Dairy processors consider superfruits.

The word “supersize” might be long gone from the world’s largest burger joint’s menu board, but there’s a new “super” concept showing up in foodservice and on retail packaged foods. It’s “super-ize,” and the term refers to the addition of powerhouse ingredients ranging from fruits to vitamins, with the former often described as superfruits.

So, what's a superfruit?

The term superfruit has no legal definition. It is marketing jargon for fruits that offers value beyond basic nutrition, with basic being defined as those nutrients that show up on the Nutrition Facts. The most prominent superfruit attribute is a high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC), which is laboratory method of measuring antioxidant capacities of biological samples in vitro.

High ORAC values are associated with foods high in antioxidants, molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. Basically, antioxidants interfere with free radicals (atoms or groups of atoms with an unpaired number of electrons that are formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules), which can start chain reactions that damage healthy cells. Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by being oxidized themselves.

The blueberry industry pioneered the world of superfruits in the mid-1990s when it began promoting the antioxidant content and high ORAC value of blueberries. The term superfruit came around in 2004 when Superfoods Rx author Steven Pratt highlighted the antioxidant levels and anti-aging properties of blueberries in his bestseller. And though blueberries are most likely the best-known superfruit today, the list of superfruits is constantly growing.

According to author Paul Gross, a.k.a. the “Berry Doctor,” superfruit status is based on five factors: 1) nutrient diversity and density, 2) phytochemical diversity and density, 3) basic research intensity, 4) clinical research progress and 5) popularity, based on sensory appeal and market demand. He identified 20 fruits as being “super” in his 2010 best-seller: Superfruits. From highest to lowest, Gross named these 20 fruits as being superfruits: mango, fig, orange, strawberry, goji, red grape, cranberry, kiwi, papaya, blueberry, cherry (sweet and tart species), red raspberry, seaberry, guava, blackberry, blackcurrant, date, pomegranate, açai and dried plum.

Most of the fruits on his list, as well as a number of emerging exotic fruits - lulu, mangosteen, maqui berry and prickly pear - that will likely soon be added to his list, readily complement the creamy taste and mouthfeel of milk, making them the perfect addition to cultured and frozen dairy products. Not only do they add great flavor, they provide a pleasant color, too. And after all, much of what gives superfruits their super powers is pigmentation, i.e., the antioxidant phytonutrients such as carotenoids and polyphenols.

Gross wrote in his book, “In the past few years, the word superfruit has blared into the headlines with alluring fanfare. What began as just a few curious exotic juices in the American market has now evolved into thousands of products in a multibillion-dollar global industry.” And dairy is an ideal delivery vehicle for high-quality superfruit concentrates, juices and purées.

Sidebar: Cocoa: The Next Superfruit?

Research scientists from The Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition, Hershey, Pa., recently compared cocoa powder and various chocolate products with powders and juices derived from fruits commonly considered superfruits. Results from the study were published in the February 2011 issue of Chemistry Central Journal, where the researchers concluded that cocoa seeds provide nutritive value beyond that derived from their macronutrient composition and should also be considered superfruits.

This conclusion was based on the fact that cocoa powder and chocolate are made from an extract of the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. The authors’ findings demonstrated that the antioxidant capacity of cocoa powder was significantly greater than blueberry, cranberry and pomegranate powder, on a per-gram basis, and the total polyphenol (a category of antioxidants) content of cocoa powder appeared to be greater than açai, blueberry and cranberry powders; however, the latter differences did not reach statistical significance. Further, the Hershey team found that the total flavanol content of cocoa powder was significantly greater than all of the other fruit powders tested.

Analysis of fruit products demonstrated that the antioxidant capacity of dark chocolate was not significantly greater, on a per-serving basis, than pomegranate juice but was greater than that of all other products tested. In contrast, the hot cocoa mix had significantly less antioxidant capacity than all of the other products tested. The scientists note that the cocoa powders, cocoa beverages and dark chocolate used in the study all contained natural (or non-alkalized) cocoa but that the hot cocoa mix was made with alkalized cocoa, which explains its low-antioxidant capacity. 

Separately, a group of Japanese scientists claim to have learned how the polyphenols in cocoa boost the body’s production of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) - the “good” form of cholesterol that protects against heart disease. Their study appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, (online, January 2011) and showed that the polyphenols rev up the activity of certain proteins, including proteins that attach to DNA in ways that boost HDL levels.

The scientists analyzed the effects of cocoa polyphenols on cholesterol using cultures of human liver and intestinal cells. They focused on the production of apolipoprotein A1 (ApoA1), a protein that is the major component of HDL, and apolipoprotein B (ApoB), the main component of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. It turns out that cocoa polyphenols increased ApoA1 levels and decreased ApoB levels in both the liver and intestine. Further, the scientists discovered that the polyphenols seem to work by enhancing the activity of so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs), which attach to the genetic material DNA and activate genes that boost ApoA1 levels, increasing HDL. The scientists also found that polyphenols appear to increase the activity of LDL receptors, proteins that help lower LDL levels.