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Superfruit Claims Require Super Evidence

Health-conscious consumers are smart enough to separate the hype from the science when it comes to superfruits, and they desire the unique health benefits and variety they bring into a healthy lifestyle.

Manufacturers have responded by making more superfruit products; Innova Market Insights reported a 10-percent rise in the number of superfruit product launches marketed in the year ending May 2011 over the previous 12-month period.  The soft drinks category saw the greatest number of launches, equivalent to nearly 40 percent of the total, primarily in the fruit drinks and wellness drinks arenas.  Products with superfruit ingredients were launched across most other sectors as well, led by confectionery, dairy products, fruit and vegetable products, and desserts and ice cream.  Pomegranate accounted for more than 40 percent of the launches tracked containing a superfruit during the June 2012 to May 2011 period.  Other fruits that grew in popularity included açaí, goji and other berries.

In the United States, pomegranate recorded the highest levels of product activity ahead of blueberry.  Interest in acerola also appeared to be increasing, as well as ongoing interest in goji.  Product launches in the United Kingdom focused strongly on pomegranate and berries, particularly cranberries, blueberries and açaí, while Germany saw rising levels of interest in Sanddorn (seabuckthorn).

A wide range of food products featuring superfruits, such as strawberries, blueberries and cherries are available to these consumers, according to a March 2011 national consumer study conducted by The Cherry Marketing Institute.  These superfruit foods come in single-serve containers, are easily eaten out of home and are available nearly everywhere.  None of these products use fresh, perishable fruit; instead they depend on dried and frozen fruit, and to a lesser degree, juice.  Importantly, they are consumed with great frequency.

"Not surprisingly, strawberries show up most frequently in smoothies, and raisins in oatmeal cookies," said Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer, Cherry Marketing Institute.  "However, the study had surprises.  Cranberries popped up in green salads, blueberries dominated muffins, and cherries seem to have the greatest potential across moist foods."

Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed consumed dried fruit in the past month, with all types of dried fruit considered nutritious.  Dried blueberries, cranberries and cherries scored the highest.  Cold cereal and refrigerated yogurt were the most frequently consumed superfruit foods.  yogurt-based foods appear to be the most important carriers of superfruits.

Consumers were asked about their interest in eating a range of foods with superfruits.  The scale was from 1 to 9, with 9 being extremely interested.  With the exception of raisins, all scores, including cherries, were in the 7 range for scones.  Strawberries were the big winners in yogurt, cereal and smoothies.  However, blueberries and cherries scored high in the yogurt category.

Superfruits are also making their way to cosmeceuticals. “With the backing of scientific data, superfruits can offer incredible health benefits, making it a nutraceutical ingredient in skin care breakthroughs,” said Kristine Carey, vice president of marketing for MyChelle Dermaceuticals. “Because what we apply topically gets absorbed into our bloodstream -- up to 60 percent -- it is becoming a popular option in skin care, where consumers are seeking remedies for their skin issues that also offer a boost to their overall health.” MyChelle Dermaceuticals uses pomegranates and cranberries, among other fruits in its skin care line. “Pomegranate is rich in naturally occurring fruit acids, is a great gentle exfoliant, and has two to three times more antioxidant capacity than red wine and green tea, which is attributed to elevated polyphenol content; and works as an antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and astringent,” Cary said. She added cranberries provide antibacterial effects as well, and nourish the skin while protecting it from free radical damage.

Angela Dorsey-Kockler, RD, product manager, BI Nutraceuticals, noted consumers are willing to pay for superfruit ingredients because of the perception that they offer more nutrition and health advantages. “However,” she said, “this interest is tempered by consumer skepticism and fraudulent activities of some large online direct marketing companies proffering superfruit products and promising too-good-to-be-true benefits (i.e.,açaí for weight loss). It is important for manufacturers to be responsible in how they present the benefits of their superfruit products so as not to discredit the company’s or the superfruits’ reputations.”

