By Mark Villata, Executive Director, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council
As we head into a new year, our national conversation continues on what it means to eat well, and how to strike a balance between eating healthfully and enjoyable. It’s a crowded marketplace of ideas and products, and understanding consumer perceptions and behaviors are more important than ever.
Consumer demand for blueberries has skyrocketed. According to USDA research, per capita, blueberry consumption in the United States grew more than 600 percent in the past 20 years. That’s no accident. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), Folsom, CA, regularly gather insight to guide its blueberry promotions and drive awareness and demand. In 2004, the USHBC launched a nationwide consumer usage and attitude study on blueberries, with follow-up studies in 2008, 2013 and 2017. Among the key takeaways from the most recent results: blueberries are consumers’ top berry; flavor and health matter most; blueberries add appeal in stores and on menus, and usage grows and gets more varied as time goes on.
Demand: Blueberries have become a staple for many. In fact, they’re the top berry among American consumers. A staggering 75 percent of consumers are likely to purchase blueberries in the next 12 months, a 10 percent increase from 2013. Among women, ages 25 to 44 — traditionally a key audience for blueberries — 65 percent have purchased blueberries in just the past 15 days.
Of the raw forms, fresh blueberries remain dominant. Ninety-one percent of consumers who purchased blueberries in the past 12 months purchased fresh. Frozen blueberries continue to rise in popularity as well, attracting more than half (52 percent) of blueberry purchasers.
Purchase Drivers: Consumers continue to recognize and appreciate blueberries’ dual strengths of flavor and nutrition. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) purchase because they like the taste, while 44 percent purchase based on health benefits. While purchasing fresh blueberries, consumers consider freshness first and foremost. Other priorities include price, quality, color and firmness.
While popular in their raw form, blueberries also generate consumer interest in other food products or menu items. Half of all consumers, not just blueberry buyers, say blueberries add more appeal to menu items (52 percent). In the grocery store, 63 percent say they’re very likely to purchase food products that are marked with the Council’s Made with Real Blueberries sell. This is the blueberry “health halo” at work, creating an added incentive for consumers and increasing value for foodservice and retail partners.
Usage: The top five uses for both fresh and frozen blueberries saw increases in 2017, but the single most popular way to eat them was fresh, on their own, for more than three-fourths of consumers (78 percent). Interestingly, there was a 29 percent increase in using fresh blueberries in savory sauces and main dishes since 2013.
As consumption of frozen blueberries continues to grow, so does usage. Smoothies remain very popular, with two-thirds of consumers adding frozen blueberries to their blenders. Around one-third of consumers use frozen blueberries in their baking, including cakes and crisps (38 percent), breads, bagels and muffins (35 percent) and pies and tarts (32 percent).
Research:USHBC-funded research provides valuable insights for members of the blueberry industry and our partners, which helps us create initiatives that speak clearly to the benefits of blueberries and gives us a better understanding of both heavy users (those consuming 19 or more cups/year) and moderate users (those consuming 7.6 fresh cups/year on average). Among the work USHBC does is a partner with heavy users, such as food and wellness bloggers, to create recipes and other original content that in turn inspire and influence moderate users. Such efforts are vital in keeping faithful blueberry consumers engaged, expanding and increasing usage and creating new champions that in turn influence users.
Mark Villata is the executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, a Folsom, CA-based agriculture promotion group made up of blueberry farmers, processors and importers in North and South America who work together to research, innovate and promote the fruits of their labors, as well as the growth and well-being of the entire blueberry industry.