Cranberries are a big deal in North America. So Ocean Spray, a farmer-owned cooperative comprising more than 600 cranberry growers, took a group of journalists from around the world to observe this year's harvest in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
On one of the days, during a dry harvest, the group met two very excited ladies pacing up and down the banks of a cranberry bog. They were taking a vast amount of pictures. When they approached us, one of them explained that they were "on vacation" from Connecticut, specifically to see the cranberry harvest in action. And considering that Americans sometimes get as little as one week's paid holiday per year that really is a big deal.
Cranberries are a major commercial crop in the US and are mainly grown in Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Wisconsin, as well as in some Canadian provinces such as British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Only a very small amount of the crop is sold fresh on the market; the majority is processed into products such as juice drinks, sauces and sweetened dried cranberries.
Ocean Spray says that it supplies around 70% of the global demand for cranberries. The business is split into two: its branded products, which include juice drinks; and its ingredients technology group (ITG), which sells cranberry ingredients to major food manufacturers around the globe. In North America, combined sales of branded products and ITG ingredients, were approximately $1.9bn from 2008 to 2009. In Europe, sales reached around $100M.
On the branded side of the business, the company has recently agreed an interesting deal with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). It
was decided, at the end of September, that CCE would take over the sales and distribution of Ocean Spray's juice drinks in the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands by February next year. Gerber Juice Company, in the UK, and its European sister company Emig, is to manufacture the drinks from Ocean Spray cranberry concentrate.
Ocean Spray says the UK and European markets are full of untapped potential, so the move will accelerate the sales and distribution of its juice products in these markets, as well as complement CCE's still drinks portfolio, which includes Capri Sun and Oasis.
On the ingredients side of the business, Ocean Spray's ITG group works very closely with food and drink manufacturers to help them with new product development. According to market research, 479 products containing cranberries were launched worldwide between May 2008 and May 2009. Around 41 of these were launched in the UK and 154 in the US, says Mintel Global New Products Database, which monitors new product trends. Its research also found that the most popular product launches containing cranberries were cereal bars. Ocean Spray's ingredient technologists have worked with a large number of cereal bar manufacturers including Kellogg, Nestlé and Eat Natural.
Beyond cereal bars, it has also helped develop other food and drink products, including Pepsico's Quaker brand of Cruesli breakfast cereals, Uncle Tobys Plus Antioxidant Lift cereals, United Biscuits' McVities's Fruitsters wholegrain biscuits, Danone Activia cranberry flavoured yogurts, Cadbury's Dairy Milk cranberry and granola bars, as well as Smirnoff vodka and cranberry juice mix in a can.
"But one of my favourite launches," says principal food technologist at Ocean Spray's ITG Kristen Girard "was the Wensleydale cheese with cranberries". She adds: "The acidity and chewy nature of dried cranberries works fabulously well with the crumbly cheese. We are also working with Wall's to launch a premium Magnum ice cream bar that is flavoured with our cranberry ingredients. This is another favourite of mine. It is delicious."
The group has a wide range of ingredients in its portfolio, from cranberry purée to cranberry powder. "In particular, our dried sweetened cranberries are very versatile," adds Girard, "as they are relatively process stable." They tend to keep their rich red hue, do not disintegrate under high temperatures and have a longer shelf-life than other fruits, such as strawberry, she adds. For these reasons Ocean Spray uses a patented technology, which allows the group to infuse real fruit juices, from other fruits, into the cranberry. The BerryFusions Fruits are pieces of cranberry that taste like other fruits such as orange, strawberry, mango, blueberry, raspberry and cherry, and can be added to food products to mimic the taste and texture of other fruits.
"For example, if manufacturers use our flavoured dried cranberries instead of blueberries in foods such as baked goods, they stand to make significant cost savings, without turning to unnatural ingredients."
The group's technology makes it possible to vary the moisture content of dried fruits, the degree of sweetness, as well as whether the cranberry is diced. "As an ingredient, there's a lot we can do with cranberries," adds Girard.
For example, the company is currently working with Kraft to add one of its ingredients to a cereal mixture. It is a sweetened dried cranberry that contains 30% less sugar and has five times more fibre by adding polydextrose. "Adding extra health benefits to food products, a long and established trend in food processing, is certainly a message that we actively want to convey at Ocean Spray," says Girard.
In the US Ocean Spray's branded cranberry juice bottle products feature the National Kidney Foundation's logo, because research suggests that cranberries may help to manage urinary tract infections (UTIs), it says. The National Kidney Foundation is the US's largest voluntary agency dedicated to preventing and treating kidney and urinary tract diseases.
In Europe, labels on its branded products may start to tell a different story because, in January 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rejected an article 14 claim that claimed that cranberry juice drink products containing 80mg of proanthocyanidins reduce UTI risk in women over the age of 16 by inhibiting the adhesion of certain bacteria to the urinary tract.
Despite having the claim rejected, Ocean Spray remains upbeat, saying that it is now "reviewing" its options and is committed to further research to help demonstrate the health claim. "There is good evidence to suggest that cranberry juice stops bacteria from sticking to the lining of the urinary tract. The research work done so far has shown promising results but EFSA's stringent requirements mean that more clinical trials need to be done to support a disease reduction claim," says Christina Khoo, manager research sciences at Ocean Spray.
She says that now EFSA has clarified its guidelines, Ocean Spray will review its claim application to see what additional information is necessary to meet EFSA's thresholds. "We were also encouraged as EFSA's prescreening determined that there is sufficient substantiation on several cranberry submissions, approval of which is expected by the end of January 2010." Her comments refer to more general claims, relating to the consumption of antioxidants in cranberries.
Over the last few years, the global functional food industry has become very interested in cranberries because of growing consumer interest in their nutrient content and antioxidant qualities, giving them commercial status as a 'superfruit', says Khoo.
"Superfruit, as a term, doesn't mean much, it's just a marketing term referring to high antioxidant levels in the fruit. But the term has definitely attracted consumer interest over the past few years, boosting cranberry sales and popularity. We look forward to seeing how the industry will develop in the future, and continue to support food and drink manufacturers looking to add cranberries to new product development launches." FIHN