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A News21 food and health reporting project by UC Berkeley School of Journalism

A superfood illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Berried Alive: On the trail of an aspiring superfood

Backstage in the make-up chair, Sandra Purdy — farmer, businesswoman — was shaking. “I don’t wear make-up,” thought Purdy, a petite, athletic 57-year-old accustomed to hard work and life on the land. “Rosing up my cheeks, putting lipstick on. What am I doing here?” Picked from 66,000 applicants, Purdy was about to appear on the Canadian version of Dragon’s Den, a television program on which hopeful entrepreneurs attempt to secure financial backing from a panel of businesses gurus and venture capitalists. The Toronto studio could hardly be further from the 800 acres of prairie farmland near Keeler, Saskatchewan, where, describes Purdy, “you wake up in dead silence, the birds and the animals around you.” The land where Sandra and her husband Ken had made the biggest gamble of their lives.

Purdy and Allison Ozog, her niece and a graduate in food science from the University of Saskatchewan, waited to descend the stairs onto the set, a treacherous metal staircase that seemed designed to wrong-foot hapless participants. “Allison was carrying a white platter and it was shaking and rattling so bad that I could hardly breathe,” says Purdy. The platter held glasses full of something that looked like blood: the juice of the Saskatoon berry. Where preceding contestants had pitched gadgets and tech-related products, Purdy was asking for a quarter of a million dollars to launch a berry, the obscure little Saskatoon, as “Canada’s newest superfruit.”

In the broadcast show Purdy looked neat and nervous in a black suit and blackcurrant blouse, as she faced the five “dragons” who had rejected pitch after pitch. She explained her plan — to couple the superfood zeitgeist with a local (at least, North American) crop, becoming a rival to blueberries and feeding an apparently insatiable desire for new, health-giving wonder fruits.

Sandra Purdy was asking for a quarter of a million dollars to launch a berry, the obscure little Saskatoon, as “Canada’s newest superfruit.”

Purdy asked for $250,000 in return for 49.9 percent of a company, which, she admitted on the show, was not turning a profit. Nevertheless, she was confident that there was real potential for growth. “I had to make sure I knew my financials,” says Purdy, who watched every episode of the show, wrote down every question asked, and even assembled her own panel of practice dragons in preparation. On the show, the 24-year-old Ozog looked youthful but collected as she explained the berry’s high score on the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scale, a measurement of a food’s antioxidant value and the essential calling card for any potential superfood.

Four years earlier, in 2006, the Purdys had harvested their last field of wheat, the crop that the family had farmed on their Saskatchewan land for three generations. They had converted those fields to orchards of trees with deep purple berries called “mis-ka-toom-ia” by the Cree Indians, adapted to “sas-ka-toon” by the settlers. The Purdys’ sole new venture, which they called Prairie Berries, needed to work.

The Dragon’s Den program ends with smiles and handshakes; Purdy got her deal. A Canadian venture capitalist and marketing expert named Arlene Dickinson had agreed to invest the quarter million in the ambitious berry plan.

So how did this friendly, tenacious Canadian grandmother come to offer up a native wild fruit to a panel of millionaires on national television? What could have persuaded her that a bunch of cut-throat investors might actually bite? And why did they?

SUPERFOOD

Since the first superfood stories hit the headlines in the late 1990s, the industry has exploded. Blueberries, once a humble ingredient, became a must-have commodity, while a meteor shower of “new” fruits hit the market, trailing fiery clouds of health claims, mystic history, science and folklore. Fruits like noni, açaí, goji and mangosteen have flooded retailers and the Internet, becoming familiar names to many who have never set eyes on the fresh fruit.

Superfood is now certainly a billion dollar industry — though its size varies vastly depending on whom you speak to. And even as the glow of some superfoods, damaged by scandal or competition, fades, a constellation of others is ready to take their place. Food packaging now touts previously unheard-of ingredients: omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, anthocyanins. To make a successful superberry, the first thing Purdy needed to do was run her Saskatoons through various scientific tests to prove their antioxidant merits and then, following the examples of many superfruits before hers, market the hell out of them.

For advocates, “superfoods” represent everything from a way to escape some of modern America’s most pressing health problems to a welcome rehabilitation of “natural” eating (the idea of “natural” being a complex concept in its own right).

