is formulated and used as an ingredient in hundreds of popular food products.
The sweet cherry, Prunus avium, is native to Europe and western Asia but significantly propagated and mostly grown in the U.S. Pacific Northwest region. There are two types of sweet cherry cultivars, the most common being the dark “black” cultivars, such as Bing, and the light “blush” cultivars, like Rainier.
Sweet cherries are predominately a burgundy red color; have a balanced, mild flavor profile; and are less acidic (with higher sugar content) than tart cherries. Also, they are a larger fruit, with a significantly firmer texture. This allows them to remain fresher and plumper when stored and shipped in cold temperatures.
Fresh sweet cherries are a nutrient-dense food with substantial amounts of vitamin C, fiber and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium and iron. More importantly, sweet cherries contain polyphenolic flavonoids, which are health-promoting, bioactive phytochemical food components. These include anthocyanins, such as cyanidin; flavonols such as quercetin; hydroxycinnamates; and even carotenoids, specifically lutein. Research has shown that these natural compounds have preventive health benefits in relation to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes inflammatory disease, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity.
Processed formats of cherries also include frozen, shown to be an ideal way to suspend the freshness and use the sweet cherries at a later time. Cherries can be bulk frozen or individually quick-frozen (IQF), which requires mechanical removal of the pit, then frozen at sub-zero temperatures and packed in bulk containers. Typical ingredient applications are fruit preparations for yogurt, purées for fruit smoothies, fillings for baking applications and frozen desserts.
Stone fruits, such as sweet cherries, can be dried to extend shelflife. A now-common snacking item on their own, they are a highly attractive ingredient to use as an inclusion in
granola- and trail mix-type snacks. In this format, the cherries are pitted and sent through a dehydrator to reduce moisture to around 80% in fresh, and down to 16% in dried.
Dried cherries can be used directly for snacks, chocolate-enrobed or chopped into pieces for baking and health bar applications. They also can be further dehydrated and milled to produce powders suitable for use in beverages, smoothies, dairy items, baking products or snack bars.
Concentrating sweet cherries requires separating the cherry juice from the pit and skin by mechanical finishers and centrifuges. The resulting juice is evaporated with heat under vacuum to remove the water and create a concentrated juice version at about 70% sugar solids. The concentrate is stored in totes or drums and sold for ingredient use for beverages, smoothies, baking, snack bars, desserts, dairy products, sauces, dressings and flavorings.
Some sweet cherries are converted into purée by removing the pits with a finisher and forcing the remaining flesh and skins through a fine screen to effect a consistent, small particle size. Freezing the purée or packaging it aseptically allows it to remain stable and storable at ambient temperatures indefinitely. Purées are suitable for beverages, smoothies, baking, dairy products, sauces, dressings and flavorings.
Another way to preserve cherries is to soak them in a brine solution containing sulfur dioxide. This method is used for making maraschino and ingredient cherries. The solution is washed away, and the cherries are then pitted and infused with sugar solids, color and flavor. Maraschino and ingredient cherries are used in ice cream, confections, baking and condiments.
Sulfites and colorants have been a growing concern for consumers. However, technologists with Oregon Cherry Growers developed a clean label maraschino product using all-natural ingredients to add flavor, color and sugar, thus differentiating themselves from competitors. The products are sold under the brand Royal Harvest and are non-GMO project-verified.
The other side of cherries are tart cherries, sometimes referred to as pie cherries. The last several years, have seen an increased interest in natural, dried fruit as an ingredient, such as cereal bar applications, trail mixes and hot cereals. Montmorency (Prunus cerasus) is the varietal of tart cherry most commonly grown in North America.
Dried tart cherries actually have a sweet-tart flavor profile, in line with consumer taste preferences. Consumer preference for sour/tart flavor profiles has nearly doubled in the last three years, making dried tart cherries an on-trend ingredient to include in a variety of usage applications. They pair nicely with anything from scones to bars to snacks.
While the majority of dried tart cherries are infused with a sugar solution, there are production variations that include fruit juice concentrate-infused tart cherries, performing the same function as the sugar infusion.
