For the second year in a row the Cranberry Marketing Committee is lifting up the versatility of the humble cranberry with its Cranberry Friendsgiving Photo Contest, which runs from Oct. 17 to Dec. 19 and offers $4,000 in prizes for social media posts with the hashtag #FriendsgivingCranberryContest that feature the most unique ways to use cranberries in food, beverages and even decorations.
The obvious winner here is not the lucky posters who receive a cash infusion just in time for holiday shopping, but the cranberry farmers, suppliers and manufacturers who likely will see a sales boost in coming years as more consumers learn about different ways to prepare and eat the tart fruit.
While the campaign can’t take all the credit, the Cranberry Marketing Committee says demand for cranberries is growing. According to a survey it conducted, 80% of Americans enjoy cranberries and 44% voted them as one of the most versatile fruits.
But what does it take to meet this growing demand, and how are suppliers and manufacturers expanding consumer interest in the fruit beyond the holidays and the traditional fresh, dried and jellied uses?
This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast tackles these questions with help from Dan Souza, VP of sales and marketing with Naturex-DBS, and Craig Canning, president of Bluewater Farms in Sandwich, Mass., who hosted FoodNavigator-USA in Cape Cod during peak harvest season to learn more about how cranberries are harvested and their full potential.
Cranberries from farm to fork
The trip began with a tour of the factory floor at Bluewater Farms where cranberries are sorted and washed before they are bagged.
Standing by a stack of giant grey crates packed with cranberries fresh from the fields, Canning explains that the first factory task is taking out the grass, rocks and discolored or oddly sized cranberries, which is done with a combination of simple but extremely effective “bounce tests” and highly technical cameras and computerized scanners. Next they are washed, dried and picked through by people to catch any debris or less than perfect berries before they bagged or processed.
Just as sorting and cleaning the cranberries is an inventive, labor intensive process, so is harvesting the berries. A trip to the fields and bogs reveals carefully controlled chaos.
First, the vines are not in orderly rows. They are, as Souza described, like a massive tangle of spaghetti, which explains why farmers have to take such creative approaches to harvesting the fruit.
The first option is dry harvesting, which involves homemade tractor-type contraptions that shake the berries free from the vines before funneling them into a burlap bag that is then stacked in crates that helicopters come and swoop away.
As labor intensive as dry harvesting is, it only accounts for about 10% of the harvest -- but almost all of the fresh fruit supply. The wet harvest is how the bulk of cranberries are picked, as Souza explained to me.
Wet harvesting is when farmers flood the fields to create those iconic images of workers in hip waders raking berries across the top of the bogs.
Expanding the uses for cranberries
As popular as cranberry relish at Thanksgiving and during the holidays may be, it is a short season for sales -- prompting farmers like Canning to find other ways to use the fruit all year.
Canning does this in part by marketing fresh-pressed juice that stands apart from the competition by including the fruit’s “pulp,” which Canning says gives the juice “body so … if you hold [it] up typical cranberry juice would be red water and you could see through it. You can’t see through [ours] because it has all the health benefits” from fruit still included.
Canning currently offers six flavors of juice but is exploring creating a white cranberry juice and options sweetened with unprocessed honey. He also launched this year cranberry sauce and chutney, which unlike the 99 cent cans are not made from concentrate, he said.
Cranberries for health
While many of these more traditional foods seem like obvious destinations for cranberries, a lot of the fruit also ends up in supplements and as a powdered ingredients. Most people -- or at least women -- are familiar with the notion that cranberry juice and supplements could help ease symptoms of urinary tract infections, but as Souza explained cranberry can provide a lot more benefits -- including for men’s health.
He explained that Naturex recently published the results of a clinical trial in which men who took its cranberry ingredient for a month experienced noticeable relief from lower urinary tract infections associated with Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia.
“So men are having symptoms, they take our ingredient and they feel better which is great because as much as I believe in omega-3 or vitamin C, I don’t take it and necessarily feel any different. But with this, the men take the product and feel different. They feel like they don’t have to wake up three times a night or they have a stronger stream of urine,” Souza said.
He added that 96% of the people in the study said they would recommend the product to a friend and 37% of the people who took the high dose felt improvements in one month -- both of which are good for driving recurring sales.
Souza noted cranberry and other ingredients from Naturex also can help manufacturers meet consumers growing demand for clean label by providing natural flavors, natural colors, natural preservatives and other ingredients that can help simplify labels.
Emphasizing that Naturex is the go-to place for manufacturers who want natural, Souza also said the company has more to offer than just cranberries.
“In my opinion we are the leaders in cranberry. If you look at the sales volume it is clear,” and that is due to having a strong sales team, points of differentiation, strong science and reasonable costs, Souza said.
“We are trying to do the same thing with the blueberries -- really dig into the blueberry and understand what is the good part of the blueberries, make a cost effective ingredient and do clinical trials on it,” he said. “We have two clinical trials that will be completed this month next month.... basically looking at age related cognitive decline” and how blueberries could help maintain cognitive health.
In addition, he said, Naturex is doing the same thing with aronia berries and a possible association with heart health.