For unbelievers, the word itself and the products associated with it — from juice drinks to self-help books to supplements — are pure spin. “From a nutritionist’s point of view, the idea is totally silly,” said Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University. “Superfoods are about marketing, not nutrition.”

The hunter-gatherer instinct once told us to search out berries and eat them. Most humans no longer need to spend hours of every day foraging for tiny fruits for sustenance. So why have we again become obsessed with this first food?

BEYOND NUTRITION

In American food’s evolving landscape, the 1980s was the age of artificial sweeteners and low-fat cutbacks. The 1990s saw the ascension of “functional foods,” containing, for example, added vitamins, or fat alternatives that have no caloric impact because they are literally indigestible. The last ten to 15 years has seen a steady increase in attention to something called superfood.

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Sales of açaí, goji berry, noni berry and the eight other leading superfoods totaled $227 million in 2010 according to SPINS, a natural foods and supplements market research firm. That figure does not include Internet retail, which accounts for a massive part of the market, nor does it include dozens of lesser known berries, nuts, algaes and fruits sold as superfoods.

Sales of açaí, goji berry, noni berry and the eight other leading superfoods totaled $227 million in 2010.

Sales figures for individual companies, meanwhile, tell a more dramatic story. MonaVie, which launched in 2005, sells a blended juice containing açaí through multi-level, or pyramid, marketing. This involves local agents buying crates of bottled juice, selling it to friends and colleagues, and often recruiting them as fellow sellers. When Direct Selling News created a list of the top 100 direct marketing companies in the world  in 2010, MonaVie was at number 17 with an estimated $785 million in sales. Three other superfood marketers were also on the top 100 list.

While SPINS data points to a slight fall in overall sales of superfruits last year, another market research firm, Innova Market Insights, reported a 10 percent rise in the number of superfruit products launched over the 12 months ending in May. The U.S. berry industry (a large proportion of superfoods are berries) was worth $3.6 billion last year, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of superfood, short but surprising: “a food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being.” Citations go back to 1915 (the reference being to wine) and 1949 (to muffins). The brief entry does not offer any clue, however, as to how a food might be beneficial to health aside from its nutritional value — nutrition being, at least nominally, why we eat.

Steven Pratt, an ophthalmologist who has authored several books on the subject, maintains that his 2004 Superfoods Rx marks the superfood term’s first modern usage. He tried to trademark the word back in 2003, but the Federal Trade Commission judged it “too generic.” “Now we have knock-offs everywhere, but that’s ok,” says Pratt. “I look upon it as a compliment.”

“Quote unquote ‘superfoods’ belong in a category because they are providing you with a health benefit that’s going beyond basic nutrition,” Navindra Seeram, assistant professor in the Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island, told me. The phrase, “beyond nutrition,” comes up often; the common denominator of superfood is its high antioxidant capacity. Seeram has become a specialist in the world of antioxidant research, publishing numerous scientific papers on plant-based foods, including maple syrup and pomegranate, as well as a host of different berries.

“The American consumer is now more savvy, and more informed, and they have information at their fingertips,” Seeram says. Nevertheless, it took a long time for the public to get its head around antioxidants. And no wonder. People found the word unwieldy (there was discussion about changing it to something more consumer-friendly) and the concept was complex. In the human body, various stresses produce “free radicals,” cells that lack one electron and are therefore unstable and prone to mutate. Such mutation can lead to conditions such as cancer. Antioxidants “find” these cells and neutralize them. Foods containing antioxidant compounds may, therefore, help this process and thus fight conditions associated with so-called “oxidative stress,” which has been linked not only to cancer but also to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and chronic inflammation.

That many laypeople can now explain this process, or at least the basic antioxidants vs. free radicals part, is a marvel of combined science and marketing. Understanding antioxidants was crucial for the development of the superfood category, however, and getting the terms into common parlance is something for which the berry health world now congratulates itself. One reason for its eventual success may be the opportunity it gives consumers to also congratulate themselves. A complicated bit of science, out in the public domain, develops its own need-to-know kudos.

As Allison Ozog explained in the Prairie Berries pitch on Dragon’s Den, superfoods would be nowhere without the ORAC scale. Developed in 1995, this test has become a standard way of measuring the antioxidant capacity of foods. The ORAC assay is done in a test tube, and so long as you’re comparing like with like (a juice with a juice, say), it provides a fairly accurate read of the antioxidant levels of a fruit or vegetable. ORAC readings are now splashed over everything from packaging to web pages. (“If you really want some entertainment, google “ORAC” and look at the claims,” one scientist told me.)

