Last June, Manuel Jiminez a long-time farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension Service in Tulare, Central California retired. We are always reading about the great ones i this business who retire or pass. But this one hit home to me, as I am a Californian. I met Manuel decades ago at the Parlier Research station where i wandered into his experiment area. It was a wonderland of all sorts of fruits and nuts that were supposed to be commercially impossible in our Mediterranean-climate state. He had bananas, mangos and yes blueberries.
Blueberries have been around for a long time in California, in far reaches of the Golden State I had seen them in Sonoma, up in the foothills and always heard that “someone” was growing them “somewhere.” In the spirit of the great blueberry researchers before him, Manuel was testing old varieties, soil types, and many other variables. A few years later, I attended one of his field days. A carload of strawberry growers from up the road showed up and started picking his test marked test plots. There were a lot of comments from the growers in the area — “looks good…but…”
These early experiments and Manuel’s dedication brought together the critical mass that has sped the rapid growth of the California blueberry industry. In 2013, the state produced more than 50 million lbs! I have not seen Manuel for some time and am sure I will run into him on a sortie to the Central Valley. I am sure he is up to something interesting–and impossible!
More than 150 years ago, a exporters in the US Northeast successfully completed their first sea shipments of lake ice to Calcutta in India. The ship was specially insulated with straw to keep the ice from melting. From a cargo of 100 tons, around 15 tons survived. The wonder-ice was cherished in the expat enclave of this bustling English-colonial city. This year marks the second year that fresh blueberries from the USA have been shipped to far away India. The blueberries are picked in the morning and taken to the airport –while maintaining a “cold chain.”
Product is packed into air containers with cold gel packs and raced off over the poles to routes in Southeast Asia or Europe on the way to India. Upon arrival, the fresh blueberries are loaded from planes to customs facilities at the Indian airports. Since this is a new item, the Indian customs pay a lot of attention to the blueberries. After clearance,the fresh blueberries are placed in refrigerated trucks with special care to keep the blueberries away from the high heat and humidity of India.
Within hours of landing, the fresh blueberries are delivered to hyperstores in the big cities such as Mumbai and Delhi and the other booming cities of the south including Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. These cities now have huge tech centers and call centers in the suburbs that have generated dozens of mega-Malls with high-class western style supermarkets such as Hyperity, Big Bazaar and Food World.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians either work for western firms or have experience abroad in the USA and Europe. When they return they often yearn for blueberries! As unlikely as it may seem — fresh blueberries have become a prestige item. The market is small but steadily growing. Day to day, articles are published in the Times of India on the health benefits of blueberries. Look for India to become one of the leading markets for fresh blueberries in the world!
In a recent visit to Hong Kong, I saw an entire aisle of a pharmacy stocked with “blueberry powders.” All Chinese made, these products had images of blueberries, eyes, beautiful ladies and svelte modern executive gentlemen. What is this stuff?
First of all, these powders are actually “bilberry powders.” They are made from the species of vaccinium called myrtillus. This is the European wild mountain blueberry that grows naturally in the forests of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Most bilberry comes from countries like Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Ukraine.
Mountain villagers spend summer nights collecting these bilberries on the high slopes and dense forests. They are brought to collection sites for rendezvous in the morning and taken to freezers, normally in the lowlands at plants which also process other mountain produces such as wild mushrooms and wild mountain herbs. At this stage the bilberries are in field condition and include leaves and stems — but since this is OK as the product is not for immediate consumption.
European packing companies, mainly from Scandinavia send buyers to the regions in during the harvest and scoop up the “case frozen” bilberries normally at a market price that is standard all over the region. The price is set by the buyers, and seems decently high compared to world blueberry prices for highbush and lowbush blueberries. Now the journey takes the bilberries to Scandinavia where a flourishing bilberry business has exited for decades if not longer.
The Balkan blueberries are normally reprocessed, cleaned and sorted and repacked and utilized in local products. Although some do remain in Europe — almost all are shipped to China for anthocyanin (pigment) extraction. The bilberry is the gold standard of anthocyanin, as the bilberry has blue color inside and can be processed into 35 percent of more anthocyanin. Almost all extraction factories are located in China and the customer base is mainly in China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia. The bilberry extractions are made into high-value powders that end up in capsules that I saw in Hong Kong.
Now you probably have a few questions:
Question: Why can’t we produce bilberries in the USA. They cannot be cultivated and only grow in the wild.
Question: Why can’t North American blueberries go to extraction. Answer: well they can, but the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies normally want the higher yielding bilberries. There are some concentrated extracts of highbush blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) that are now marketed. One company is called Powder Pure in Washington and can be located on our supplier list. We have dozens of pure blueberry powder producers in North America and this is a very interesting and developing business for US producers. After all it takes 12 lbs or kg of blueberry to make one kg of blueberry powder! That uses a lot of blueberry.
Question: Are these powders beneficial. I read a study a few years ago that analyzed Asian “blueberry powders.”
The conclusion was that there was a wide variety of potency in the powder. I note that today there are various certifications on the packages that proclaim the quality characteristics. Is blueberry powder a potential marketable product in North America. Visit the Natural Products Expo and that question will be answered!
