Almonds and blueberries

Fruits and nuts have long-played a large role in baking. Their tastes, textures and, more recently, nutrition profiles make them popular choices as inclusions in bread, bars, rolls and much more. And with the use of a fruit or nut that is classified or marketed as “super,” the benefits can grow.

“It’s such an attractive thing to be able to say that you’re a superfruit or superfood,” said Kate Leahy, spokesperson for Sunsweet Ingredients, Yuba City, Calif. “Typically that means the product is not only flavorful but also carries with it a lot of healthful benefits. It gives you more than just great flavor or texture. It also offers you healthy benefits.”

This point is probably the most obvious when it comes to the superfoods discussion: Their biggest draw is their health benefits. While there is no legal or medical definition for superfoods, ask around, and more than likely, the answer will include more than a passing nod to health.

“The term definitely describes a food that provides more health and nutritional benefits than normal,” said Clark Driftmier, executive vice-president, sales and marketing, Mercer Foods, Modesto, Calif.

A very small sampling of fruits and nuts in that category would include: blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, plums, almonds, walnuts and many more. And some ingredients fall into the category just as much for their reputation or consumer opinion than their nutritional numbers.

“A superfruit can be two things,” said Brien Quirk, director of R.&D., Draco Natural Products, San Jose, Calif. “It can be all fruits, including ordinary ones and exotic, that have very beneficial health effects, or it can be fruits that are exotic and unusual to most people and also have some type of nutritional or health benefits.”

For example, fruits such as goji, acai, mangosteen and yumberry have been used in dietary supplements and functional beverage categories that use the term superfruits. More common fruits like pomegranate and blueberries have earned the label because they have potent, research-backed anti-aging, cognitive and cardiovascular effects.

According to US Highbush Blue-berry Council, Folsom, Calif., researchers at Florida State University conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 40 postmenopausal women aged 45 to 60 with high blood pressure. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that the women who ate 22 grams of freeze-dried blueberry powder — the equivalent of a cup of blueberries — daily for eight weeks saw an average 5.1% decrease in systolic blood pressure and a 6.3% decrease in diastolic pressure.

Obviously, all those health benefits play a large part in the demand for superfoods. Consumers are following the advice of “eating the rainbow,” which is a simple way to remember to include fruits and vegetables in their diet, particularly those dark in color.

“It’s a big, major trend,” Driftmier said, referring to the rise in superfood popularity. “Nutritionists have known about it for decades. Enlightened consumers have noticed it for a while. Now the awareness is really broad. I see it across the board in industrial applications. There is a really big increase in that area.”

The use of certain fruits and nuts in the nutraceutical market over the past several years has led to the incorporation of them in foods.

“On the baking side, a lot of interest has been driven by bars, whether that’s gluten-free bars or energy bars,” Leahy explained. “That seems to be where the interest really lies — in ingredients with healthful benefits.”

Also pushing the desire for these superfoods is a widespread change in snacking habits. “The 2013 North America Snacking Consumer Quantitative Study” by the Sterling-Rice Group found that consumers snack an average of 2.3 times per day, up from 1.8 times per day in 2008. Nearly a quarter of consumers said they replace at least one meal a day with a snack and are most likely to snack at night.

“The market for nut inclusions has changed over the past few years, particularly with the frequency of how many times a day consumers are snacking,” said Molly Spence, regional director, North America, for the Almond Board of California, Modesto. “As consumers are snacking more, they are looking for options that will satisfy their needs for healthful ingredients like almonds that can help them feel fuller, longer.”