The most common reason for the sugar infusion is to make the product palatable to the average consumer. Since tart cherries are quite sour, modest sugar infusion makes the dried fruit palatable to the average consumer, while still maintaining the integrity of the fruit’s natural “tart” taste. They are typically used in specialized applications, often pairing with sweet formulations that need to be offset by a tart flavor.
Since the dried products achieve a water activity level at or below 0.6, they’re shelf-stable, and microbiological growth is prevented without sufficient free water molecules to support it.
Based on research showing positive health benefits, tart cherries have experienced significant growth in popularity. One of the more successful formats for the fruit is as a juice or juice concentrate. But, they are a fairly fragile fruit, so the vast majority of juice concentrate is produced during the 6-8 weeks of the harvest cycle for making ready-to-drink juice or juice blends. Applications for cherry juice concentrate range from adult beverages, use for natural flavor and color enhancements, and are occasionally sold in the cosmetic industry.
While traditional, “comfort fruits” like cherries and berries have been trending up, it’s worth noting that traditional is relative.
“Mangoes are the most popular fruit in the world, just not in the U.S.,” notes Robert Schueller, manager at Melissa’s World Variety Produce. L. A.-based Melissa’s is the leading provider of wholesale exotic produce in the country. “In the U.S., 99.5% of all mangoes are imported, and only a few commercially grown varieties are available. And, with a few exceptions in California, they’re available fresh in the U.S. only in the late summer and early fall.”
According to Schueller, of the six major mango varieties available, currently the most popular is the small golden mango called Atualfo (it also is known as the Mexican, baby or Champagne mango). It recently supplanted the common Tommy Atkins variety with which most Americans were familiar.
“These small, delicately shaped mangoes are available from March until about September and have a juicy flesh that’s velvety and smooth, with very little fiber—unlike the Tommy Atkins,” says Schueller. Ataulfo mangoes also have a thinner pit than other mango varieties, leaving more room for the flesh. This is a distinct advantage for processors.
The popularity of Southeast Asian cuisines and the sudden ubiquity of coconut water made young coconut highly trendy, as well. Although the common brown coconut is always popular for its firm “flesh,” the flesh of the young coconut has a sweet, pudding-like texture. It is also favored for the large amount of sweet (and electrolytically balanced) water it contains. Coconuts are available year-round.
Papayas are another tropical enjoying steady growth in consumer favor. They come in a very wide selection of sizes, but Schueller says the trend currently is for the larger, “family-size” fruit. The red Caribbean variety, with its salmon-colored flesh and spotted green and golden skin, is quite in demand.
“They have good sugar brix, which means the fruit can be considered ripe once it has attained yellow color on half its skin,” says Schueller. “It has a melon-like flavor, plenty of juice and a particularly fragrant, floral aroma. And, it’s not to be confused with the small, strawberry papaya or the Mexican cooking papaya, called maradol,” adds Schueller. Most papaya varieties are available all year.
Another tropical fruit suddenly big in the U.S. is big literally, as well. Jackfruit is the world’s largest fruit, averaging somewhere between 15-33lbs or greater. Available nearly throughout the year, it’s shaped like a rugby ball, is green and covered with spiny knobs, and grows directly out of the trunk or main branches of the tree. As the fruit ripens, the skin turns to a yellow color and is very fragrant. The pinkish-yellow flesh is soft and sticky. Somewhat expensive and labor-intensive, it is used mostly for its fragrant juice.
While guava has enjoyed a steady “ethnic” popularity of late in the U.S., coming up fast is the feijoa, sometimes called the “pineapple guava.” Like a standard guava, it’s a lime-green, egg-shaped fruit with a soft, succulent flesh similar in texture to a pear. But, it is far more fragrant than the guava, and the flavor is more complex, with hints of pineapple, strawberry and lime.
The most important difference, however, is that unlike a guava, feijoa does not have the extremely hard, bb-like seeds. Feijoas are ripe when the skin is slightly soft. Once peeled, the entire fruit is edible. They’re available nine months out of the year, with gaps only in early summer and mid-to-late winter.
“And then,” adds Schueller, “there’s the trendiest fruit of all: chili peppers! A lot of people don’t know that, botanically, a chili pepper is a fruit. In Melissa’s just-released The Great Pepper Cookbook, more than a hundred different peppers are described, with tips on how to use them—especially how to include peppers as a fruit in a number of sweet formulations.”