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

The discovery and dissemination of ORAC was a welcome relief to fruit and vegetable purveyors like Purdy. Starting in the mid-1990s, the antioxidant message let produce sellers do what processed food manufacturers had been doing with increasing boldness. “Because packaged foods could make health claims, the producers of regular, real foods felt that they had to compete.  They hit on “superfoods” as a way to do that, and it’s working,” Nestle says. The good news health message (based on “real science”) combined with a pleasant activity (eating fruit) provided a way for the produce sector do to something it had found so difficult before: marketing beyond the produce aisle.

Once the antioxidant message was established, however, it wasn’t just farmers who realized the potential size of the new superfoods industry, and a change began to take place. Previously unheard-of commodities with extravagant health claims appeared, often online and in the media long before they were seen on the shelves of actual stores. Multi-level marketing proved a particularly effective way to distribute the superfood maxims and products, and multiple pyramid marketing companies were created, usually built around one fruit, and consistently making millions. Freelife International, which sells goji berry products, was incorporated in 1995. Tahitian Noni International, a subsidiary of Morinda Holdings, was set up in 1996. Xango followed with its mangosteen blend in 2002 and MonaVie with açaí in 2005.

In an increasingly frenzied marketplace, Paul Gross, who styles himself as the “Berry Doctor,” says he published his 2009 book, Superfruits, as “a kind of reality check.” “There shouldn’t be such a ballyhoo about these exotic new fruits that have no science behind them at all,” says Gross. “That’s all just pure marketing hype.”

“There shouldn’t be such a ballyhoo about these exotic new fruits that have no science behind them at all,” says Gross. “That’s all just pure marketing hype.”

SUPPLEMENTS AND SCAMS

What happened between 1995 and 2009 could indeed be described as a “ballyhoo.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exercises tight control over what claims can be made about any food’s health properties. Dietary supplements, however, classified neither as food nor as drugs, largely slip between the regulatory cracks. “People depend on safe, regulated food,” says Gross. “Drugs go through severe regulatory requirements to get approved.” But supplements are a different matter: “Anyone can make a supplement in the garage and put it in a package and be selling it next week.”

The freedom to create new, barely regulated products allowed a muscular online industry to develop, powered by the attention that superfoods were getting in the media. Of the “exotic new” fruits described by Gross, the most famous is the Brazilian açaí, brought to the United States by the newly created company Sambazon in 2001, which has since become the poster berry for superfood scams. In November 2004, Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a celebrity doctor and author of The Perricone Promise, advocated the health benefits of açaí on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. From there, interest spiked.

Becoming accustomed to hearing about fruits they could not readily find alongside the oranges and pears, Americans bought mangosteen juice, preserved goji berries and açaí pulp online in forms less recognizable as food, paying by credit card and often agreeing to receive a new supply each month. Multiple health benefits were touted, with one of the most enticing — and least substantiated — being weight loss. What most people missed in the fine print was that every month their credits cards were charged more for the same product, sometimes as much as 20 times more.

In August 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cracked down. It ordered Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc., which makes a product called AcaiPure, to discontinue misleading advertisements. The FTC estimated that Internet açaí-sellers might have scammed American consumers out of $30 million in 2009 alone.

Federal regulators are now also taking a hard line approach with the health claims made about superfoods in mainstream retail. In February 2010, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Pom Wonderful, the California-based makers of pomegranate juice and other pomegranate products, including supplements. The letter pointed to “serious violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act” made by Pom, both through unsubstantiated health claims and giving nutrient content information that was unverified. Later that year the FTC issued a complaint against Pom for making false claims that their products prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.

Illustration of mangosteen fruit by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

In April of this year the FTC moved again against superfood Internet scams, requesting federal courts to halt operations and freeze assets of ten “fake news websites” making claims about açaí. The sites, which claimed endorsement from ABC, Fox News, CNN and others, use “reporters” to explain their “personal” experiences of açaí weight loss. “Almost everything about these sites is fake,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release.  “The weight loss results, the so-called investigations, the reporters, the consumer testimonials.”

