The high-flying fruit

Mangosteen, açaí and pomegranate have been plucked from obscurity and lauded for antioxidant levels that put blueberries in the shade. Lynda Searby charts the rise of these ?super fruits?

Several years ago, few people could spell açaí — let alone pronounce it. Now, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Sambazon, the Brazilian berry is finding fame across the US and beyond.

Sambazon was the brainchild of two friends who discovered açaí while on a surfing holiday in Brazil. So taken were they with the thick-skinned purple berry that they exported the frozen pulp to California juice bars. Then in 2000, branded smoothies in mango, banana strawberry and soy flavours debuted on the US market.

Initially Sambazon?s consumer base was limited to action sport athletes and devoted Brazilophiles. The real turning point came in 2004 when anti-ageing guru Dr Nicholas Perricone proclaimed açaí the number one super fruit in the world. That year Sambazon doubled its annual revenue to $2.5 million and SPINS ranked Sambazon Açaí Original frozen fruit puree the fastest-growing frozen fruit brand of the natural category.

This year Sambazon has gone one step further and introduced PowerCaps, which it claims is the first pure-grade açaí supplement.

Following in the footsteps of Sambazon, two years ago Zola Açaí launched its eponymous power juice, a single-serve ambient drink. Co-founder Chris Cuvelier says the juice is known as the ?less diluted form of açaí? because it isn?t mixed with any other fruit. Following the traditional Brazilian recipe, it is mixed with evaporated organic cane juice for sweetness and guarana for a natural caffeine boost.

Like Sambazon, Zola Açaí has met with an overwhelming response. ?Two years ago, we were calling people and explaining what açaí was, and they had no idea what we were talking about,? says Cuvelier. ?Now we?re getting calls from people asking where they can buy our product.?

And word of açaí is spreading beyond the US. Sambazon smoothies are now available in Italy and Zola Açaí is in talks to launch Power Juice into 12 countries.

While açaí?s deep hue and wholesome Brazilian beach image add to its appeal, it is the purported health benefits that are really making people sit up and take notice. But how much of that is rooted in hard fact?

As yet, no clinical trials have been carried out. What is known is that the berry contains abundant levels of vitamins A and C. Indeed the antioxidant content of Sambazon?s açaí is supported by ORAC tests, which have shown that the fruit contains twice as many antioxidants as the blueberry.

Scott Rosenbush, business manager botanicals with PL Thomas, believes this lack of science could prove a stumbling block. ?With the pomegranate, science created opportunities, but with açaí, the science has yet to catch up with the product. As yet, there are no clinical studies that would drive a particular application other than the energy segment.?

PL Thomas has just launched a standardised açaí extract, with minimum 10 per cent phenolics (the antioxidant-containing compounds in the skin), aimed at the nutraceutical industry. ?This is an effort to create a product that is more than just a flavour, with verifiable and repeatable levels of certain markers,? says Rosenbush.

As he points out, scientific research into the pomegranate is far more advanced, which could account for its stronger position in the beverage market. Research to date has centred on its antioxidant and related heart-health properties.

Several peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that the antioxidants found in pomegranate juice reduce low density lipoprotein oxidation in mice and blood pressure in hypertensive humans. Most recently, in a 2004 study published in Clinical Nutrition, scientists demonstrated that daily consumption of the juice for three years by patients with carotid artery stenosis reduced the thickening of arteries.

Los Angeles-based grower and processor Pom Wonderful has taken full advantage of the pomegranate?s natural assets, marketing its juice with a clear health positioning. And it?s a strategy that has paid off. Two years after launch, Pom Wonderful still has the monopoly. ?There is no other 100 per cent pomegranate refrigerated juice on the market,? says Fiona Posell, vice president of corporate communications. ?There are shelf-stable products, but the taste profile is very different. They look different too — if you don?t refrigerate pomegranate juice, it turns brown and loses some of its antioxidative power.?

Made from concentrate for year-round availability, POM Wonderful comes in a distinctive bottle at the lofty price of $4 for a 16oz bottle or $6 for a 24oz bottle. In addition to 100 per cent pomegranate juice, Pom Wonderful sells blends with cherry, mango, blueberry and tangerine juice.

Since April, Pom Wonderful has been making its presence felt in the UK with its 100 per cent juice listed in some major supermarkets where it sits alongside other high-end beverages, including rival Pomegreat.

Pomegreat has dominated the UK market since 2000, when three school friends launched the juice following a stint in the Middle East where pomegranate has an age-old heritage.

Some 3,500 outlets in the UK now stock Pomegreat, and the drink?s maker, RJA Foods, says it is shifting 180,000 litres of juice every month. ?This is from a virtual standing start and with no advertising,? says managing director Adam Pritchard. ?We?ve invested in some PR, but the real success has been word of mouth.?

The most obvious difference between the two adversaries is the price point. Pomegreat retails at $1.78 for a litre bottle. Pritchard is adamant that the lower price isn?t at the expense of quality. ?Flavour is everything. We spent three years finding suppliers in Iran and Turkey that could produce concentrate of the highest standard.?

Though still some way behind pomegranate, Asia?s ?queen of fruits?, the mangosteen, is a third ?super fruit? that is causing a stir in the shape of drinks such as Xango and MangoXan. According to Alex Moffett, president of Renaissance Herbs, in the last six months mangosteen drinks have made the jump from the network-marketing arena to traditional health food distribution in the US, and MangoXan has become one of Select Nutrition?s top-selling products.

As with açaí, much of the health evidence is anecdotal, which Moffett suggests is partly because it has come into prominence via the network-marketing channel, where attention to structure/function claims may not be as rigorous. ?Mangosteen has been promoted as something of a cure-all,? he says. ?While eventual in vivo testing may validate some of the purported properties, including anti-inflammatory and potential mood-enhancing effects, what can be proven for our extract is that it has shown potent antioxidant activity in the ORAC assay.?

A high-potency extract derived from mangosteen rind, Xanomax is standardised by high performance liquid chromatography to mangostin — one of a family of active compounds in the fruit. The extract is already being used in beverages, tablets, capsules and cosmetic applications and Moffett says interest is increasing on a daily basis.

Probiotic fruit beverages
Since arriving in the Swedish marketplace in 1994, Skane?s ProViva probiotic fruit drink, containing Lactobacillus plantarum 299v bacteria from biotech firm Probi, has enjoyed unfettered growth. Just as sales started to slow, approval of a health claim in 2003 further boosted the brand. The claim — the first given to a probiotic product marketed in Europe — enabled Skane to market ProViva on its ability to calm an unsettled stomach by reducing the formation of gas.

However, try as it might, Skane seems unable to replicate the success story elsewhere. The withdrawal of ProViva from the UK just over a year after its launch put paid to plans for European expansion. But Skane looks unlikely to give up on the UK market just yet.

Other players have had a stab at probiotic fruit drinks, too. Last year saw the launch of two probiotic drinks in blueberry and rosehip under Arla Foods? Cultura brand in Sweden. Woolworths in South Africa also markets a fruit probiotic drink containing Danisco?s Howaru probiotic strain. Perhaps what is lacking is the presence of the major players. But this could be set to change. Danone has licensed Probi?s probiotic bacteria, and there are rumbles that the French giant could be gearing itself up for entry onto the European functional fruit drinks market.

Sophie Carkeek, market analyst with Zenith International, offers one explanation for probiotic fruit drinks being so few and far between: ?Due to the effort put into marketing and consumer education campaigns by Danone and Yakult in particular, probiotic drinks are strongly associated with fermented dairy products in consumers? minds.?

It is difficult to add live bacteria to a juice drink with a shelf life of five weeks
According to Per Bengtsson, chief executive officer of Probi, technical challenges are also a deterrent. ?There is interest, but it?s difficult to add a live and kicking bacteria to a juice drink with a refrigerated shelf life of five weeks.?

He believes this is the reason why me-too products have failed to emulate the success of ProViva. ?Competing products have shelf-life issues and lower bacteria counts. If you increase the amount of bacteria too much, the taste suffers.? Probi has succeeded where others have failed by isolating particularly robust bacteria strains.

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