The blueberry has re-entered the ingredient scene as a sought-after celebrity. Joining other fashionable “it” ingredients of late – fruits such as pomegranate, mango and acai – blueberry has re-emerged in the beverage aisle, enhancing items from tea to wine.
The popularity of blueberries today is the result of increased consumer awareness regarding the berry’s health benefits, says John Sauve, managing partner of Swardlick Marketing Group, a representative of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, Old Town, Maine. “Blueberries have gone from something in a muffin to a health icon,” he says.
High and wild
Practically unbeknownst to the common consumer, two types of blueberries exist: highbush and lowbush.
The highbush blueberry – also known as the “cultivated” blueberry – is grown commercially in 34 states and two Canadian provinces. The cultivated highbush berry is found most commonly in the produce department at supermarkets across the country and around the world.
The lowbush blueberry, on the other hand, occurs naturally in a very limited area in Maine, east Canada and Quebec. This type of blueberry is known as the “wild” berry and is smaller compared with its cultivated cousin. Because of the wild berry’s condensed size, it packs in flavor, the Wild Blueberry Association says. Thus, the lowbush blueberry is more commonly used as an ingredient for foods and beverages, but is available to consumers only in some frozen food sections.
Highbush or lowbush, blueberries are a member of the elite group of foods known as “superfruits” because of their high antioxidant content. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, blueberries are at the top of the list when it comes to high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) values, the measurement of a food’s antioxidant strength. As a result, blueberries have found a new niche as an ingredient in today’s health-focused market.
“Interest in antioxidants has put blueberries in the spotlight,” says Tom Payne, industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif. “As a result, they’ve garnered attention from the medical and scientific communities as well as the media.”
Drink it up
The blueberry is back on the proverbial map due to its healthful benefits and versatility. Many blueberry forms are available to meet a range of beverage formulation needs, Payne says.
“Blueberries are available as fresh, frozen or dried; they are available as powders and fiber, and in liquid formats such as juice stock, concentrates and purees,” he says. “The expansion of the formats of blueberries provides opportunities for use in a wide-range of products.”
It is the blueberry’s attractiveness as a healthful ingredient that has sparked its use in a number of beverages.
“The beverage industry today is buying blueberry extracts, concentrates and purees,” Sauve says. “They have integrated the flavor into many of their lines.”
The versatile blueberry has found its way into conventional fruit-infused drinks, such as smoothies and fruit juice blends, while also appearing as a stand-alone flavor in some cases.
“A Georgia producer recently introduced a not-from-concentrate, 100 percent blueberry juice,” Payne says. “Blueberries also have been incorporated into beer and wine.”
In terms of using the blueberry as an ingredient, the sky is the limit. “Blueberries are now part of everybody’s new product profile,” Sauve says. “If you’re going to develop a new breakfast bar, cereal or beverage, then you’re going to add blueberry because consumers want them.”
Although two types of berries make up the blueberry population, folks on both sides of the highbush and lowbush industry agree that the blueberry has a healthy future in the marketplace.
“The future is remarkably positive,” Sauve says. “It simply is going to become one of the core ingredients that all food manufacturers look to to satisfy consumer needs. And, the unique nature of the blueberry – because of its size and how well it freezes – it is going to be one of those easy-to-use ingredients across a variety of product lines.”
In the world of functional beverages and foods, blueberries are leading the way, Sauve says. It was only a few years ago that the berry was reintroduced to consumers as a healthful product, and since its reintroduction, consumers have responded with interest, he says. This is a welcomed change in perception for many involved in the blueberry industry.
“We didn’t change the blueberry,” Sauve says. “We just changed the way people think about it.” BI