New product development and health drive California raisin appeal in the UK

New product development and health drive California raisin appeal in the UK

Gill McShane
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Sourcing Spotlight USA

From snacks to baking and confectionery, raisins – not to mention their paste and juice – lend themselves well to a whole host of uses for consumers and industries alike. New product development is now pushing the boundary even further for the nutritious dried fruit, which was recently found to have a positive impact on diabetic diets. Produce Business UK talks exclusively to Peter Meadows, marketing director of California Raisins for the UK and Scandinavia, to find out what lies ahead

What are the main developments with regards to California raisin supply, sales and consumption in the UK?

Peter Meadows: California raisin production has been pretty constant for the last five years at around 300,000-320,000 tonnes (t). Sales in Europe have increased by 1-2% year-on-year, and of the key European markets, the UK is the largest – averaging at 18,000t over last five years, followed by Scandinavia (15,000t) and Germany (8,000-10,000t).

Around 40,000-42,000t of California raisins come into these main territories or 30% of total California raisin exports (120,000-140,000t), which is a significant slice. The leading market for exports is Japan and traditionally the UK has occupied the number two spot. The UK has always been a strong market and this goes back to early days of the USA coming to the UK first before ‘piggybacking’ on successes in the UK before entering Europe.

UK retailers are seeing growth of 2-5% on private label raisin sales because people are becoming more aware of the healthy options for snacking, and California raisins fit that trend. 

For more information on the global raisin trade, you can read the world outlook from the US Department of Agriculture here.

Bowl of raisins

Where is the trade to the UK headed? Is there scope to expand?

PM: There’s definitely scope to expand the market. The industry is trialling different usages for raisins, such as flavoured raisins. For years people have been soaking raisins in rum or amaretto, and now they’re experimenting with ‘fruit’ flavours such as raspberry and strawberry, among others.

There’s a whole raft of new ideas coming through and new product development (NPD) is the key. Raisins are being used more in infusions – everyone playing around with offering different dried fruit together in a pack. For example, there’s a Chinese green raisin that’s quite tasteless on its own but in a mixed bag with California raisins it looks attractive – it’s has the bulk and colour to appeal. Some of the larger wholesalers have developed very interesting infusions of raisins with other flavours and nuts, and they’re doing very well.

Consumers already understand raisins but there is definitely more potential, especially at a retail level, as they become more aware of new raisin products and even raisin paste and juice, which can be used to sweeten products without using sugar. Once the retail market expands, we would expect the foodservice sector to follow suit. 

What else is being done in terms of new product development for raisins?

PM: California Raisins launches on average 50 new recipes from around the world each year. We’re now sharing with bakers and companies in the UK raisin recipes that are used in Asia, North America and South America. The growth of the market is all about NPD, whether you’re a baker or retailer, because that’s what’s getting consumers interested.

We are working with a couple of key bakers in Scandinavia; using raisins as a yeast starter because it’s a healthier alternative to using sugar. We’re trying to get that message across in the UK too. As an organisation, we’ve been talking about using raisins instead of sugar for about 10 years but the issue of sugar reduction is now it’s on trend and suddenly people are starting to listen. Consumers still want sugar but bakers have to show their responsibility to cut back. So we’re working with a couple of regional UK bakers, with a strong regional presence, on how they can use raisins to supplant the taste of sugar using California raisin juice and paste.

It’s about getting the industry to understand that raisins aren’t just a snack ingredient or item; they can be sold/used as paste and juice too or used as a flavouring or sugar substitute. They’ve even been used in a beer in California that’s won an award, as well as sauces such as A.1. Steak Sauce in the USA! Raisins can also be used to lengthen the shelf life of products by up to 30% because of the propionic acid they contain.

As an association, California Raisins is continually conveying the message about how raisins can positively affect the health and nutritional profile of products. 

Raisin cheesecake

I understand new research on raisins has indicated they may benefit diabetic diets. What more can you reveal?

PM: A lot of research is being conducted into raisins in the USA. Over there sugar is also very much on the agenda at the moment and a 12-week study among 51 individuals with Type 2 diabetes found that consuming of 1 ounce of California raisins three times a day, compared with other snacks, positively influenced their glucose levels and systolic blood pressure.

Some 23% of participants saw a reduction in post-meal glucose levels and 19% experienced a reduction in glucose as well as a significant reduction (up to 8.7 mmhg) in their systolic blood pressure. The research was published in the Physician and Sports Medical Journal and the results indicate that eating California raisins three times a day may lower blood pressure and hypertension, plus they may significantly lower post-meal glucose levels when compared with other snacks of equal calorific value.

These are good signs that there are properties in raisins that can achieve these sorts of results, which could give us a whole new marketing angle. The next step is to talk to nutritionists to get the consensus on what we can and can’t say in marketing messages.

In the meantime, we’re continuing along the vein of scientific study on diabetes in particular. The UK government is discussing imposing a sugar tax because of the high cost of people being admitted to hospital with non-communicable diseases that are partly influenced by their sugar and salt intake. We’re talking to a market that’s already listening.