Defining Definition
While most in the industry agree açaí can be considered a superfruit, other fruits are not so clearly labeled. Some say it is any fruit with exceptional antioxidant quantities, some say the fruit should be exotic, and others say strict guidelines should be followed.

“Superfruits should be defined by measurable standards,” said David Bell, president, Bell Advisory Services LLC. “It would not please or serve many of the companies that use the term to market products, but it would help make the term more meaningful.”

Paul Gross, Ph.D., industry consultant and author of “Superfruits,” took on the task of defining the obscure category using five criteria: 1) popularity
and sensory appeal of the whole fruit, 2) nutrient diversity and density, 3) phytochemical diversity and density, 4) medical research, and 5) clinical applications. He used a five-point scale for each criteria; each fruit’s score is compared to a 25 maximum, a height he said no fruit has met.

“The criteria lead to accepting only a few fruits actually having exceptional qualities--eight in total, eliminating most others as nutritionally deficient or
scientifically undeveloped to warrant calling them true superfruits,” Gross wrote in a July 2009 INSIDER article. Fruit that Gross wouldn't include in the superfruit category were baobab, maqui, amla, noni and even açaí. However, those that are officially “super” per Gross are mango (Mangifera indica), fig (Ficus carica), orange (Citrus sinensis), strawberry (Fragaria ananassa), goji (Lycium barbarum), red grape (Vitis vinifera), cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), Kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) and papaya (Carica papaya).

What’s wrong with açaí (Euterpe oleracea Mart.), according to Gross?  He said, “1) it cannot be obtained as a whole food in the United States, Asia or Europe (large markets), and probably would not be popular for general consumer use due to its sour, oily taste, and both storage and product formulation difficulties; and 2) it has only minimal science published to date, mostly on its properties in vitro and early-stage human pilot studies, and seems not to be attracting wide scientific interest. In other words, it remains mainly in the bottom half of the health claims research pyramid shown in the book and my INSIDER article, and would be regarded by impartial scientists as a fledgling research topic, not earning true ‘super’ status.”

Super Science
Still, açaí is unusual because it contains omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), and science hasn’t ignored it completely. In fact, a USDA-ARS study is currently underway. In Phase I of the study, researchers from Tufts University, Boston, are assessing various açaí preparations and comparing them with concord grape juice, pomegranate juice and white grape juice. If the açaí berry preparations show efficacy for reducing calcium clearance, oxidant stress or inflammation, then two more phases will be carried out to determine the mechanisms. In a progress report, the researchers said they found components of açaí berries were effective against inflammatory and oxidative stress in the brain cells similar to the other berries they tested. Completed research has found it is a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, has a high phenolic and phytochemical content,  and has a high ORAC value.

Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), which comes our way from Indonesia, scored highly on popularity and sensory appeal in Gross’ definition, but
only reached a total score of nine due to sparse nutrient content, and lack of medical research and clinical applications. “It does have high levels of certain anthocyanins, xanthones and tannins, but only in the inedible rind; some companies have extracted those compounds to add to consumer products,” Gross noted.

Mangosteen research has shown periodontal (gum) disease prevention and positive effects on cancer.  A 2009 study reviewed the ability of a proprietary, whole-fruit mangosteen puree (XANGO® Juice) to reduce inflammation and increase antioxidant levels in 40 obese patients with elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels.  “Research indicates that naturally occurring xanthones found in the mangosteen may help maintain intestinal health, support the immune system, neutralize free radicals, help support cartilage and joint function, and promote a healthy seasonal respiratory system,” added Jeff Chandler, senior manager, corporate communications, XANGO LLC.

Baobab (adansonia) fruit, from Madagascar, also has a dearth of research, but in 2009, researchers evaluated published material about baobab food products and reported its pulp is particularly rich in vitamin C, the leaves are high in calcium, and the fruit contains good-quality proteins.  In 2002, Italian researchers compared the Integral Antioxidant Capacity (IAC) of baobab, and reported it had more antioxidants than strawberry, kiwi, orange and apple.

