Pomegranates opened the door for açai. Blueberries and cranberries tried to get cool. And fruits propelled 'antioxidants' to a new level of household knowingness. But pomegranate drinks are so 2007. What superfruit — and in what delivery system — should be the focus of your next product launch? Todd Runestad investigates
Look, up on the shelves — it's a drink, it's a pill, it's a cosmetic, it's … a superfruit! Able to leap high ORAC charts in a single bound.
About the only thing superfruits are not, it seems, is an actual fruit.
"'Superfruit' is a marketing term used for any common or exotic fruit — which means any fruit," says Christina Khoo at Ocean Spray, purveyors of all things cranberry. "Superfruits are novel — not the fruit, necessarily, but in the presentation. And superfruits have exceptional nutrient content, often based on high antioxidant content."
Ah, there's that word that you can't avoid when talking about superfruits: antioxidant. And anyone who's sat through a lecture on the speaking circuit can't help but witness the antioxidant yardstick: the almighty ORAC comparison chart.
ORAC, which stands for 'oxygen radical absorbance capacity,' measures the ability of a substance to subdue oxygen free radicals in vitro, ie, how potent an antioxidant is. The US Department of Agriculture translates ORAC units per 100g of fresh fruit, and recommends people consume 5,000 ORAC units every day (most people get about 1,000). So if you're in the superfruit business, you had better have your ORAC number handy.
Blackberries (ORAC: 5,347) are better than strawberries (ORAC: 3,577). Blueberries (ORAC: 6,552) are trumped by cranberries (ORAC: 9,584). Even Hershey's is in on it, touting its dark chocolate (ORAC: 9,080).
But these hardly rate on the list of any self-respecting superfruit marketer. However, as the USDA — the official ORAC governing body — has not weighed in on these exotics, marketers have filled the gap with often-murky comparisons: is mangosteen's ORAC 3,000 or 10,500 or 112,000? Is pomegranate's 3,307 comparable to açai's 18,500 (or 102,700) and goji's 25,300? Have you heard about maqui's 38,500? Tomayto, tomahto? Should we just call the whole thing off?
Brien Quirk, director of R&D at Draco Natural Products, which supplies a range of superfruits, doesn't believe antioxidants are meaningful at all. "You can get a high ORAC of any fruit, even an apple, if you concentrate its phenolic compounds because that's where the antioxidants lie, along with carotenoids."
Steve Siegel, vice president at supplier Ecuadorian Rainforest, says there are legitimate factors that can play havoc with ORAC values, from the particular sample sent to the lab, to whether the product was freeze dried, air dried or sun dried, as well as the harvest time, which can affect potency. "The only numbers we can cite are what the lab gives us," he says. "There really isn't a set marker because there are numerous environmental factors that can change the numbers."
Jim Tonkin, president of Healthy Brand Builders consultancy, tips his hat to antioxidants for making the grade to household term. But what does that mean? "Antioxidants are in the consumer mind, but I would venture to say that if you did a survey of 100 people to explain antioxidants, less than five in 100 would be able to tell you what antioxidants mean. And marketers are taking advantage of it," he says.
"Whether marketers will win is correlative with what consumers do — if they'll continue to pay high prices to buy into antioxidant hype, to see whether 5,400 ORAC value really means something to the average consumer."
Martha Haas, manager of marketing and creative services at Nutragenesis, thinks antioxidants still have legs — the company is betting on it, with an ingredient, Wellberry, which is a combination of amla and a form of vitamin C that boosts the antioxidant levels of almost anything it's mixed with. Its tests showed filtered apple juice fired up its ORAC rockets by more than 4,000 per cent. "We're marketing it as the answer to the ORAC wars," she said. "We're pushing drink blends. It's an exciting ingredient for the drinks world."
Superfruits maven Julian Mellentin, meanwhile, asserts that the antioxidant game altogether is old news. "There are 3,000 products in Europe and the US that talk about antioxidants. Maybe five years ago this was big but I wouldn't touch the word now because what's the point of difference?" he says. "Consumers can get antioxidants from dozens of things in the supermarket. Consumers buy products for benefits. Those who buy Ocean Spray cranberry juice for UTIs buy it for feeling better where it counts, not because of antioxidants or polyphenols. Personal-benefit communication is moving markets."
Personal benefits come from scientific research beyond nutrient content. Pomegranates are the most researched tropical fruit of the past decade, with some 133 published studies on them — anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant effects chief among benefits, and studies are moving to animal and human trials. Blueberries boast nearly 100 studies; cranberries, a bit less. "Most successful fruits have a good body of science behind them," says Mellentin, "It pays to invest in adding to the body of science to substantiate benefits."
