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Your next superfruit: the haskap berry?

Higher production and new products could turn haskap from a high-end food to a household staple

From being a weapon in the war against cancer to oozing powerful antioxidants, a lot of hype is getting squeezed out of the tiny haskap berry.

But is this elongated blue berry, grown in Canada and dubbed the next big superfruit, a passing fad? Or does it have the juice to go mainstream?

Some grocers are giving haskap a try. In December, Sobeys began stocking haskap-based juice, chutney, jam and relish in 20 stores in the Atlantic region, with plans to go in another 30 this year.

The products are from LaHave Natural Farms, a Nova Scotia grower with eight berry-based SKUs under its Haskapa brand, including a new maple syrup and a juice that won Best New Product at the World Juice Awards, in Cologne, Germany, in 2013.

Stephen Read, manager of local business development for Sobeys Atlantic, calls haskap “more new than trendy” for now. But with additional media exposure and consumer education, popularity of haskap foods could grow, he says.

There are several reasons to believe in the sales potential of haskap. No 1 is health. And No. 2 is local. On the first point, the haskap berry punches above its weight. One berry contains as much vitamin C as a single orange. Haskap berries are also touted for their ability to ward off cancer.

Nothing has been proven, of course, which is why haskap growers are eager for more research. Some of that is being done at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, where researchers are investigating the berry’s cancer-preventing power. They note that haskap is rich in dietary antioxidants and flavonoids.

“We want to be able to support the health claims of our products,” says Liam Taylor, commercial director with LaHave Farms, which is working with the university to improve haskap manufacturing processes.

As for haskap’s local credentials, the berry has one big plus: it grows well in some of Canada’s coldest climates, including Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Among the chief reasons that Sobeys added LaHave’s haskap products at its Atlantic stores, Read says, is because the products are local. LaHave has 40 acres of haskap orchards in Nova Scotia.

Haskap may grow well in Canada but it’s only recently that orchards have sprung up. In Siberia and Japan, haskap has been grown for centuries. It wasn’t until 2001, when the University of Saskatchewan began to develop the plant, that interest here began to bud. In 2011, the university created a variety suitable for North America, and growers have been eager to cash in since.

Haskap producers are quick to point to the berry’s unique taste, described as an intense blueberry and raspberry with a hint of blackcurrant. But the fragility of the soft-skinned berry makes it difficult to sell loose, so it’s primarily used as an ingredient in juices and such.

Hamish Graham, president of the Saskatchewan-based Haskap Canada Association, believes higher production and introduction of new products will help transform haskap from a “high-end health food” to a household staple in coming years. He says big food brands Loblaw and Kraft are already working with haskap farms. And then there’s the berry’s star billing on The Dr. Oz Show.

The berry trend, however, is nothing new. In recent years, blueberries and acai have been on the hot list. According to Nielsen, berry sales in Canada are up 3% in dollars in the last year.

“Consumers are more informed of the health benefits of berries. Time will only tell if the haskap will enjoy the same level of success,” says Curtis Millen, of Millen Farms in Nova Scotia, which sells one kilo–sized blueberry packs under the Millen brand to stores. “The high cost associated with growing may affect production levels though.”

That’s not stopping producers, such as Ontario’s Boreal Berry Farm & Winery. Its natural haskap juice is “selling very well” around the province, says Boreal’s Mira Melien, adding that consumers like it because it’s organically certified and handmade. The premium price–$5 for 350ml–doesn’t seem to deter.

Known as the “fruit of longevity” in Japan, only time will tell if haskap has longevity in the fashionable world of superfruit.

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