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Wild About Blueberries

Mike Dougherty admits he's more of a steak-and-potatoes guy than a fan of soy and blueberries.

But the University of Maine researcher has been won over by a creamy concoction known by the practical but unexciting name of "Frozen Blueberry-Soy Dessert."

Trying to entice people to eat more blueberries, Dougherty and his colleagues are whipping up new recipes that combine wild blueberries with other healthy products, such as soy.

The push began two years ago when a record crop of 110 million pounds, combined with an oversupply from the previous season, led to a glut in Maine, which produces virtually all of the nation's wild blueberries. Cultivated blueberries, which are larger, are grown in 38 states. This year's crop is expected to be about average, 70 million pounds.

The researchers' efforts have yielded some offbeat concoctions such as so-called "berry burgers," precooked beef or chicken patties mixed with blueberry puree to give them a better taste after reheating.

Next month, Coca-Cola Co. will introduce a milk-based drink called "Swerve" in schools. One of the three flavors is blueberry.

Many of the edible concoctions are frozen, for two reasons: Wild blueberries lend themselves to freezing because of their low water content and their short harvest period in late summer.

"God put wild blueberries on earth to be frozen," said John Suave, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association.

Jasper Wyman & Son, a grower and processor, is doing well with both its frozen blueberries and its frozen blueberry juice, said President and CEO Ed Flanagan. The juice has done especially well in specialty stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market.

Besides capitalizing on different uses of blueberries, the industry is also expanding on the fruit's health benefits. A USDA study, for example, suggests eating more blueberries consumption may reverse age-related short-term memory loss and help restore some balance and coordination.

Health-minded consumers have helped per capita consumption of blueberries grow from 12 to 13 ounces a year in late 1990s to today's level of 17 ounces per capita, Sauve said.

"There's been a change in perception around wild blueberries," Sauve said, "from being a wonderful ingredient to use in pies and muffins ... to really having become in the last three to five years a health icon in a whole arena of health antioxidants."

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