Where to put them
Science is helpful, but application is key. Most superfruits find homes in the healthy-beverage aisle. If your superfruit has such a unique nutritional content that studies have shown bona fide health benefits, you might want to consider going the dietary-supplements route. Yumberry has shown efficacy for digestive problems as well as controlling blood sugar. Companies are capitalising on the two hot craze du jours by formulating omega-3s with berry blends. And Pom Wonderful is diversifying out of the drink aisle and into supplements — housed in the same distinctive bottle shape as its eponymous beverage bottle. Of note, it seems to be taking a page out of the Mellentin playbook with the marketing line, "Live long enough to watch your 401(k) recover." Who doesn't want to live longer? (Antioxidants play second fiddle in its ad campaign.)
PL Thomas has developed a pomegranate extract for antioxidant and cardiovascular health benefits to an interesting level with its Pomegranate P40p ingredient, an extract standardised to a minimum of 40 per cent punicosides, which are the polyphenols responsible for the superfruit's antioxidant punch. "The research on pomegranate juice shows the health benefits are delivered with as little as 1.7oz of pomegranate juice per day, providing a specific phenolic profile. However, most pomegranate extracts are standardised to ellagic acid, which is actually found in very small amounts in juice. P40p delivers the punicaligans in an extract which is the equivalent to what is found in the juice at just 40-50mg P40 extract per day," says Eric Anderson, PL Thomas' brand manager. "We also provide P40p for enrichment in beverages and functional foods — a convenient way to provide the benefits of pomegranate in a stable, easy-to-use powder."
Personal-care companies haven't missed the opportunity to jump on the superfruits bandwagon. "I'm a superfruit junkie," says Kristie McNamara, president and CEO of Tilvee skincare company, based in Colorado. "So many companies want a piece of them, and while some take the science and back up claims, others abuse, abuse, abuse." (Açai is currently under fire for questionable weight-loss claims as well as scurrilous billing practices.)
Fledgling research does, in fact, back up skincare benefits with superfruits. "Kiwi is a common fruit, but studies show its polysaccharides stimulate collagen production. Wolfberry stimulates keratin cells and collagen, and seems to rejuvenate skin. Researchers at Michigan State found the oil fraction of pomegranate seed has good rejuvenating properties of the skin," says Quirk. "One warning is we don't have safety data for skin. What they used in a university study could be different than our extracts. Any company using cosmetics has to do [its] own safety testing."
McNamara agrees with that assessment. "The problem I'm running into is being able to find research and safety assessments. They really don't exist so much for skincare," she says. "So the question is, do I use concentrations that are known to be safe in the food world, or do I skip over them altogether, possibly missing out on some real skin benefits?"
But pomegranates and blueberries are so 2007. What will 2009 and 2010 bring? If the rule holds that the darker the fruit, the more antioxidant punch it packs, then the next superstar may be maqui, with a pigment that would make açai blush. (maqui's ORAC is 120,000, according to an açai supplier that says açai's ORAC is 70,000. Meanwhile, a maqui supplier says its ORAC is 38,500 compared to açai's 11,800. Go figure.)
"Superfruits have become an increasingly popular category in the nutritional industry since the public became aware of the 'super' nutritional value and benefits of these various fruits," says Siegel. "Maqui berry, the newest superfruit on the block, is no exception. It boasts the highest ORAC value of any of the known superfruits."
Sea buckthorn (ORAC: 70,000 if açai is 102,000, according to one source) is a curiously named superfruit and proud owner of more than 100 studies. It has experienced rapid recent growth in the beauty sector, according to the Mintel New Products Database. Grown mostly in Asia but its name is from the British, it has a high vitamin C content; carotenoids; flavonoids; phytosterols; and a comprehensive fatty acid profile including omega-3s, -6s, -7s and -9s.
"The nice thing about sea buckthorn is it has so many nutrients. It has everything açai has in terms of antioxidants, but it also has omega complexes," says Bruce McMillin, president of Sibu, a Fair Trade, vertically integrated sea-buckthorn concern that puts it into soaps, facial creams, liquid dietary supplements and a 'beauty drink' called Tashi, which is flavoured with a complementary hint of apricot. "Sea buckthorn is closest to apricot, which gives it a nice aftertaste — not so tart you can drink it but not super-sweet either."
Maqui? Sea buckthorn? What other contenders are vying to be the next pomegranate or açai?