California Prunes commemorates 65th year with scientific research on bone health

California Prunes commemorates 65th year with scientific research on bone health

Ganor Sel
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Esther Ritson-Elliott, European Marketing Director, Donn Zea, Executive Director, Maxine Broderick, Euopean Marketing Manager - res
Esther Ritson-Elliott, European marketing director, Donn Zea, executive director, Maxine Broderick, Euopean marketing manager

As the California Prune Board celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, executive director Donn Zea speaks with PBUK about the latest nutritional research into the fruit’s potential association with bone health, the importance of the UK market as a trailblazer for trends and pathways into Europe and how a master chocolatier and celebrity chefs are championing the California dried fruit as natural ingredient in confectionery and baking products.

The perception of prunes has come along way since the rather two dimensional days of pitted and unpitted prunes and juice, according to Zea.

With the help of enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of master chocolatier and pâtissier Paul A Young and British celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager, the fruit has made some serious headway recently in terms of inclusions.

Add in huge growth in the pursuit of natural ingredients, the rise of the free-from sector and an increasing consumer trend for knowing precisely what is in any given product – and you have a recipe for success.

“You can’t make a fantastic chocolate out of poor quality ingredients,” says Paul A Young. “And that led me to find California prunes.”

En route to deliver a presentation to the French prune sector, very much considered an alliance of the Californian industry, Donn Zea stopped off for a visit in London.

“The UK market is significant in ways beyond just volume as it’s a leader in the region, in lots of things, so having strong marketing in the UK is a cornerstone for us,” he tells PBUK.

“While our market share has eroded, for a variety of reasons including South American competition and things like tariffs where we pay a tariff and they don’t, it’s an important juice market, especially for a leading brand.

“It’s also a place where we’ve carried out nutrition research, primarily through King’s College and University of Liverpool, in terms of digestive help. And this has led to us being the only dried fresh fruit that has a claim through the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Getting this kind of scientific recognition is a big deal for California Prunes which has just started new research with Pennsylvania State University, this time in connection with bone health.  

The results are not expected until late 2019, but the potential for a bone health claim would propel prunes’ fortunes further still.

“The EFSA claim on bowel health specifically allowed us to continue to utilise that nutritional and functional issue as a marketing tool, in a very legitimate scientific way.  

“The research with Penn State is the largest clinical trial that we’ve ever invested in and is being carried out because we think we can always use more science in this area because it’s such an important discovery.

“We’ve already planned two clinical trials; these trials are on pre and post-menopausal women and the purpose is to substantiate what we already believe we know. If it’s successful, we believe that we potentially have the data necessary to go to EFSA and receive a bone health claim, or at least we intend to do so.”

Zea explains how previous trials have given California Prunes confidence that bone health is somehow influenced by prunes; where bone building outpaces bone loss.

Although the exact mechanisms remain uncertain, hence the research, it appears to be based on a combination of chemical elements found in prunes; boron, copper and manganese.

“These elements and others point to prunes being unique in this area. Even in the US where the claim system is a little bit different than in Europe, we feel confident in making a structure reference to prunes and their supportive bone health. But there is no way at this point that we can make any kind of reference to it.

“We believe we need more data, but everything so far, from every animal trial we’ve done to human trials we’ve done, all seem to be coming back with a positive relationship between prunes and bone.

“Bone loss and bone disease are a big deal. For instance, women who suffer from osteoporosis and are taking fairly radical pharmaceuticals to help them with that, and often they have a “holiday” from their medication and so are going to look at things to supplement that – that’s just one area that prunes can maybe play a beneficial role.”

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Key markets for California prunes

Alongside pioneering Britain is Germany where the largest European sales take place. This is partially to do with the country being a gateway into European channels like Scandinavia, but also demonstrates how the California industry has to diversify in the face of external economic pressures.

“One of the challenges now on a global level is the likes of Russia with its socio-political and economic sanctions, along with Brazil’s economy and other markets that are traditionally small prune markets. As a result we’ve had to redistribute prunes all over the world and one of the places is Germany.

“There is lot of competition there but it’s a very important market to us.”

Citing Italy as another key market as well as the developing market in Poland, Zea’s colleague,  European marketing director for the California Prune Board Esther Ritson-Elliott, explains how the Board just won a PR award in December 2016 for its ‘Friend from California’ campaign.

The campaign beat off stiff competition from powerful brands (including Coca-Cola) to win the highest accolade given by the jury in the food sector category of the Polish Public Relations Consultancies Association ‘Golden Clips’ PR Awards. In addition, the campaign was ranked as one of the three best projects within the “effectiveness” category.

