Once a wheat sideline, Saskatoon berries now making splash in superfruit sector

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Once a wheat sideline, Saskatoon berries now making splash in superfruit sector
Fluctuating wheat prices had a hand in pushing the latest superfruit offering toward the market.  Sandra Purdy and her husband were looking at how to diversify on their Saskatchewan wheat farm and the prairie dwelling Saskatoon berry, a longtime staple of home baked pies, sprang to mind.

The berry, Amelanchier alnifolia Nutt., is actually a member of the apple family and grows as a high bush or small tree and is native the northern plains and also goes by the names of serviceberry and June berry. The form of the fruit resembles a small crabapple, but deep purple in color, a color that pervades the pulp, promising a high polyphenol content.  The flavor falls somewhere between an apple and a mixed berry flavor.

The Purdys started  a food company called Prairie Berries with a small, 10-acre orchard.  Among the management techniques they evolved is cutting and burning the plants every few years to encourage new shoots to spring from the roots.  Being a prairie plant, the Saskatoon Berry evolved in an environment in which fast moving grass fires were common.

Rich in antioxidants

The berries are high in antioxidants. Tests have shown the polyphenol profile to be similar to that of chokecherries and the whole fruit ORAC value to exceed that of blueberries.  And the fruits are high fiber; a 100 gram serving provides 6 grams of fiber, or 24% of the daily value.

But Purdy, a principal in the firm Prairie Berries, said she thought even with all of its benefits, the fruit needed additional development to become a big seller.  Its squishy texture is something that Canadians of the western provinces grew up with, but it’s not for everybody.

“The mouthfeel was what I was worried about.  I thought if we could change it into a range of ingredients, we would have something that would have an impact in the market,”​ she told FoodNavigator at the recent IFT show in Chicago.

“People used to use Saskatoon berries in their raw form, in pies and so forth.  But those consumers are getting older, and we needed to come up with something that connects with how people are getting their nutrition now.  We needed something that would work in supplements or in smoothies,”​ she said.

Processing capabilities

The Purdys found partners and invested in additional orchard acreage and a processing facility.  The company offers frozen whole berries, fruits, jams, toppings and syrups.  And on the ingredients side, they have developed in concert with San Diego based ingredient marketing firm Select Ingredients  powder, juice and puree products.

Prairie Berries now has its own 150 acre orchard, and the steady success of the berry products, which have been on the market since about 2008, has induced other growers to get on board.

“There are 953 growers in Canada that already have acreage,”​ Purdy said.

Nevertheless, the company and its distribution partner are cognizant of the risk of trying to get too big too soon and creating a demand that the nascent supply chain can’t satisfy.

“Based on the response that we are getting, we are going to experience some nice growth. That’s why we are moving at an appropriate speed,”​ said Bruce Howe, CEO of Select Ingredients.

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