Aronia berry: Rebranding helps a new superfood catch on

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Following kale, chia seeds and coconut water, a new "superfood" is competing for the attention of health-conscious customers. The black-purple, astringent aronia berry is taking over supermarket shelves in the form of juices, supplements and other food products.

Rebranding has helped the aronia berry catch on and develop into what is now a multi-million dollar industry. The berry's new name comes from its genus, Aronia melancorpa, but the fruit is also commonly known by its traditional and much less appetizing name of "chokeberry."

Aronia boasts a unique lineup of nutritional qualities. The berry has one of the highest antioxidant values ever recorded for any other fruits, including superfoods such as blueberries, acai berries and goji berries, according to research published last year in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

However, consumers should remember that while antioxidants may help protect cells from free radical damage, there is no conclusive evidence regarding their potential ability to prevent serious medical conditions. Claims that may they protect against cancer, dementia or stroke have not been backed up in medical studies.

And federal regulators have, in recent years, targeted companies that have claimed their antioxidant-containing products may bring certain health benefits without sufficient evidence. For instance, last year, the Federal Trade Commission upheld a judge's decision that POM Wonderful made false claims that its pomegranate products could treat or prevent heart disease, prostate cancer and other illnesses.

Native to North America, the aronia berry has been cultivated in Russia and eastern Europe for juices and wines since the early 20th century. Now it is also becoming popular in the U.S., where farmers in the upper Midwest are planting thousands of aronia berry shrubs.

Its current trendiness can be traced to to Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, where most in the industry believe the first bushes were planted for commercial cultivation in the U.S. Andrew Pittz, 28, and his family are the driving force behind it. In 1997, his parents planted about 200 bushes, having looked for a crop they could cultivate on the heavy, silt-heavy soil near the Missouri River.

The bush turned out to grow well in the Midwest, as it has few pests and doesn't require replanting every year. And now Sawmill Hollow products are sold in about half of Hy-Vee's 237 supermarkets, and in all of Whole Foods' 45 Midwest-region stores, according to spokeswomen for the chains.

Pittz's family has also taught others how to plant, grow and market the berries. A mature bush, four to five years old, can produce up to 20 pounds of fruits.

"We want the aronia berry to be to Iowa's Heartland what the peach is to Georgia." Pittz said.

Aside from Sawmill Hollow products, widely distributed mainstream brands have jumped on board, such as Old Orchard juices and Beechnut baby foods, which introduced an apple and aronia berries puree this year.

More than 440 new products containing aronia - mostly in juices, wines and other drinks - have been introduced worldwide in the last five years; about 60 of those are in the United States, according to the 2013 University of Nebraska-Lincoln Food Processing Center's Product Traffic Report, supported by the U.S. Agriculture Department to track new food products.

The first aronia cooperative - the North America Aronia Cooperative, based in Omaha, Nebraska - was formed earlier this year with members from 10 Midwestern and Great Plains states. Group president Colleen Nipp says the co-op is capable of producing up to 20 million pounds of fruit a year and estimates the current economic impact is about $85 million, "which includes plant sales, berry sales, processing charges, harvesting equipment, growing supplies, irrigation equipment and the sale of finished aronia products."

But with the industry still in its infancy, it's difficult to provide overall yearly production numbers or even a common price per pound. Midwest Aronia Association president Melissa Ehrman Johnson says her group, which has members in 12 states and Ontario, Canada, has farmers fetching anywhere from 50 cents per pound to $7.50 a pound.

Johnson and her husband got into the business in 2009, planting about 300 bushes on their 10-acre homestead in southwest Iowa farm. The venture has already proved to be profitable, she said, as she's hoping to move from on-site sales to commercial marketing this year.

There is much to be learned, Johnson says, from another industry that has seen enormous success with its own bitter berry: the cranberry industry. "We actually have a gentleman who's on the Cranberry Association who has worked with us from the early get-go to help us out with ideas along the way, particularly with processing ... and recipe and product development," she said.

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