Such evidence makes it easy enough to dismiss superfood as an obvious gimmick, invoked by determined fruit growers or exploited by marketers. What’s not quite so easy to explain is why, if this is so obvious, the idea of the superfood has entered our psyche to such a degree; and not just our psyche but also our supermarkets, homes, scientific institutions — and our bodies.

THE BELIEVERS

Anyone searching for superfruit disciples would have done well to be in New Orleans in June for the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Conference and Expo. Berry-based competition was fierce, and the vast exhibition hall housed stall after stall of exotic and “natural” products. At one booth I was encouraged to see the exceptional qualities of Chilean maqui juice (which tasted strong and wine-like). A few steps on were dried goji berries from China (sharp, tomatoey), then Brazilian açaí (unsweet but creamy) and South Pacific noni powder (like pure dirt). An earnest young man poured me a shot glass of a crimson juice as viscose as syrup. When I knocked it back, it had a powerful sour kick and burned on the way down, tasting of cherries and lemon with a savory edge of slate. Trademarked as Yumberry™, it is rivaling Saskatoons for the superberry crown.

“Saska-what?” they questioned, struggling with the word, though most seemed pleasantly surprised by the taste.

At the far end of the hall Purdy manned her stall, inviting passers-by to taste something most of them had never heard of. “Saska-what?” they questioned, struggling with the word, though most seemed pleasantly surprised by the taste (a mixture of peach, cherry, almond and even — some said — pineapple). Before joining Ken to work the farm, Purdy had a career at the telecoms company Sasktel, and the Prairie Berries venture has given her the chance to bring her business background into play. She talks supply and export with potential buyers, always pointing out the berry’s health stats. Despite her experience, Purdy says, selling does not come naturally. “It’s not my forte,” she told me after a long day at the booth. “I’m kind of an introvert person.”

Prairie Berries has come a long ways since Dragon’s Den aired in October 2010. Purdy was accompanied to the conference by Ozog (now technical director of Prairie Berries and a full-time employee) and Bruce Howe of Select Ingredients, a health and wellness ingredient company aiming at distributing Prairie Berries’ products and, says Howe, “creating brand recognition for the product as a superfruit.” Howe first became aware of Prairie Berries as a result of their television appearance. A marketing consultant with a specialism in the natural food sector, he co-launched an açaí drink mix, Açaí Energy, in the early 2000s before Oprah ensured that the craze took off. He has grand plans for Saskatoons — including rebranding the berry with a catchier name, which he refused to reveal at the conference. (He later disclosed that the new name was “June berry,” another of the Saskatoon’s traditional names.) “The opportunities are endless for where we can go. I want to be in front of Dr. Oz,” says Howe, referring to another celebrity doctor who helped make açaí famous. I asked him if he thought it was possible that the market for superfruits was already saturated. “Absolutely not. I think people are looking for the next new superberry.”

Scattered across the Expo, superfood products were linked by a common science-based vocabulary, each vendor utilizing similar props. Other than the wild blueberries, very few superfoods were fresh. There were concentrates and powders (powders are lighter, and therefore reduce transportation costs. Prairie Berries recently “launched into powder,” which was lucky — the FedExed concentrate got held up at U.S. customs and didn’t arrive until the second day of the Expo). Alongside the usual leaflets, there were scientific papers, printed and stapled and ready to hand out. And there were bar charts, invariably using the ORAC scale, each company placing its own product way up at the top.

THE RISE OF BLUEBERRIES

When Ronald Prior developed the ORAC test 15 years ago, he never predicted that berries, exotic fruit powders, vegetables and seeds would one day be jockeying for a top score. “It’s almost unbelievable,” says Prior. “There’s never been an area, that I’ve been involved in, that’s been more exciting than this over the last ten years.”

Illustration of bluberries by Richard Koci Hernadez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

It’s particularly surprising since the test came about by chance. Prior and his research partner at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Tufts University were working on oxidative stress inside the human body. Having developed various tests, they decided to try one out on food products — and found that it worked. Using this test, they created a database of the antioxidant capacities of different foods, and in November 1996 a USDA in-house magazine called Agricultural Research published a piece about their work. And there the story might have ended — if it weren’t for one entrepreneurial blueberry marketer.

