Blackcurrants are undoubtedly best known for being the familiar taste of juice drink Ribena – yet they also have the potential to reach new fresh markets. Produce Business UK speaks with Jo Hilditch, chairwoman of the Blackcurrant Foundation, to discover more about the berry and its unrecognised health benefits
For many people, the distinct taste of blackcurrants evokes childhood memories of thirstily gulping down a glass of Ribena on a warm, sunny day. Given that British blackcurrant growers have been supplying the manufacturers of this familiar cordial for some 60 years, it’s perhaps little wonder that Ribena has become almost as much a staple component of British kitchen cupboards as teabags and sugar.
Jo Hilditch, a Herefordshire-based blackcurrant grower and chairwoman of The Blackcurrant Foundation – which represents the UK’s 40 blackcurrant growers – reveals that about 95% of the 13,000 tonnes produced in the UK every year are currently used to make Ribena.
Given Ribena’s popularity, it’s easy to forget the cordial is not the only product that’s associated with blackcurrants – this year’s crop of which are particularly plump and sweet thanks to ideal weather conditions.
Blackcurrant-flavoured yoghurts, for instance, are another familiar favourite, as are other blackcurrant drinks, such as Innocent’s range of smoothies. But most importantly, according to Hilditch, the berry still has untapped potential for retailers, foodservice operators and chefs, among others.
“Given the list of health benefits, we would like to see blackcurrants used across a much wider variety of products and markets,” she asserts, explaining that blackcurrants have been proven to help ward off what she describes as “a multitude of different illnesses”, from the common cold to cystitis and Alzheimer’s, to name but a few.
The “mini superfruit hero”
With the berry’s many attributes in mind, the Blackcurrant Foundation was established by British growers to raise awareness of what they fondly describe as a “mini superfruit hero”.
Hilditch explains: “Ongoing research has confirmed that these British berries really are the best of the best and, with health and lifestyle being such a hot topic, we want everyone to be aware of the significant health benefits that adding blackcurrants to your diet can bring.” Hilditch explains that the “quintessentially British” blackcurrant contains high levels of antioxidants – and that research has shown in the past three years that this can help to prevent Alzheimer’s, heart disease, eye strain, MRSA and urinary tract infections.
“More recently, research has found that drinking blackcurrant juice enhances the mood, boosts energy levels and even combats symptoms associated with Parkinson’s and depression,” she adds.
These little purple fruits sound like a doctor’s dream, so it’s a little surprising they are not yet considered to be an everyday healthy eating ingredient. With that in mind, Hilditch, who also owns the drinks company British Cassis, says: “The great thing about British blackcurrants is their versatility; they can be eaten fresh or added to a wide variety of dishes, including desserts, sauces to accompany savoury meals or as juices, jams and smoothies – the list is endless,” she explains.
Hilditch reveals, for instance, that it would be beneficial to incorporate blackcurrants into meals within many industries, including hospitals, schools or care homes.
She notes that the retail market could also do more to sell fresh blackcurrants. When in season during July and August blackcurrants are currently only sold fresh by selected supermarkets, according to Hilditch. The product is primarily sold in the individually quick frozen (IQF) format, which allows blackcurrants to be consumed all year round and maintains the fruit’s antioxidant properties.
Given the somewhat subdued status of the fruit, it’s likely that most shoppers are currently pushing their trolleys past frozen blackcurrants and heading straight for more familiar berries in the fresh fruit and veg aisle, such as strawberries, and only heading to the frozen foods section for produce staples like frozen peas.
Hilditch says: “We would love even more support from retailers to help promote blackcurrants – perhaps by featuring recipes or health content within their consumer magazines, advertising or in-store promotions.”
A bit of inspiration
Both buyers and consumers in need of inspiration can access a host of blackcurrant recipes, such as warm venison salad with a blackcurrant dressing and a blackcurrant and apple jam, that have been developed by The Blackcurrant Foundation and posted on its website. Large cartons of frozen blackcurrants, such as 12kg cartons of organic blackcurrants, are also available from www.britishfrozenfruits.co.uk, reveals Hilditch.
With a blackcurrant sized gap in the fresh produce market for more of this “forgotten” fruit – and many positive health benefits to market to consumers eager to watch their diets – the future could well be a little bit more purple.