Juice, concentrate and arils boost processing possibilities
Pomegranates aren’t living up to their full potential — yet.
Long a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern diets and lore, pomegranates in the U.S. were basically relegated to the Thanksgiving cornucopia – their rich, red flesh never to see the light of day, cast out with the other old fruit once they’d served their seasonal decorative purpose.
That’s changing, said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the California-based Pomegranate Council. More consumers have become aware of the pomegranate both for its flavor as well as reported health benefits.
But there’s still a long way to go.
“The number of people in the United States who have had any experience with pomegranates is probably around 25 percent, which means three-quarters of the people in the country have never had any experience at all with pomegranates,” Tjerandsen said. “And of those people (who have had experience with them), only about half have ever bought the product, so between 12 and 15 percent have ever purchased pomegranates.
“That means there’s a tremendous opportunity for continued growth.”
For a long time, California – the San Joaquin Valley in particular – was the only place in the U.S. growing pomegranates commercially, on maybe 2,000 acres about 15 years ago, Tjerandsen said. Today, that’s up to about 40,000 acres among some 200 growers. Tjerandsen attributes that growth in large part to Pom Wonderful, the California-based grower and marketer of pomegranates and pomegranate- based products.
“They recognized the intrinsic nutritional value of pomegranates, with a lot of that research being done at the University of Haifa in Israel,” he said. “The commitment then to expand acreage was done in concert with an aggressive promotional campaign to bring it to the attention of the American public.
“We were just beginning to recognize the importance of antioxidants in our diet and in fact, it was shown that the pomegranate has an exceptional antioxidant coefficient.”
Efforts to grow pomegranates in other parts of the U.S. are taking root. About eight years ago, a group of growers formed the Georgia Pomegranate Association, working with the Florida Pomegranate Association to investigate best varieties and practices for growing there, said John Tanner, a blueberry grower and vice president of the Georgia group. They also secured a USDA grant to purchase machinery to produce arils, which are the crisp red seed pods inside pomegranates.
“Most of what we’ve done has been research-related,” Tanner said via email. “We’re looking at about 100 varieties trying to determine what will work best in the Southeast.
“Humidity in the Southeast is a major challenge, being conducive to fungal leaf and fruit diseases.”
Tanner said with no labeled fungicides available yet, they can’t sell pomegranates grown there, though they’re hoping that two products will be available by the 2017 crop.
“Spraying has improved quality and quantity of fruit so much, we do not think it is feasible to try commercial production without using fungicides,” he added.
Jeff Simonian, sales manager for Simonian Fruit in Fowler, California – the company that jointly established the Pomegranate Council with Pom Wonderful – said there is also some limited pomegranate production in Arizona and Nevada.
“They’re trying to put industries together, trying to figure out what varieties will grow,” said Simonian, whose company grows, packs and ships “a couple hundred thousand” boxes of pomegranates each year.
About half of current production goes to processing, and the other half to the fresh market.
“The fresh market accounts for about 7 million boxes,” Tjerandsen said. “Nearly half are exported and the other half remain in the United States.”
Korea is the largest export market for California pomegranates.
“They used to get their pomegranates from Uzbekistan,” Tjerandsen said. “They were very small or didn’t have the color or high sugar that California has. Now it’s a multimillion-box market for California pomegranates.”
Those channeled to processing end up in a variety of forms. Much of it goes into a concentrate that is put into 55-gallon drums and used to produce products worldwide, ranging from juice to skin care. Not-from-concentrate pomegranate juice is also popular, as is using the juice as an ingredient for other blends.
“Pomegranate juice will continue to expand, much like cranberry juice,” Tjerandsen said.
Ken Shepley works in sales for Brownwood Acres Foods out of Michigan. The company’s FruitFast line includes pomegranate supplements and juice concentrates. Shepley said the beauty of the pomegranate is its simplicity.
“We’re doing an awful lot with it, and at the same time doing very little to it,” he said.
Brownwood orders pomegranate juice concentrate by the truckload from California.
“We bottle that up just like it is, we cold fill the bottles – which is a little unique … in both pints and quart-size containers, and then we ship it out direct,” Shepley said. “We have hundreds of wholesale accounts and thousands of customers that order it from us.
“Mom and pops and grocery store chains put the concentrate in the produce or refrigerated section. As consumers, we mix it with water or smoothies or yogurt and take at least a tablespoon of this each day.”
Some pomegranates get processed into powder, which is exported and reconstituted into a variety of products, and into dietary supplements, which Brownwood also produces.
“For supplements, we bring the pomegranates themselves in and that is made into this whole fruit paste, and then that paste is encapsulated into whole fruit soft shells,” Shepley said. “It’s a fruit supplement, and we’ve changed all of our supplemental facts to nutritional facts. We’re selling food despite the fact I refer to these as being supplements.”
Still others are used to package arils – a growing niche. Tjerandsen estimates that there are about a dozen major commercial producers of arils in the U.S., Pom producing the majority of the total volume.
“An area of explosive growth (for arils) is ironically in the catering industry. They have discovered arils,” he said, noting that they’re turning up as garnishes on salads and meats or exotic additions to a glass of champagne or cocktail.
Many manufacturers of arils are using a machine produced by Juran Metal Works in Israel.
“They dominate the market,” Tjerandsen said. “They have a very interesting machine – one way makes arils and the other way it makes juice. So it is now kind of the standard.”
Juran Business Development and Marketing Director Avner Galili said the company developed the patented equipment about 10 years ago. Juran’s biggest market is California, with the machines also being sold in Australia, India, Europe, China, Chile and other parts of the U.S. – including the one that went to the Georgia association.
“The consumption of the fresh-cut arils in Europe is about 15 to 25 percent a year growth,” Galili said,estimatingU.S.growth at about 15 percent “because I can see how many machines they buy. So I know the growth and demand is growing.”
While shipping the whole fresh fruit can be expensive, Chile currently ships about 250,000 boxes of pomegranates to the U.S. Peru has been authorized to bring them to America as well, but Tjerandsen said it’s only through one part on the Gulf of Mexico, where the fruit will have to be irradiated.
“So we don’t hold out much hope that’s going to be a success, for all intents and purposes,” Tjerandsen said.
The U.S. can also import arils and other processed product. But arils have a limited shelf life, so bringing them from long distances isn’t optimal.
Even with all of this activity, Simonian said, there is room for more growth.
“There are such a small amount of pomegranate products,” he said. “There are 2,000 peach products, and with pomegranates, there’s 200. But more and more products are being developed.”
— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer