There’s a story by Functional Ingredients’ European Editor Richard Clarke that went up on the NewHope360 site recently, talking about how the fruit of the African baobab tree has not taken off in the market as some had expected. It got me to thinking about the use of the term “superfruit” and the stories generated in recent years when new or rediscovered foods have been introduced to the market, usually through the natural channel.
There is an element of mystery surrounding a lot of these stories, a whiff of the rediscovery of some nutritional Atlantis. The facts surrounding these foods were submerged and forgotten, so the stories go, because of cultural or political factors, and we are only now rediscovering them.
Take the case of amaranth, a staple food in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. The seeds were reported to have been used Aztec rituals, and for that reason the Spaniards sought to stamp out cultivation of this crop, which is actually the seed of an herb and not a grain per se. A similar story is spun about quinoa, a staple food of the Incas.
Other story lines surround the history of some “superfruits;” they were undiscovered because they grew in remote places or perhaps because many of them were by consumed by subjugated peoples and therefore were easy to overlook.
There are good reasons why the modern food system came to rely on the familiar grains and fruits. Take wheat, for example. It’s hardy. It can grow in a range of climates which allowed early farmers to grow it in new places as agriculture spread across the Middle East. And most important of all, it was genetically amenable to selective breeding, allowing those early farmers to fairly rapidly improve the crop with bigger seeds and more seeds per plant, improving yields and simplifying food production. The resulting rise in surplus calories allowed the formation of the first cities.
The selective breeding advantage of maize is even more striking. Compare a tiny ear of teosinte, modern corn’s progenitor, to any ear of sweet corn you’d pick up at the supermarket or a natural foods store that’s bursting with hundreds of plump kernels and it’s hard to believe such a thing was possible. Most of that change was achieved by the selective breeding of ancient farmers.
Amaranth, by comparison, yields tiny seeds, as does millet and chia, complicating the large-scale production of calories from these crops. In the same way other ancient grains fell by the wayside; wheat and later corn were usually far more productive per acre.
There are similar reasons why the fruit aisle at the store looks the way it does. The tree crops with which we are all familiar came to the fore because they had advantages; advantages in taste, in ease of cultivation or in breeding potential.
The “superfruits” that come on to the market often do have a compelling nutritional story to tell. No argument there. But they are usually not super in an eating sense. Many of them have taste or consistency issues. This leads, I think, to some confusion on the part of the consumer. If these fruits are so super, why aren’t there heaps of them next to the pears? Marketing these fruits more clearly as ingredients exclusively might help clear up some of the confusion.