In the winter of 1996, John Sauve, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, was looking for a health message. Sauve had a background in marketing and a problem on his hands — how to turn an ingredient, a “something in a muffin,” into a product with more star quality. Sitting at his desk one December day, Sauve received some pages of Agricultural Research in a fax, which, he was quick to realize, could change everything. The article, “Paint a Rainbow of Antioxidants,” detailed Prior’s research. What stood out to Sauve was the description of how blueberries “disarmed” “free radicals,” outperforming the better known strawberry on the ORAC test. “We could build a story around that,” Sauve recalls thinking. He reached for the phone.

By January 1997, Sauve had met with the researchers and was putting together a team and a marketing plan. This involved commissioning more research and getting the public to understand it, for which the story element was crucial. Antioxidants vs. free radicals is, after all, a classic battle of good triumphing over evil.

In 1995, a year before Sauve discovered the ORAC scale, North American growers exported 4.7 million pounds of blueberries to Japan. After a researcher was dispatched to the island nation to “bring the health message,” says Sauve, that figure ballooned to 30.6 million pounds by 1999, making Japan the biggest importer of North American blueberries. That year, Sauve “worked to get the story out” with Prevention Magazine, which ran a piece entitled “The Miracle Berry,” and Health Magazine, which published “The Blueberry Breakthrough.”

So how is it that now so many companies are able claim that their products do just as well, or better, than blueberries on the ORAC scale? Due, Prior says, to “games that the marketing people play.” The test is designed to compare like with like — a powder with a powder, a juice with a juice. To rig results, companies and industry groups desperate for top antioxidant ratings have taken to testing a powder against a concentrate, or dried fruit against fresh fruit, hopelessly skewing the results. “It has frustrated me, quite frankly,” Prior told me. “It shouldn’t be a competition.”

Purdy is as fluent in the scientific language as anyone. She can chat not only about antioxidants but also anthocyanins, polyphenols, phytochemicals and flavanoids. Purdy and the other contenders for superfood status recognize that a good ORAC score is no longer enough to make them competitive against superfood superstars like the pomegranate. To boost the market viability and scientific clout of Canadian products, the Canadian and Manitoba governments recently earmarked $1.3 million Canadian for the pursuit of animal and human research, including on the Saskatoon.

“The projects are designed to take a raw material (the berry), develop an end product with marketplace relevance (the powder) and conduct our health benefits analysis on this end product or food matrix,” Lee Anne Murphy, executive director of The Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network Inc. (MAHRN) wrote in an email. “We take a broad look at the range of health-promoting properties — from basic nutrition, through to potential health claims.” Animal studies will investigate the Saskatoon powder’s effect on kidney disease, and cell cultures will be used to investigate heart failure. If all goes well, human trials will be next.

With so many superfood scams and so much skepticism about their health claims, is it surprising that millions of government dollars are being spent on scientific research in the fruit-and-health world?

With so many superfood scams and so much skepticism about their health claims, is it surprising that millions of government dollars are being spent on scientific research in the fruit-and-health world? Everyone at the IFT, from layman to salesman, was confident in throwing around the same terminology. Do we really understand what “antioxidant capacity” means? Do they? Does anyone?

Potential superfoods are facing an ever-tougher fight both for market share and to walk the regulatory line. Some scientists, meanwhile, are questioning the idea that antioxidants have any effect at all outside a laboratory test tube.

BEYOND ANTIOXIDANT

I went to the fourth Berry Health Symposium at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, Calif., trying to determine how confident scientists were in the antioxidant and other health claims being made about berries. Between sessions, tables were laid out with bowls of blackberries, blueberries and chocolate-dipped strawberries, all courtesy of the sponsors, including Welch’s, Ocean Spray and Dole. The Dole Nutrition Institute, founded in 2003, was just across the road.

Illustration of pomegranite with a knife on a cutting board by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

Beverage companies that sell drinks containing juice fund much of the scientific research on the health properties of berries and fruits. Pom Wonderful makes it a point of pride to have spent $35 million on research. When I asked Navindra Seeram, the University of Rhode Island professor, whether the research can be trusted, he was keen to allay fears about any potential bias. “Research costs money, and somebody has to pay for it,” says Seeram. “I don’t think it’s wrong. Drug companies do this.”

Trying to divine the tenor of the meeting ahead of time, I had called John Finley, professor and head of food science at the Louisiana State University and associate editor of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, where a large number of “berry health” studies are published. I had taken about as much fruit PR as I could stand, and Finley had come across as sober and skeptical when I’d met him in New Orleans. Would the Westlake symposium be a berry brainwash? What was his take on superfood?

