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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Try freeze-dried

They’re crunchy, crispy and packed with flavor. No wonder freeze-dried fruits and vegetables are growing in popularity as shoppers search out healthier snack options. The variety of flavors is huge—on the fruit side of the aisle, bananas, pineapple, berries, apples, cherries and even persimmons are available, while common freeze-dried vegetables include corn, peas, carrots, onions, garlic and tomatoes. But how do they hold up nutritionally to their fresh counterparts and dehydrated cousins commonly found in the bulk bins?

Production and nutrition
Freeze-dried fruits differ markedly from dehydrated fruits in their production. Most dehydrated fruits are made by applying temperatures between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Sun-dried items such as apricots and tomatoes may be processed below 100 degrees, over many hours, to drive out moisture. Not only does the heating process tend to destroy enzymes, but “when fruits are dried out, they lose some of their nutrients, including beta-carotene and vitamin C,” says George Rapitis, a dietitian based in Livonia, Mich. “Freeze-drying is a better choice.”

The freeze-drying process begins with freezing fruits or vegetables, which turns their water content to ice, and then pumping air out of the room to decrease the atmospheric pressure. That allows the ice to become vapor, leaving the food’s cellular structure intact, according to Matt Herzog, president of Funky Monkey Snacks in Fishers, Ind. The result is that freeze-dried fruits and veggies don’t lose any nutrients, “so the benefits are the same as a fresh product,” says Monica Della Maggiore, marketing consultant for Just Tomatoes, Etc.!, based in Westley, Calif. “And the flavor is even more intense.”

But can they really compare nutritionally with fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables? “Frozen foods are just as good as fresh because they’re frozen right after harvesting, and the same is true of our freeze-dried fruits,” Della Maggiore says. “Fresh fruits and vegetables can travel for a week or more before they reach shelves, losing nutrients along the way.”

There is a nutritional downside to freeze-dried produce, however: Its sugar and calories are more concentrated on a per-weight basis compared with fresh vegetables or fruits. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a serving of fresh carrots (one cup, or about 4 ounces) contains 5.5 grams of sugar and 50 calories. A 1-ounce serving of freeze-dried carrots, by comparison, contains 15 grams of sugar and 100 calories.

Consequently, it’s easy for people to simply eat too much of these dried delights. “Because the water is gone, these products aren’t as filling,” Rapitis says. “People end up eating more, but the calories and sugar in a cup of dried fruit are much higher than in a cup of fresh fruit. It’s definitely better to snack on dried fruit than chips or other processed foods with oil and salt, but you have to be aware of the calories.”

Price check
The price point on these items is much higher than for the equivalent weight in fresh fruit. “It takes us 10 pounds of peeled bananas to make a pound of freeze-dried bananas, and 27 pounds of pineapple to make a pound of freeze-dried pineapple,” Herzog says. But nutritionally, he says, a single ounce of freeze-dried fruit is equal to three daily servings of fresh fruit, so a little goes a long way.

Herzog points to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that shows only 28 percent of Americans eat the recommended daily servings of fruit. “That’s terrible,” he says. “And when you look at the obesity epidemic among children, we should be thinking more about healthy snacks versus artificial, fattening snacks.”

Though freeze-dried fruits and veggies can be expensive, the price per serving seems appropriate once the production costs are understood. First, there’s the ratio of fresh to dried, then the cost for airtight packaging to keep these items crispy and, finally, the purity of the ingredients—nothing but fruit or vegetables, often organic. Della Maggiore points out other benefits as well: Freeze-dried fruits and veggies have a shelf life of up to a year, are easily portable for travel and on-the-go snacking, and don’t spoil the way fresh fruit does.

Many uses for the crunch
“In our marketing, we refer to our products as a snack. But we’ve had customers say they put them in baked goods, on cereal and mixed in yogurt. Of course, when you bake with them, they soak up moisture and won’t be crunchy, but they’ll still have the flavor of real blueberry and mango,” says Linda Pearl, retail account manager at Sensible Foods, based in Petaluma, Calif. Sensible Foods’ products are dried rather than freeze-dried, using a proprietary method that, according to the company, doesn’t destroy phytonutrients and keeps the food enzymatically intact.

Just Tomatoes, Etc.! provides pull-off recipe sheets and posters for retailers to display, and also sells a line of fruit powders directly from its website, “The powders can be added to milk or even used to line the rims of fancy drinks,” Della Maggiore says. The company also has created a cookbook for its dried tomatoes, and has many recipes available online.
The combination of health and convenience from freeze-dried fruits and veggies adds up to a hot item for retailers. “We’ve absolutely seen increased growth in the category,” Pearl says. Try cross-marketing to increase sales, combining the products with cereals, bake mixes and other items.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer who enjoys fruit in all its forms.

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