“[Baobab] is sourced from Africa and is very high in calcium, vitamin C and potassium compared to other fruits. It is also reported to contain an ORAC value of 240 μmol TE/g, double that found even in pomegranates,” Dorsey-Kockler said. “Finally, it has also demonstrated prebiotic effects in in-vitro testing.”

Nutraceutical International’s patented Baozene® is a purified powdered extract containing 70-percent fiber content, made from the baobab fruit, according to David Romeo, managing director. “It has an immense amount of nutritional benefits including high amounts of fiber, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron and more,” he reported.

Adding to the list of beneficial components, Hugh Lamond, president, Herbal Teas International, said baobab also contains phosphorus and vitamins B2 and B3. “What sets baobab aside from other superfruits of its caliber is the exceptionally high fiber content and its high levels of pectin (23 percent) -- which make it useful as binding and thickening agent,” he said.

The tangy taste of baobab fruit pulp as well as its high-fiber content and antioxidant properties makes it an attractive food ingredient or supplement, but specific health benefits have not been established, and too much can cause a potential laxative effect, according to a July 2011 report by  Dried baobab fruit pulp is approved for use as a food additive in Europe, and is considered GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in the United States. It is often used for its high-fiber content, according to ConsumerLab, but it also has a high ORAC score, meaning it demonstrates significant antioxidant activity.  However, the firm noted a high ORAC score doesn’t necessarily mean it has a high antioxidant activity in the body.

The Maqui Berry (Aristotelia chilensis) was traditionally used by the Mapuche Indians for strength and stamia in the Patagonia region. This superfruit has a relative high anthocyanin content, and more antioxidants than carrot, red pepper, cucumber, strawberry and wild blackberry, according to the FRAP (ferric reducing activity power) test.  Its juice inhibited copper-induced low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, and in human cell cultures, it protected against hydrogen peroxide-induced oxidative stress.  Vladimir Badmaev, M.D., Ph.D., director medical and scientific affairs, P.L. Thomas & Co. Inc., noted, “Wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), due to its outstanding antioxidant properties researched in 2004 by the USDA, was historically the first fruit referred to as a superfruit.”

Unfamiliar fruit may not always be a selling point, according to Thomas Payne, industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, who said,
“Food safety is also a big issue, and consumers have been given reason for concern about the origins of their foods, especially with the exotic and unfamiliar.  That’s where blueberries come in. People already identify blueberries with the healthiest possible eating.”

The blueberry genus Vaccinium includes more than 450 plants, but three varieties are most abundant. The northern highbush (V. corymbosum) grows wild in North American forests, the lowbush (V. angustifolium), known as “wild blueberries,” grows in Arctic North America, and rabbiteye (V. ashei) thrives in the southern United States. In 2010, a study from Oklahoma State University reported blueberries may improve selected features of metabolic syndrome and related cardiovascular risk factors at dietary achievable doses, and a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found blueberry extract supplementation may have protected rats against neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment caused by oxidative stress.  Canadian researchers found blueberries decreased total, LDL- and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in pigs.  And blueberry anthocyanins demonstrated anti-cancer properties by inhibiting cancer cell proliferation, and by acting as cell anti-invasive factors and chemoinhibitors, according to Portuguese researchers in 2010.

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are are among Gross’ shortlist of true superfruits. It’s tasty as a whole berry (albeit with the addition of a sweetener), and it has an extensive list of research credit. Cranberries are high in antioxidants, have a high amount of vitamin C, are full of anthocyanins and also fight oral bacterium.  Of course, they are best known for treating urinary tract infections (UTIs).