“It’s a marketer’s dream!” Finley told me. “It’s a chance to sell everything from juice to books.” Was there validity still left in the field, then? “There’s some very, very good science being done,” Finley said. “I wouldn’t be having research graduates work on it if I didn’t think there was something there.”

The world of scientific research is not one of quick concrete conclusions, but of tiny incremental steps. The symposium revealed trends, however, and the first thing to emerge was that, while that community of scientists believed in the health benefits of berry fruits, it wasn’t primarily because of their antioxidant content.

In fact, some of the scientists were downright dismissive of antioxidants and the ORAC scale’s usefulness in determining the health benefits of plant foods. “I consider it a scam,” says Gross, Superfruits author and a physiologist by training. Of the many plant compounds to be found in berries, he said, “maybe they do have some significance in physiology and disease protection, but not as antioxidants.” His contention is that while the ORAC can measure antioxidants in the test tube, there is little evidence that these effects are preserved inside the human body. “That environment exists to tear things apart.” Antioxidants, he said, are destroyed even quicker than other materials.

Finley, though gentler than Gross, concurred. “These compounds appear to activate mechanisms in our bodies that are protective, or knock down things which are damaging,” he says. “It looks like they’re working more as gene stimulators, gene activators, than they are as simple antioxidants.”

Berry research, says Seeram, is going “beyond antioxidant,” which will require more rigorous science. The tricky part is that eventually science on human health must be done on people, and such clinical trials are complicated. In a talk entitled “Berryology 101,” Seeram outlined some of the myriad scientific challenges. Each berry — and any plant — contains a vast number of different phytochemicals (“phyto” is from the Greek word for “plant”), which can be broken down into a number of sub-categories. According to one estimate, there are up to 4,000 phytochemicals, of which scientists say only 10 percent may have been discovered. Every fruit’s chemistry is different and the compounds are not easy to isolate.

According to one estimate, there are up to 4,000 phytochemicals, of which scientists say only 10 percent may have been discovered.

Most of the current testing is done in a lab, in vitro. Vitro means “glass” in Latin, so we’re talking about test tubes and Petri dishes. Any observation inside a test tube may be irrelevant to what happens in the body, with its complex multiple environments. To really determine a compound’s effect on humans, it must be tested in vivo (vivo means “life” in Latin), with the first stage being animal studies. But, of course, animals are not people. And all people are different, and may react to the complex phytochemical mix in a different way. Finally, human trials are expensive and complicated, trials connected with any kind of disease (for example, on cancer patients) hugely more so.

Despite these challenges, the scientists at the Berry Health Symposium seemed cautiously optimistic that substances found in berries could prove to be effective on things like chronic inflammation, which, the thinking goes, may be a root cause of other health problems. Presentations focused on research specific to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and several neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. No one here would have suggested they had found a miracle cure — but most reported positive results. Research from the University of Reading in England, for example, suggested that anthocyanins, the pigment that creates the blue color in blueberry, may inhibit degenerative processes in the brain. Inflammation appears to be affected by other phytochemicals — though isolating which ones is still a challenge.

“It’s a whole lot more complex than when we first started,” Finley told me.

EAT MORE

Selling doesn’t deal in uncertainties, however, and there still seems to be a new superfood for every season. Marketing is adept at plugging into our passion for narrative, spinning stories in which we (or a “better version” of us) are the central character. The reason we respond to superfoods may be that their marketing is telling us a story we yearn to hear: this substance will save you. The message is framed in language we respond to automatically, with advertising copy which suggests the food itself — or the food plus you — will “fight” or “battle” disease. (A recent Pom Wonderful campaign, for example, features a “warrior,” and Sambazon’s current advertisements enjoin the reader to “warrior up.”)

In Marion Nestle’s view, we’re particularly susceptible to this message because functional foods have been telling us similar stories for so long: that a cereal will help you lose weight or a margarine protect your heart. Superfood is just the latest buzzword, with blueberries being at the more benign end of a spectrum (they’re whole fruits, after all) and Internet açaí scams at the other extreme. Meanwhile, the blue-and-red maps showing national obesity levels continue to get colored in, like fruit ripening: darker, more red, more coverage. Diabetes rates continue to rise.