“We are thrilled to win this prestigious award especially given the fact that we were pitched against a number of iconic brands who have an established track record of marketing in Poland, whereas California Prunes has only been actively marketing its superior quality prunes in this country for two years.

“Trend wise consumers in Poland are looking for healthy products and with the pathways the UK sets, we used a lot of the marketing tools that were developed in the UK and then laid them down in Poland – and that has seen some award-winning results,” she tells PBUK.

Tapping into trends

One of the key drivers behind the success of the berry category in the UK last year has been the rise in on-the-go snacking and a focus on the different occasions in which berries can be eaten; in the office, at school, walking around, packed in the lunchbox and so on. Zea believes that prunes have the same potential for growth in these areas, especially as a result of packaging innovations.

“You will begin to see some innovation in packaging. I know that our brands are doing a lot of work with making prunes fit into a more contemporary lifestyle, getting away from just a big bag of prunes.

“Our brand has already done individually wrapped prunes in certain markets like Italy and diced prunes at retail as an alternative option for consumers to raisins or cranberries. We’re looking at ways to breakthrough into younger audiences and with that comes creativity in packaging, besides having a great product inside.

“Introducing younger audiences to prunes doesn’t necessarily have to come through snacking. One of the strategies to our ingredients inclusions is to get people to try prunes in other ways and maybe that drives them back to retail purchases.

“Bakery would be one area, moreover healthy nutritional function and bakery, as well as working with, chefs and culinary experts.”

Rosemary Shrager

Rosemary Shrager has been involved with recipe development for California Prunes, not only using prunes in her own diet but by encouraging foodies to “prune it” with prunes – coming up with novel ways to include prunes in dishes.

California Prune Board has also worked with UK baker Peter Cook who uses prunes in some of his award-winning breads, and Heston Blumenthal who gave prunes the thumbs up through his Christmas Waitrose range.

Another significant growth area is gluten-free.

“We are doing development work with a key supplier and that’s why we had prunes included in lots of gluten-free products. For instance in lot of breads to add moisture and texture. And there’s quite a few gluten free manufacturers that are trialling it at the moment,” adds Ritson-Elliott.

“Some of the success takes years to get to this stage. It’s convincing people and working with latest trends. Consumers are looking at what is in their products now, while perhaps five to eight years ago they didn’t.

“It’s about the food manufacturers taking responsibility, it’s us having a natural, healthy product and it’s the industry investing in inclusion to be able to give us different products to work with manufacturers and chefs who want quality product – we work with people who stand behind quality ingredients.”

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Meetings in France

Due to arrive in France today (January 26), Zea is giving a presentation at the annual meeting of growers where he will talk about opportunities and challenges for Californian producers.

“The invitation is born out of somewhat of an alliance; I think we share something with them, being high quality prune producers to the world.

“It follows an international meeting recently of all prune producers in Santiago de Chile where I made a presentation about the importance of telling our story and doing all the things that California has been doing; investing in all these promotional, nutritional and crop oriented programmes.

“I think the French sector is looking to see what we’re doing, how we’re innovating and how we’ve really faced our stiffest competition. This was not another prune competitor necessarily, but our growers looking at growing walnuts, almonds and other crops that are very profitable.”

Indeed, persuading California growers to stick with prunes is an ongoing challenge, especially because of the high costs involved.

Last season’s crop was the smallest in 90 years with an overall production of 45,000 tonnes, compared with 106,800 tonnes in 2015 and 166,000 tonnes in 2009.

Aside from losing producers and acreage, California’s volatile spring has an impact with cold, wet and windy conditions during the bloom period which can prevent proper pollination from bees.

“Prunes is an expensive crop to grow because it’s as much a craft, like growing a wine grape, as it is agriculture at large. It can be challenging when there are pressures from bad economies and markets being down because of political sanctions or whatever it might be. These things have great impact on all products, certainly on a product like ours.

“The acreage we currently have is stable, the people within the business are absolutely committed to growing prunes. The outliers are growing other things and we are okay with that.”

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Throughout 2017 and beyond Zea would like to see more focus on improving production and  increasing yields.

Prunes have to go through a drying process either naturally by sun which can lead to inconsistencies, or by tunnel drying.

“Tunnel drying is a major investment for us and it separates us in many ways, but our quality, consistency and food safety are all leaders in the world and that comes with a big responsibility to pay for those facilities and all the things that go with it.

“We feel that it makes us the leaders in terms of consistent quality, so there is no question about that. The responses we get from the market are that other products are sometimes less expensive, especially the ones from South America, but they don’t come with the consistency of quality that ours do.”

 

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