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The idea of enriching apples with additional antioxidants elicited a wide range of reactions in a consumer study conducted by Washington State University. Consumers’ responses covered the spectrum from "Stop playing with natural foods," to "That’s a great idea," economist Dr. Jill McCluskey reported during a seminar at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center this fall.

McCluskey said foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition are known as functional foods. Food processors are increasingly using functional food claims as a marketing tool. Products such as orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D-fortified milk are now widely available. McCluskey said there might be an opportunity to market phytonutrient-enhanced fruits and vegetables to health-conscious consumers.

Pace International LLC, a supplier of wax, coatings, and other postharvest products to the tree fruit industry, is developing apple coatings that contain natural antioxidants extracted from other fruits or vegetables.

George Lobisser, Pace’s chief executive officer, said the coatings do not contain the same antioxidants naturally found in apples. Instead, they might contain lutein, an antioxidant found in carrots that decreases the risk of macular degeneration of the eyes, or resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grape skins and wine that might reduce the incidence of heart disease.

"We looked at fortificants that people should take more of naturally, but they don’t," he said. "We know the apple’s good by itself. Why not add some additional antioxidants?"

Pace has patented the coatings and is thinking of launching them commercially, Lobisser said. Research is being done to find out if the antioxidants in the coatings are bioavailable, meaning that they move into the bloodstream and are not bound up in the coating.

Natural

McCluskey said while producers might see functional foods as a way to differentiate their product by making it healthier, other people might perceive them as risky or potentially unsafe. "Some people just want to consume natural foods whenever possible," she said.

Her study aimed to answer a number of questions about the acceptance of enriched apples, such as:

  • Could they command a premium in the market?
  • Would people who prefer organic produce buy them?
  • Could acceptance be increased if people were told about the benefits of the antioxidants?

    A total of 730 consumers were surveyed in grocery stores in Seattle and Spokane, Washington, in 2006. Most people said they had positive feelings about nutritionally enriched foods. Only 8 percent felt somewhat negative and 2 percent very negative. But fewer people had positive feelings about apples coated with antioxidants. Nineteen percent felt somewhat negative and 6 percent very negative about them. Among the reasons they gave for not wanting enriched apples were: They didn’t want to eat wax, they felt additives to fruit were not necessary, they thought it better to get nutrients naturally, and washing the apples removes the wax.

    Overall, the respondents said they would pay an 8 percent premium for antioxidant-enhanced apples. Those in Seattle said they would pay a 7 percent premium, on average, whereas consumers in Spokane said they would pay a 10 percent premium. McCluskey explained that residents in places more closely associated with Washington’s agricultural areas, such as those in Spokane, are generally more accepting of such new technology.

    Shoppers who were told that fruit enhanced with natural antioxidants could help prevent cancer and cardiovascular and other types of diseases expressed a willingness to pay a higher premium (10 percent) than those who were not given that information (6 percent).

    McCluskey concluded that apples enriched with antioxidants are likely to command some premium in the market if backed by a carefully developed marketing strategy. She expected that as more consumers recognize the potential health benefits of functional foods, the market would grow.

    However, consumers of organic foods are not likely to buy functional foods because they prefer natural products, she said.