When Thomas Payne started working with blueberries 30 years ago, he says there were few options available to bakers and food production facilities outside of fresh and frozen blueberries and blueberry pie filling.
Now, he says, it’s a completely different ballgame.
“Now, there are many new items available to the bakery,” says Payne, who leads market development for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, directing programs targeting food processors and commercial bakers. “And a lot of our industry growth has been spurred by innovation. We have a major initiative with ingredient solutions. We know we must get the product into a very easy format for the end user.”
A key difference in today’s market is the nearly year-round availability of fresh blueberries. Payne notes that the harvest begins in March and April in Florida and can begin even earlier in California. The season lasts all the way into October, right before the winter harvest gets underway in Mexico, Central America and other southern hemisphere locales.
“Fresh is a very special treat,” Payne says. “And it’s nice for topping cakes, where the fresh appearance is needed.”
Mike Collins, who represents Wild Blueberries, says the growing trend of whole foods and clean labels is huge for the industry.
“The evolving real food movement is the most relevant trend we are seeing as it relates to Wild Blueberries,” he says. Consumers are looking for authentic foods that are closer to nature, less processes, cleaner labels and ingredients with the deepest real food roots and bakers are responding.”
One of the big selling points Collins makes on behalf of Wild Blueberries is that the fruit has never been planted or hybridized. The small lowbush Wild Blueberry thrives in the thin glacial soils and harsh climate of Maine, Eastern Canada and Quebec, where they plant has grown naturally for 10,000 years.
“It’s one of the few truly wild fruits that is accessible and affordable year-round to help bakers showcase their commitment to using the real food ingredients today’s consumers are looking for in the products they produce,” Collins says. “And consumer research proves the Wild Blueberries can positive impact purchase, intent, price premiums, taste, health and sustainability in today’s most successful ‘real foods’ products.”
But all of this doesn’t take away from the importance of frozen blueberries. Not in the least.
“Frozen is still the mainstay inclusion in the baking business,” Payne says. “Bakers keep 25- or 30-pound cases in the freezer and these are perfect for muffins, making fillings and all sorts of items.”
The biggest development in this category, he says, has been in the freezing quality of the fruit that is now available. Packers now offer individually frozen fruit, which is free flowing and comes in smaller interior bags for ease of use.
“Case-frozen and tray-frozen fruit is also available, and we see very good ingredient characteristics in what some are calling craft frozen,” Payne says. “The biggest commissary development in this area has been in the use of frozen blueberries to produce smoothies.”
Payne says liquid products such as purees, puree concentrate and juice concentrate are being marketed in easy-to-use packs, including aseptic packs that are perfect for beverages, toppings, brewing and all sorts of applications.
Low-moisture products — freeze-dried and microwave-dried powers, flakes and whole berries, for example — are used to give flavor and color to bakery items, especially extruded items like pasta, pizza dough and more.
“A lot of the major food processing companies are declaring an end to artificial colors and flavors,” Payne says. “This is where the natural solutions have been utilized. The convenience makes the extra cost worthwhile.”
When it comes to innovative products, Collins points out fruit leathers and jerkies, like the Wild Blueberry Beef Bar from Krave as well as creative on-the-go cereal bars, like Clif Fruit Smoothie Bars and Wild Blueberry Acai Fruit-Filled Smoothie Bars.
And while blueberries are a staple in many breakfasts, whether on their own or in pancakes and muffins, Collins notes a completely new way the fruit is being used in the mornings — Al Fresco’s Wild Blueberry Chicken Breakfast Sausage.
As with any other ingredient, commissaries and bakeries must deal with the cost of using blueberries as inclusions and flavorings.
But skimping, Payne says, might not be worth it.
“We believe that a ‘blueberry product’ needs to have a pronounced blueberry taste and also blueberries must be visible,” he says. “Consumers are looking for real blueberries that show up on the outside and inside and also they want to taste the blueberry immediately.”
Using the blueberry muffin as an example, Payne says USHBC research shows that the ideal ration can be achieved with a minimum of 30 percent of the total flour weight, all the way up to 50 percent. More than that, he says, and the formula can get too dense.
“Even at 50 percent weight, it requires just a handful of blueberries and this is just a minor part of the ingredient cost,” Payne says. “I have talked to bakers who have told me they tried to alter the formulas to use less and the resulting consumer complaints where not worth the savings.”
Collins touts the Wild Blueberry’s intense flavor and smaller size as a way to control ingredient cost.
“Many foodservice professionals are learning that frozen Wild Blueberries deliver 25 percent more servings per pound than frozen regular blueberries. So you not only get more whole berries in every cup, you get more cups in every 30-pound case and more berries in every bite,” he says. “Smaller Wild Blueberries better maintain their shape, deep blue color and intense blueberry taste throughout cooking and baking for better-looking and better-tasting finished products.”