One of my jobs is to manage and maintain the Blueberry Health Research Database. I receive hundreds of citations and abstracts on new blueberry research which is compiled by Dr. Ron Prior Ph.D. in Arkansas. (Ron has been a pioneer in the blueberry antioxidant area and a great friend of the blueberry industry).
I am noticing more and more blueberry research conducted outside of North America where our blueberries originated. Historically, the Eastern Europeans lunched the first wave of blueberry research back in the 1980s and before. A good friend of mine, (George L.) was a fellow at the Russian (Soviet) Academy of Science and specialized in research on natural substances such as berries, garlic, and forest herbs. Russian research focused on disease prevention, eyesight, liver and anti-radiation diets. George L. and many of his colleagues from Russia, Serbia, Bosnia immigrated to Israel and the West in the 90s. They became a catalyst in a wave of blueberry-health-related research that we see today. Some work in the nutraceutical business as we call it now.
Check out the USHBC blueberry health database and marvel at some of the pioneering work being conducted all over the world.
Years ago, I conducted research on blueberry juice. At that time I could only find two products, one in Vancouver BC ad the other in Las Vegas. (figure that connection). This was before the health benefits of blueberries launched the Little Blue Dynamos into food industry hyper drive!
Today, I am back to researching blueberry beverages. MINTEL Global New Products Database identifies around 1,000 new blueberry-containing juices which have been introduced in North America since 1996. In 2013, we saw about 100. In looking at the juice products, this is an enigma. The packages have blueberries on the label, then you look at the ingredient statement and the 100% juice product is actually made predominantly wit other juices.
The reason is simple: consumers want blueberries! Anyone who has tasted 100 percent blueberry juice will affirm that it is a “refreshing” experience. Blueberry juice goes very well in blends with other fruit juices. My question and reason for research is to answer the question — just how much blueberry should be in a blueberry identified beverage. There are no FDA standards of identity that I can find. Codex Alimentarius defines some standards for juice. North American manufacturers are expert at label laws and ingredient statements.
Ten years ago, blubbery juice and concentrates were less common and sometimes not that easy to source. Blueberries are not produced for juice after all. The juice stock is made from products that do not go to fresh or frozen and further processed blueberries. With rising production, there is more blueberry available for juice. My message to juice companies is to take another look at blueberry juice. Now is a good time to develop real significant blueberry juices and blends. Tell the consumer you have “more blueberries!”
Happy Chinese New Year or CNY as they say! I wish all of our blueberry fans in China the best prosperity for the new year. My #1 resolution is to see fresh blueberries from the USA allowed in China! It is a win-win situation. Chinese consumers love blueberries and hundreds of manufactured products contain blueberries including juices, jams, dairy and natural cosmetics. Consumers, rarely have an opportunity to try fresh blueberries and when they do — they love them!
Yes, China does produce blueberries in regions as far north as Inner Mongolia to the South and Hainan Island. Currently local production is limited and most blueberry is major cities close to the production. I spent Thanksgiving day in Beijing at a fresh produce conference and jut about every major produce importer and distributor expressed showed immediate interest in importing fresh blueberries. Discussions are underway between the USA and China and there does not seem to be any big objections or reasons. It just takes time… Think positive — promote blueberries — and the blueberries will come!
Welcome to the new and improved Blueberry Food Tech Blog. Tom Payne here. I have been working on blueberries for some time now and and loving it. Here, I will post regular details on blueberries in the food industry. Thanks for visiting and keep in touch!
How about the new mascot! It has taken 25 years — but the Blueberry Council finally has a mascot!!! Meet “Dyna!” Her friend “Mo” in the works so stay tuned. Mascots are a huge deal in Asia where we market a lot of our blueberries. Consider “Hello Kitty” which is bigger than Santa Claus in Taiwan. Last summer, we held a mascot contest in Korea. We used social media to solicit designs from artists across the nation. We expected a few — but received 70 great designs.
I never thought of a blueberry as an oil source until recently, when I visited with cosmetic chemists. Blueberries contain a very small or immature seed that can be pressed for oil. Some varieties have a more defined seed, but for the most part you will not even notice it. The seed is pressed into a very pleasant oil and marketed in the cosmetic industry worldwide. Here is what one of the suppliers in the USA say on the spec sheet.
Fruitsmart in Washington State says:
Blueberry seed oil is prepared by the mechanical cold press expeller processing of blueberry seeds. No solvents or chemicals are used during any step of production. The process yields unrefined blueberry seed oil which is then lightly filtered and purged with nitrogen and packed securely in appropriate containers. This product is processed, packaged and shipped in accordance with Current Good Manufacturing Practices and in compliance with the United States Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 as amended.
Appearance: light green
Aroma: no off notes (I say it has a wonderful blueberry aroma!)
Solubility: lipid soluble
Extraneous matter: clear
Peroxide value: <15mg/kg
Specific gravity: 0.923
Now, the big question. What is it used for. I talked to cosmetic chemists who are currently using it in a whole variety of skin applications. Just for the aroma of real blueberries it is worth the pricy price tag! (Send me a note and I will fill you in). According to oil chemists, the blueberry oil has some very interesting functional characteristics for food and non food uses including special applications in mechanical engineering.
Now this is all interesting stuff, and I must get to work to update a new column on the Blueberry supplier list! I understand there are a few suppliers.
Here is a photo of a popular skin mask from Korea!