What’s different about raisins from California? What value do they add to the UK market and why?

PM: Our point of difference, which we remind people as often as we can, is the difference between raisins from California and those from other sources. Raisins from many other sources are in fact sultanas because effectively they aren’t officially sun-dried, whereas California raisins are sun-dried for a richer, darker and more caramelised flavour.

Sultanas from other sources don’t lie in the sun for as long, which is why they’re not as dark in colour as raisins. In California the grapes spend three to four weeks in 40oC heat, while Turkey, the main competitor (currently selling 55,000-65,000 tonnes of sultanas a year in the UK), dries its grapes for two to three weeks maximum because of the higher chances of rain during that time of year, even though geographically both Turkey and California occupy similar latitudes.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the weather is constant, so we get a consistent product. It’s a flat valley – it used to be the bottom of a prehistoric lake – so it’s a bit of a heat trap. Growers plant each vine east to west so they receive a maximum amount of sun. In comparison, in Turkey’s growing regions there are generally more hills, which means as the sun passes over the grapes some catch sun more often or for shorter or longer periods of time. This results in different sizes for the berries.

California’s unique selling point really is this sun drying process and the fact that the raisins are not artificially dried and there are no artificial substrates used in production. There are less pesticides used to produce California raisins than other origins.

Virtually all of the large UK retailers put the word ‘California’ on their private label raisin packs. I’ve only seen Turkey labelled once. You always see California raisins on the shelves as California resonates with a whole set of positive intangible benefits in the minds of UK consumers, such as clean, healthy, sun, surf, etc. The retailers play on that; they’ve been doing it for 20 years plus, whether some of retailers know the difference between raisins and sultanas or not! 

Raisins on the vine

What does California have to offer UK buyers?

PM: For consumers, it’s all about offering a product that ticks boxes for taste, health and a cost effective way of eating fruit. For wholesalers, California raisins add to their product offer. For bakers, the raisins can help to lengthen the shelf-life of their products or substitute sugar in recipes and allow for developing new products. For the retailer, they sell four times more raisins than sultanas in snacking because the sun-dried caramelised flavour is stronger and that’s what consumers want.

A lot of sophisticated buyers understand the difference between sun dried raisins and sultanas. It just so happens that the UK and Germany traditionally use and eat a lot of sultanas too. There are many different types of apples and it’s just the same with grapes. Sun drying the fruit gives it a different look feel, taste and other positive attributes, which lends the fruit well to the confectionery sector as the skin is a little bit stronger. It’s really important for buyers to understand there are different products for different applications. But in terms of a snack out of a box, consumers tend to like the more stronger tasting, caramelised raisins over sultanas.

Is there anything new on offer from California’s raisin supply?

PM: Traditionally, raisins are dried on the ground. Armies of workers with machinery will pick grapes, lay them on 800ft long paper trays and turn them daily. Growers are now introducing a new drying method of raisins drying on the vine. At the end of August they cut the water supply to the overhanging trellis system. All the grape bunches hang down and are left to desiccate on the vine.

The idea that it provides slightly more shade for the grapes and so the dried raisins are sweeter because the sun doesn’t caramelise the fruit so much. It’s a slightly diff product and it looks slightly different because gravity is pulling down on the grape berries too. So buyers can use these sweeter raisins for a range of different applications.

How is the UK responding to raisins? Are consumers aware of the benefits and California as a key source of supply?

PM: I’d say the UK is still the number two market in the world despite strong price-led competition from Turkey – California’s main competitor. British consumers generally understand the difference between sun-dried raisins and the sultanas which typically come from Turkey and the Aegean region.

Whatsmore, we have a strong snacking culture in the UK. Retail consumption is on the up at 2-4% per annum. The UK market is generally very positive. Consumers understand that dried fruit is a dried version of fresh fruit, and contributes towards one of your five a day portions. Raisins are also a cheaper, more convenient way of snacking on fruit.

The benefits of fibre in raisins is one message that’s now generally understood by consumers and that’s where some of our marketing continues to focus too. There are also trace elements of vitamins and minerals in raisins but the key nutritional fact is that they’re high in fibre. You can find more nutritional details in the health section of the California Raisin website. 

Raisin Flap Jack

What’s next for California raisins and raising consumer awareness and interest in the UK?

PM: We’re doing more online. We’ve upped our presence on social media; focusing particularly on consumers with viral marketing campaigns and education in terms of what you can do with raisins from snacking, to baking, cooking, etc.

We already do a lot of work with consumers as well as British bakers. At the moment, we’re working with Netmums – an online forum of 45,000 mothers. The response has been tremendous. Most of the mums get the message about raisins and many have been converted to eating California raisins and using them in innovative ways.

We’re talking about health benefits of raisins – they are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals; they’re the most cost effective way of achieving a fresh fruit equivalent; they’re so convenient because they don’t have to be washed.

Read more about California raisins, their uses and attributes here.

Follow California raisins:

Online: californiaraisins.co.uk

Twitter: @CalRaisinsUK

Facebook: facebook.com/CalRaisinsUK

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California looks to UK to break more records on table grape exports

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