Blueberries on the Rise: Demand, Purchase Drivers and Usage

Originally printed in the January 2018 issue of Produce Business.

By Mark Villata

Read Jim Prevor’s Commentary below

As we head into a new year, our national conversation continues on what it means to eat well, and how to strike a balance between eating healthfully and enjoyably. It’s a crowded marketplace of ideas and products, and understanding consumer perceptions and behaviors are more important than ever.

Consumer demand for blueberries has skyrocketed. According to USDA research, per capita, blueberry consumption in the United States grew more than 600 percent in the past 20 years. That’s no accident. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), Folsom, CA, regularly gathers insight to guide its blueberry promotions and drive awareness and demand. In 2004, the USHBC launched a nationwide consumer usage and attitude study on blueberries, with follow-up studies in 2008, 2013 and 2017. Among the key takeaways from the most recent results: blueberries are consumers’ top berry; flavor and health matter most; blueberries add appeal in stores and on menus, and usage grows and gets more varied as time goes on.

Demand: Blueberries have become a staple for many. In fact, they’re the top berry among American consumers. A staggering 75 percent of consumers are likely to purchase blueberries in the next 12 months, a 10 percent increase from 2013. Among women, ages 25 to 44 — traditionally a key audience for blueberries — 65 percent have purchased blueberries in just the past 15 days.

Of the raw forms, fresh blueberries remain dominant. Ninety-one percent of consumers who purchased blueberries in the past 12 months purchased fresh. Frozen blueberries continue to rise in popularity as well, attracting more than half (52 percent) of blueberry purchasers.

Purchase Drivers: Consumers continue to recognize and appreciate blueberries’ dual strengths of flavor and nutrition. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) purchase because they like the taste, while 44 percent purchase based on health benefits. While purchasing fresh blueberries, consumers consider freshness first and foremost. Other priorities include price, quality, color and firmness.

Consumer demand for blueberries has skyrocketed. According to USDA research, per capita blueberry consumption in the United States grew more than 600 percent in the past 20 years. That’s no accident.

While popular in their raw form, blueberries also generate consumer interest in other food products or menu items. Half of all consumers, not just blueberry buyers, say blueberries add more appeal to menu items (52 percent). In the grocery store, 63 percent say they’re very likely to purchase food products that are marked with the Council’s Made with Real Blueberries seal. This is the blueberry “health halo” at work, creating an added incentive for consumers and increasing value for foodservice and retail partners.

Usage: The top five uses for both fresh and frozen blueberries saw increases in 2017, but the single most popular way to eat them was fresh, on their own, for more than three-fourths of consumers (78 percent). Interestingly, there was a 29 percent increase in using fresh blueberries in savory sauces and main dishes since 2013.

As consumption of frozen blueberries continues to grow, so does usage. Smoothies remain very popular, with two-thirds of consumers adding frozen blueberries to their blenders. Around one-third of consumers use frozen blueberries in their baking, including cakes and crisps (38 percent), bread, bagels and muffins (35 percent) and pies and tarts (32 percent).

Research: USHBC-funded research provides valuable insights for members of the blueberry industry and our partners, which helps us create initiatives that speak clearly to the benefits of blueberries and gives us a better understanding of both heavy users (those consuming 19 or more cups/year) and moderate users (those consuming 7.6 fresh cups/year on average). Among the work USHBC does is partner with heavy users, such as food and wellness bloggers, to create recipes and other original content that in turn inspire and influence moderate users. Such efforts are vital in keeping faithful blueberry consumers engaged, expanding and increasing usage and creating new champions that in turn influence users.

Mark Villata is the executive director of the U.S‭. ‬Highbush Blueberry Council‭, ‬a Folsom‭, ‬CA-based agriculture promotion group made up of blueberry farmers‭, ‬processors and importers in North and South America who work together to research‭, ‬innovate and promote the fruits of their labors‭, ‬as well as the growth and well-being of the entire blueberry industry‭.‬

seven Big Advantages Propel Blueberry Consumption

By Jim Prevor

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 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 less calories — or, consumers must consume less of other foods and replace them with produce.

Is it possible to discern lessons from the blueberry boom that can be applied to other produce items?

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, 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.