Blueberries and cranberries are two of today’s “it” foods. “Tiny, but mighty,” describes the health protective potential of the little blueberry and cranberry. They’re lauded as nutrient-dense fruits that are full of antioxidant polyphenols that can protect the heart and lower bad cholesterol.
Shoppers are buying blueberries more than ever. Sales of blueberries increased by 600% between 1994 and 2014, and have maintained their momentum since then. Cranberry sales also exploded during the 1990s, largely fueled by dried cranberries that could give a nutritional boost to everything from baked goods to trail mixes to processed foods. The reason behind this surge in sales has a lot to do with consumer demand in a health-conscious culture, but it also has to do with something else: science. Scientists have helped created a better berry and gain a better understanding of the positive health effects associated with their consumption.
Despite the progress to select improved blueberry cultivars, “When you go to the market for berries, it’s still a lottery,” says Massimo Iorizzo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at N. C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI). Currently, inconsistent quality of both texture and taste of berries results in an inconsistent experience —which results in infrequent shoppers.
By expanding our understanding of how we can more precisely select cultivars with quality characteristics that meet consumer preferences the production of blueberries and cranberries could grow even more. The work that Dr. Iorizzo is doing at PHHI will play a significant role in that process.
What Makes a Berry Better?
Dr. Iorizzo is in the midst of a $12.8 million grant that will allow scientists to develop a better blueberry and cranberry. He’s assembled a large team of specialists from across the country who will pool their talents to attack the challenge from several angles, including genetics, physiology, and consumer behavior.
Their first task is to define the characteristics of an ideal berry. What traits, exactly, make for a good blueberry and cranberry?
To some, better may mean a disease- or insect-resistant plant. To others, it may mean a sweet fruit. To ensure that the team’s research would prioritize the most pressing concerns, between 2016 and 2018, Dr. Iorizzo reached out to workers across the industry: growers, distributors, processors, packers. He asked them to complete a survey that would help his team identify the characteristics that these workers valued in blueberries and cranberries.
More than 500 survey responses later, a clear consensus for a better berry emerged: fruit quality. With fresh blueberries in high demand, survey respondents said they sought a berry with a little firmness. This may allow berries to be stored for a longer amount of time, address consumer preference for crisp blueberries, and allow blueberries to survive mechanical harvest without falling apart. Mechanical harvest is becoming increasingly important for several reasons. For one, production needs to keep pace with consumer demand, and hand-harvesting blueberries is time intensive. Second, increasingly restrictive immigration laws reduce the number of workers who harvest berries in the United States. With growing demand and decreasing labor, mechanical harvesting machines would help greatly – if only a berry could be strong enough to resist damage from the process.
Fruit quality was also the top priority that survey respondents chose for cranberries. During the 1980s, cranberries were mostly used for juice, so a soft, juicy cranberry was the ideal kind for processing. As consumers began to demand dried cranberries instead, the ideal characteristics for a cranberry changed. Like with a blueberry, a firmer cranberry gained preference.
Besides firmness, other fruit characteristic priorities include shelf life and size for blueberry and color and increased anthocyanins for cranberry. All these characteristics play a critical role in reducing the challenges faced at all levels of the supply chain, production, distribution, processing and consumer preference.
A Spirit of Scientific Collaboration
The key to Dr. Iorizzo’s plan is collaboration between scientists who study blueberries and cranberries. These scientists come from around the country, from Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and beyond. They include younger scientists and more experienced ones, who share their innovation and expertise. They also share leadership: This research has between 18 and 20 principle investigators.
“In a community-based initiative like this, you can split efforts. Give each person leadership in their own areas,” Dr. Iorizzo says. “Today it’s a challenge to work in your corner by yourself. I believe in people working together to achieve things. You can do a little thing by yourself, but you can achieve something greater for the big picture through true collaboration.”
The scientists are currently in the process of studying how to link blueberry and cranberry DNA with fruit characteristics, and fruit characteristics with fruit quality. Outcomes of this research will be used during the project and in the future to accelerate breeding of blueberry and cranberry plants producing berries with higher and more consistent quality, while investigating consumer behavior to learn how to increase sales.
The ultimate goal for this work, however, pertains to health. With two small berries wielding big health possibilities, giving more people access to blueberries and cranberries can create ripple effects of positive health.
Learn more about the VacCAP Project and find the latest research updates here: https://www.vacciniumcap.org/.