While the average American may not be carrying pomegranate (Punica granatum) in her lunch box, the flavor has certainly become familiar, at least in beverages. Most recent research has shown ellagitannins from pomegranate may support recovery from exercise, attenuating muscle soreness and damage, and both in vitro and in vivo studies have demonstrated how it acts as an antioxidant, an anti-diabetic and a hypolipidemic remedy, and shown anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-carcinogenic activities, according to a Spanish review.  Previous research has found pomegranates are high in fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K, and have potent antioxidant activity, can modify heart risk, help reduce coronary heart disease (CHD)26 and may reduce type 2 diabetes.

Verdure’s patented POMELLA® pomegranate extract is standardized to the punicalagins in the fruit, some of the most active and abundant phytonutrients unique to the fruit. Studies on POMELLA® found it is a proven and safe dietary supplement, and has promise as a treatment against breast cancer by preventing proliferation of cancer stem cells,28 and has an antiplaque effect when used in vitro in a mouthrinse.

A propriety blend of prune extract, pomegranate fruit extract, apple extract (phloridzin), white cherry extract and grape leaves extract (dihydroquercitin), as FruitOx® from P.L. Thomas, with the addition of raspberry and strawberry extracts, was evaluated in a four-week, double blind, randomized, placebo controlled, clinical study on a healthy population of young men with high cholesterol (average 280 mg/dl).30 The fruit mix resulted in statistically significant reduction of total plasma cholesterol, average plasma LDL cholesterol and pro-inflammatory markers, and an increase of plasma HDL cholesterol with no changes in cholesterol in the placebo group. Additionally, Badmaev noted a nutritional analysis of FruitOx showed a low content of fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, fats and sodium. The ORAC value for FruitOx was established at values ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 μmol TE/g, he said.

Tart cherries (Prunus cerasus) are also considered a superfruit based on science, according to Manning. “Tart cherries have a very high level of disease fighting antioxidants compared with most fruits,” he said, noting research has linked the unique anti-inflammatory qualities of tart cherries. “Tart cherries are rich in anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that provide many of the fruit’s health benefits and also give cherries their bright red color. Specifically, tart cherries are known for their powerful anti-inflammatory profile, linked to reduced risk factors for heart disease, and also reducing pain associated with arthritis and exercise recovery.”

An early 2011 study confirmed athletes who drank the juice of tart cherries after a vigorous workout reduced muscle damage and recovered faster thanks to anthocyanins that reduce inflammation.31 The findings also suggested the cherries could affect inflammation related to heart disease and arthritis. Another study, published just a few months earlier, found drinking a glass of unsweetened cherry juice at bedtime was associated with statistically significant pre- to post-treatment reductions in insomnia severity (minutes awake after sleep onset).

Up, Up and Away
This is by no means an extensive list of fruits marketed as super, as numerous others, including noni, gogi, sea buckthorn, saw palmetto, acerola,
papaya, black currants, mango, grape and strawberry are all contenders in this heavy marketplace. In fact, “Sea buckthorn is shaping up to be the next big superfruit,” according to the editors of, who identified the “holy fruit of the Himalayas” as one of the most influential food trends of 2010.  New Nutrition Business named fruits and superfruits number five out of its top 10 trends for 2010, and the food channel noted superfruits, specifically, açaí, pomegranate and blueberry, in its top 10 trends of the past 10 years.

Expect more trendy superfruits in the near future, said Steve Siegel, vice president, Ecuadorian Rainforest LLC. “The superfruit category is still quite
young,” he said. “A trend we’ve noticed is that as soon as one ingredient comes out, another is waiting to take its place. For example, pomegranate was followed by acai, which was followed by maqui. Consumers are always looking for the next big thing.”

And that next big thing is likely to come in whole form, according to Bell.  “There is a growing consensus and sense of urgency that complex whole
foods, eaten as close to their natural state as possible, are essential to optimal health. Even if this still poses considerable logistical challenges to the average shopper on a daily basis, it represents a massive shift in both thinking and behavior from the peak of the processed-food era.” This shift will bring big guns to the superfruit category, added Bell, who said the market will see more consolidation and bigger corporate investment.

