Despite a growing pile of research linking lycopene to benefits ranging from heart, cardiovascular, prostate and bone health to prevention of certain cancers, the market share for this carotenoid remains relatively small.
But the founders of Lycoberries aim to change that with a lycopene-rich ingredient from the US grown Elaegnus umbellate berry (also called autumn olive, Oleaster or Japanese silver berry) that they’ve branded Lycoberry.
Grown in the US since the 19th century (largely to defend against soil erosion), the bush’s berries provide a concentrated source lycopene, reportedly 17 times that of tomatoes, which wasn’t documented in the US until 2001 . Currently, researchers at the University of Connecticut and the NCSU Plants For Human Health Institute are independently studying the berry’s benefits.
Scientific interest in lycopene has triggered a veritable flood of lycopene extracts and supplements to the marketplace, but supplements lack the holistic co-factors in fruits and vegetables that help the body absorb key compounds, said Orin Zelanak, president and founder of Lycoberries.
“Lycoberry lies at the intersection of two trends: expanding research into the positive role of lycopene in human health and a lifestyle demand for functional foods which go beyond nutrition but aren't engineered or synthetic supplements,” Zelanak told us. “Science is catching up to fact that the undisturbed, whole food nature put together is offering you something too complex to manufacture.”
Sweet flavor profile works where tomato may not
Available in concentrated puree, dried flake, fine powder or frozen whole berry form, Lycoberries have a sweet-tart flavor profile and a hint of astringency that Zelanak likens to rhubarb or cranberry. Because of its high lycopene concentration, a relatively small amount (1 tablespoon of puree) delivers the 7 mg of lycopene required to "lyco-functionalize" a serving of many foods. There is no recommended daily allowance for lycopene, though most supplements deliver dosages of around 7 mg, Zelanak said.
“Because it’s a new ingredient, we have been focusing a lot of our efforts on the supply side, which means developing reliable processes to harvest the berries and ensure quality control from field to freezer,” he said. “We have been working with a couple of researchers and some people at food labs like Cornell and Rutgers to convert the raw material into a few minimum viable products.”
To produce the puree (with or without seeds), the berries are picked fresh, cleaned, vacuum-sealed, frozen and ground before they’re high-pressure processed to preserve the taste and nutritional profile of the fruit while extending its shelf life. This process also puts the product “on par with the products centered around the growing raw juice market,” Zelanak said. The firm is also working with a thermal processor to develop a more shelf-stable form of the puree. In puree or syrup form, it works well mixed with or at the bottom of yogurt, in smoothies, juices, seltzers, alcohols or in sauces.
“The sweet flavor profile makes it great for functional breakfast applications like smoothies,” Zelanak said. “Not everybody wants to taste something savory first thing in the morning.”
The powder and flake forms are dried using infrared technology, which is more energy-efficient, gentler and faster than freeze drying, Zelanak said. The flake or powder form can be added to flours, baked goods, as well as protein, antioxidant, and performance powders. As a semi-soft ingredient it can be added to cereals, power-bars, trail mixes or confections.
Increasing supply by 10-fold
Pricing hasn’t yet been finalized, and depends on uptake in the wholesale versus retail markets, Zelanak said. “At this point, we have sufficient supply in inventory to continue both with product development and to become involved with rolling out limited retail lines and get involved with a key partner. And we are now actively taking steps to increase supply by 10-fold within the next three years.”
Zelanak is optimistic about the ingredient’s potential, particularly in the functional beverage space, given the lack of truly “new” ingredients, he said. “Competition in the smoothie and juice market is occurring largely by marketing campaigns—nobody has a new ingredient,” he said. “If you can put kale in yours, so can I; if you do HPP, I do it, too. Differentiation comes down to marketing and recipes. There’s no intellectual property for recipes, but we think we have something that is genuinely different, that incorporates easily into everything they’re doing, looks good and tastes good.”