A less cynical explanation is that superfoods are popular simply because the public is finally listening to health messages. “People are interested not only in antioxidants, but in all sorts of different arenas of healthy food,” says Darryl Sullivan, a food scientist and consultant for Covance, which helps clients develop new food products. “They’re able to make intelligent choices that may in fact be ‘good for you,’ that they did not necessarily understand a few years ago.”

We can keep eating more — in fact, it’s imperative to add. More colors, more portions per day, more berries, more often.

Either way, consumers seem to be responding to superfoods in an unprecedented way, and perhaps part of the reason is that they give us permission, for once, to eat more. Nutritionists, fashion magazines, diet gurus and doctors have always told us what not to consume. Meat, sugar and fat have been construed as dangerous at various times. The Atkins diet succeeded in demonizing bread. The antioxidant story and newer phytochemical research, by contrast, offer a good-news science story and provide a relief from the “eat less” mantra. We can keep eating more — in fact, it’s imperative to add. More colors, more portions per day, more berries, more often.

THROUGH FIRE TO FAME?

It was in 1986 — a difficult year, when land payments outstripped harvest profits — that Sandra and Ken Purdy first discussed changing the crop they grew on their farm. At that point, berries were an option — higher profit, more intensive, but essentially just another crop. The Purdys’ plan has evolved with the industry, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. By 1997, when they planted their first Saskatoons, the transformation of berries from commodity to celebrity was already underway. In 2006, the superfoods craze was in full swing, açaí was hitting the headlines, and the Purdys had to burn their orchard to the ground.

Production from the trees had been dropping, from 30,000 pounds, to 20,000, then 15,000, and finally to just 5,000. The cause was fireblight, a disease easily spread through rainfall and insects. No one knew how to treat it. In desperation they slashed and burned. Purdy recalls walking through the blackened, silent fields. “You could see nothing but prairie,” she says. “And my face was streaming with tears. This was going to be our new life.”

Illustration of saskatoon berry powder by Richard Koci Hernandez

Illustration by Richard Koci Hernandez

The Purdys broke a promise to themselves and took $50,000 from Sandra’s retirement fund. They planted another, larger orchard, far enough away, they hoped, to escape contamination. It takes seven years for Saskatoons to reach production, so those berries will come online in the next couple of years. They didn’t know if the original trees would recover. But the Saskatoon species evolved with regular prairie fires, and two years later, the trees bore fruit. “And they were so productive, I mean tremendously productive,” says Purdy. “So that became part of our whole strategy.”

The story has a hint of the epic, which isn’t absent from the superfruit narrative as a whole — a story of great successes and grand deceptions. Prairie Berries now incorporates seven investor-growers who own shares in the company and several smaller “strategic alliance” growers. Collectively, they have 656 acres planted, which, at capacity, will yield 1.5 million pounds of berries. As the company’s head, Sandra Purdy represents the biggest Saskatoon producer in the world. The Purdys themselves have 110,000 trees in production. They have an advantage over fruits — the maqui berry or açaí, for example — that only grow wild; they can always plant more.

As of June this year, Prairie Berries had three investment opportunities on the table. Select Ingredients is keen to become the exclusive distributer of the June berry as it enters the American market. Negotiations continue with Arlene Dickinson of Dragon’s Den, whose marketing expertise and connections could help the berry make a splash. Meanwhile, Abattis Biologix Corporation, a Vancouver-based biotechnology company, wants to put the Saskatoon into blended juices and supplements aimed at the health care professionals market, and says it has access to “the largest anti-aging network in the world.” It’s looking toward a December launch and has patented another new name: the Sassy berry™.

Much of the upcoming research focuses on conditions associated with aging; Western populations, having found out how to prolong life, have created a pressing need to preserve its quality. If we’re searching for a miracle through which to escape the finite reality of life, it’s not illogical to look to berries: mythology is full of fruits with extraordinary properties. In Eden, the apple meant knowledge; for the Greek Hesperides, healing; in Norse mythology, immortality.

A lot of livelihoods are riding on the science, hoping its discoveries will continue to support the “berry health message,” as John Finley is well aware. “Will they live up to the promise?” he says. “I think it’s pretty safe to say no. Will they get part way there? Yes. Will the public be disappointed? Maybe. I think there’s a risk that by over-blowing these things, we can bring up a little too much hope.”

 

Superfood Infographic by Andrea Jezovit

Click to see a timeline of the changing popularity of superfruits.

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