Money will bring more research, and the “tier-one superfruits” on Gross’ list will expand. He said he expects more studies on kiwi, blueberry, seaberry and tart cherry in the near future.

Taste will also be a factor, as consumers want more of the real thing. “As more consumers become aware of the taste profiles of various fruits and use the raw fruits, I think the flavor profiles of such will become more authentic in mass produced products,” said Jamie Goodner, Ph.D., senior scientist, WILD Flavors.

“Now, superfruit flavors are often combined with more recognizable fruits for consumer appeal; that will change to be more of an authentic message.”

Increasingly important to all aspects of the natural product industry will continue to be sustainability, and manufacturers that show green efforts should do well. “There is increasing demand for transparency and sustainability of products, and probably more so for exotic fruits that may be coming from the developing world as consumers want to make sure that the products they consume are raised, harvested and traded in fair ways,” Dorsey-Kockler said.

It’s important for both suppliers and manufacturers to toot their own green horn, so shoppers know which companies to support. However, the story
shouldn’t stop there. “The key to marketing superfruit products is telling their whole story,” Siegel said. “Telling the whole story involves discussing the science, the folklore and the cultivation, and describing the fruit itself in order to give consumers a complete -- and juicier -- picture of these exceptional fruits.”  He suggested describing the flavor, color and history of the fruit as it relates to indigenous populations. “Not only do these stories fill in some of the gaps left by inadequate scientific research, they bring intrigue and entertainment, marketing elements that can only help you hold onto consumers’ attention.”

Prove It
Consumers are getting more familiar with antioxidant tests, such as ORAC, as well as their pitfalls. “Solid preclinical and clinical science, rather than ORAC value alone, is increasingly required to substantiate the health-supporting use  of superfruits,” Badmaev said. He explained new derivations of the ORAC test have been developed such as Hydroxyl ORAC measuring prevention of formation of hydroxyl, Peroxynitrite ORAC measuring peroxynitrite, Superoxide ORAC measuring superoxide and SOAC singlet oxygen absorbance capacity.  Also, he noted the original ORAC now involves ORAC-hydro for water soluble antioxidant capacity, ORAC-Lipo for lipid soluble antioxidant capacity and the sum of the two.

Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., CSCS, CSSD, food industry consultant, noted using different tests on one piece of fruit may result in different measured
outcomes of total antioxidant capacity (TAC), which highlights a glaring shortcoming of these tests, in an article for Food Product Design published in November 2010. “TAC, regardless of the test used, shouldn’t influence a consumer’s choice of fruit, since TAC tests do not take into account the absorption and utilization of various antioxidants in the human body,” she wrote.

Indeed, in a 2007 study, volunteers ate varying amounts of cherries, dried plums, kiwifruit, red grapes, strawberries and wild blueberries, and scientists measured their postprandial spike in antioxidant capacity as measured by ORAC.33 Kiwifruit outperformed the other fruits for increasing blood antioxidant levels, likely due to their high vitamin C content (vitamin C is well-absorbed by the body), despite the fact that other fruits had higher levels of specific antioxidant compounds, including anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins and flavonols.  Consumption of blueberries and cherries resulted in an increase in the subject’s fat-soluble antioxidant capacity, even though these berries do not contain large quantities of fat-soluble antioxidants.

To help sort out the confusing ranking of antioxidants, Bell said Brunswick Labs is presently designing a trust mark certification program that establishes superfruits in verifiable quartiles of nutritional performance in different categories based on recommended daily ORAC intake.
As the category matures, superfruit antioxidant tests are sure to be solidified and improved, which will help establish a clearer definition. This in
turn should mean more consumer trust and spending. No matter how they’re tested or defined currently, superfruits are still popular to consumers in foods, beverages, personal care products and supplements.