Blueberries On The Rise: A Closer Look At Demand, Purchase Drivers And Usage

Seven Big Advantages Propel Blueberry Consumption

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

So… blueberry sales have been booming. Certainly, retailers should ride this wave by making prominent blueberry displays and finding ways to cross-merchandise blueberries. Foodservice operators should discover ways to incorporate this consumer favorite in their menus. Convenience chains should be looking at ways to sell snack packs and car-friendly packs. But is there a broader lesson for the produce industry? Is it possible to discern lessons from the blueberry boom that can be applied to other produce items?

There is no question that the blueberry industry has been blessed with smart leaders who saw the importance of industry organization and trade and consumer promotion. It is also true that the industry had a lot to work with. I call them the seven big advantages:

1) A sweet, delicious fruit people enjoy eating.

2) A convenient, easy-to-consume fruit. No need for cooking or cutting. There are no peels or cores to be disposed of.

3) The development of superior packaging with clear clamshells in every size. Modified atmosphere packaging, snack packs, etc.

4) The development of superior varieties that make the berries larger and more appealing, sweeter and more delicious.

5) New growing areas, technology, and better logistics that have made it a 52-week, reasonably priced item.

6) Massive amounts of free publicity highlighting blueberries as a “super fruit” having a positive impact on health outcomes of all sorts.

7) Versatile and well-suited for fresh and frozen usage, and use in baking, smoothies, etc.

It is an incredible story. But what does it tell us about how to sell arugula? Unfortunately, not very much.

The produce industry is filled with booms in consumption of individual items as tastes change, fashions change, new varieties are developed, new packaging, new sources of supply, etc.

Alas, the indication that any of these lead to higher overall produce consumption is slight indeed. The massive boom in kale, for example, mostly translates into less spinach being served as side dishes and salads.

In order for per capita produce consumption to increase, one of two things must happen. Either consumers must consume more calories than they had been consuming, and the increase must include produce — an outcome in complete contradiction to the public health argument about eating fewer calories — or, consumers must consume less of other foods and replace them with produce.

The truth is that the whole Fruits & Veggies – More Matters campaign is something of a misnomer. There is little evidence that merely consuming more produce, i.e., adding produce to your diet, produces better health outcomes. In other words, let’s say a person continues to eat his or her existing diet but, mindful of the idea that more produce matters, vows that each night before going to bed, he or she will also force himself/herself to eat five vegetable servings and three fruit servings. We can then theorize about possible benefits of phytonutrients, but what we are certain of is that the person will be consuming more calories and will thus gain weight and, in time, become obese, with all the deleterious health effects associated with that.

The truth is that a more accurate, if less joyous, the slogan would be “less matters,” because the real public health issue is that people should eat less of the bad stuff and replace it with fruits and vegetables.

In fact, blueberries are one of the few produce items where one could actually see that happening. Children who were sent to school with a cookie or brownie in their lunch box for dessert might actually be happy to get a snack pack of blueberries. Snack time in preschool could be blueberries rather than some processed carb. Executives or factory workers needing a little sugar rush at 3 PM could lay off the candy bars or cookies and get a little fresh pick-me-up with blueberries.

It would be fantastic to have a little more research conducted trying to specifically identify not just that consumption is going up, but which foods are being replaced in the diet by this increased consumption.

Years ago, when the 5-A-Day program was first launched, I remember being at Nathan’s Famous, the iconic hot dog vendor based in Coney Island, NY. When I received my hot dog, I piled it high with sauerkraut and joked to the people I was with that I was getting my 5-A-Day. It seemed funny to think I would be healthier by piling so much on, but the idea, of course, was that by piling the veggies on I wouldn’t be hungry and so wouldn’t order a second hot dog! By embracing the yet undeveloped mantra of “More Matters,” I would increase the produce industry’s “share of stomach” and I would eat less of other bad things.

The produce industry is increasingly dependent on innovation in the fresh-cut and culinary fields. It is popularizing cauliflower rice and cauliflower steaks that hold out the prospect of more consumption. Turning ingredients such as collard greens into foods people are ready to consume is a major challenge.

The blueberry industry, though, seems destined to ride the seven big advantages to ever greater success.