Pity the little blueberry, always dwarfed in fruit popularity by the summer giants, peaches and strawberries. That, of course, was before...
Pity the little blueberry, always dwarfed in fruit popularity by the summer giants, peaches and strawberries.
That, of course, was before researchers took a closer look and pronounced the magic words: high in antioxidants.
Now what many growers call the “health halo” is helping the U.S. blueberry business enjoy a tremendous surge, including what government agriculture analysts say might be a record crop this year.
Thanks to research that shows that blueberries can help protect against some forms of cancer and heart disease, as well as offset some of the effects of aging, consumers have been rushing to add the antioxidant-rich fruit to their daily diet. Blueberries might still trail the mighty strawberry in consumption and production, but sales of blueberries in all forms — fresh, frozen and dried — have exploded in popularity in the past three years.
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For the best berries …
According to Ronald Prior, a research chemist and nutritionist with the USDA’s Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock, a one-cup serving of blueberries delivers as much antioxidant power as five servings of grapes, peaches or broccoli.
If you’re shopping for blueberries:
Most of the blueberries we see in markets are cultivated, not wild. These blueberries are almost never sold loose but instead in pint containers that usually are covered with plastic. Look through the plastic for berries that have a white, chalky cast to them, a sign of freshness. If they do not roll around freely in the container when shaken slightly, they might be overripe or crushed, so keep looking.
When you get the berries home, remove them from the container and put them in a bowl. Pick out the moldy or crushed berries and discard them. Cover the bowl and refrigerate. To keep the berries from becoming mushy, do not wash the berries until you’re ready to eat them; then wash thoroughly.
Don’t keep blueberries more than two or three days in the refrigerator. If you buy too many or don’t use them promptly, wash, drain well and freeze them loose on a baking sheet, then store in a resealable plastic freezer bag until ready to use.
Sources: Washington Post research; www.wildaboutberries.com
The Washington Post
“All the new research has been a fantastic boon,” says Rod Cook, a spokesman for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, a promotion and research group overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The United States and Canada are the world’s biggest blueberry producers, with the United States producing more than half of the world’s supply. Maine and Michigan lead the country, followed by New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, North Carolina and Washington, according to the USDA.
In 2002, for example, Americans bought 105 million pounds of fresh blueberries. Last year, the total jumped to 166 million pounds, according to the Blueberry Council. To meet the growing demand, North American blueberry farmers are producing more. In 2002, 433 million pounds of the berries were produced for fresh and frozen use. Last year, even with a loss of 40 million pounds of Maine blueberries to bad weather, production still hit 457 million pounds, says Cook.
This year, farmers are expecting another big crop — possibly as high as 490 million pounds, according to some industry experts.
For the blueberry industry, the increased demand has been accompanied by an across-the-board shift in how the fruit is consumed. Traditionally, most of the berries went to the bakery and dairy industries for products such as muffins and flavored yogurt. Fresh and frozen blueberries held a distant second place, and dried blueberries didn’t even exist until a few years ago.
“But there’s been a huge percentage growth in direct consumer consumption. Frozen blueberries have gone more and more away from the bakery business to direct consumer sales. There’s been a huge growth in dried blueberries as well,” says Cook, himself a blueberry grower.
At SkylarHaley, a Pleasanton, Calif., dried-fruit and beverage company, general manager Peter Vermeulen says he has seen sales of the company’s Stoneridge Orchards brand of dried blueberries skyrocket in the past three years, rising to more than 2 million this year from less than 200,000 pounds in 2002. Demand is especially strong at wholesale clubs such as Costco, where the berries are sold in bags that proclaim: “good source of antioxidants.”