Keep it Natural
One big boost to processed fruit has been the craze for freeze-dried fruit and fruit pieces. As a way to get a lot of fruit flavor into a small space, drying can be considered the first food processing. However, drying used to compromise flavor and nutrient content. Advances in drying technology, from freeze-drying to vacuum microwave dehydration, allow vital nutrients and phytochemicals to remain intact, and color and flavor to maintain naturalness.
“The [new] freeze-drying technology is a big surprise to everyone for its preservation of color, nutritional value, taste, shape and structure of each fruit and veggie,” says Jim Lacey, president and CEO of Crunchies Food Co. In addition to its snack packs of fruits and vegetables (in whole and diced format), the company plans to launch a line of dried produce with seasonings and coatings.
An Oregon State University food scientist, Yanyun Zhao, PhD, along with an international team of scientists in China, participated in the discovery of a substance in blueberry leaves that can be used to create an edible coating for berries that extends shelf life and boosts antioxidant content. The blueberry leaf extract helps delay decay and retain water in the fruit, slowing down the normally rapid natural deterioration of berry fruits. To create the coatings, researchers mixed these phenolic extracts with chitosan, a natural preservative that comes from crustacean shells.
Blueberry leaves, used in herbal remedies and teas, contain high levels of antioxidant phenolics. But the same compounds also have antimicrobial properties that protect against fungi and bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella. Berries can be dipped in the liquid coating, then dried at room temperature, or they can be sprayed on the surface on a conveyor. The research was conducted in collaboration with scientists in China at the Jiao Tong University Bor Luh Food Safety Center, Shanghai, and published in the journals Food Control and Postharvest Biology and Technology.
While the natural blueberry leaf extract coating allows fresh berries to be washed and prepared as ready-to-eat products, for processors using fresh fruit in formulations, or to create fillings and other preparations, there is an economic advantage in reducing waste and handling. For more information, visit www.oregonstate.edu.
“The company aims to innovate on freeze-dried applications, extending the technology to other segments that coincide with the new trends of consumers in healthy eating,” Lacey adds.
Fruit and vegetable powders also have become more technically advanced, maintaining flavor and health benefits, along with vivid color. Careful spray-drying of pure fruit pulp purées can create powders that have clean label appeal and retain the organoleptic properties of original, freshly harvested fruits and vegetables.
The main differences of today’s advanced spray-drying technology is that temperatures during the drying process can remain low (<50°C) in comparison with the >130°C of traditional spray dryers. Also, using pulp of fruits and vegetables, and not juices, helps achieve better distribution and smaller particle size when compared with classical spray dryers.
Fine particles size (<0.125mm) and a homogenous distribution between 0.125-0.315mm in advanced fruit powder ingredients also allows for more rapid hydration and high water-binding capacity in formulations. This process results in better instant solubility, with no sedimentation, and better texture and mouthfeel when incorporated with hot or cold water. Another benefit is the preservation of organoleptic properties, such as colors and flavors.
Another technology that avoids using high temperature processing environments is cold pressing of fruit. This method maintains organoleptic properties of fruits in juice. Since the fastest growing premium juice segment is that of cold-pressed, not-from-concentrate juices and juice blends, mostly in single serve bottles, cold-pressing technology will likely see increased application.
According to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data, the sales of refrigerated juices and juice drink smoothies in the U.S. market was nearly $800 million for 2013. This translated to growth of over 27% during 2012.
Yet another fruit drying method drawing attention for its superior results is that of gentle, light-driven evaporation to gradually remove the water molecules without destroying active enzymes, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals or other phytonutrients. Sophisticated evaporation technology preserves flavor, aroma, color and nutritional quality of the original fruits and vegetables.
Light evaporation technology leaves a solid granule with a uniform shape and non-porous structure. In addition to a low moisture content (< 3%), these granules are moisture-resistant and have low surface tension, which means excellent flowability, solubility and dispersibility. in formulation, the granules provide a more intense, concentrated flavor, which can also mean reduced amounts of the product itself are necessary. The powders have a very long shelflife, as well.
While Americans are still struggling to meet the requirement of eating at least five servings per day of produce, the convenience of multiple formats and varieties of fruit allows manufacturers to do their part.