Heirloom fruits and vegetables breed interesting prospects

On the surface, incorporating heirloom vegetables and fruits as an ingredient in food and beverages appears to be a clear expansion of the natural food products market. After all, a vegetable or fruit that has not been hybridized and is packed with nutrients and rich and bold flavors, characterizes the word natural. For now, the market opportunity is emerging.

“Organic brings out a lot of the images [fresh, better tasting] that consumers are looking for in regard to natural and unprocessed, and I think heirloom does a similar sort of thing within produce,” said Jared Koerten, senior food analyst at Euromonitor International. “I haven’t personally seen a lot of it [heirloom vegetables and fruits in products] at the moment, but I do think it seems like an interesting idea — especially if you are a manufacturer of ready meals, and use a good amount of vegetables in formulations.”

Koerten added the opportunity to include heirloom vegetables in the packaged food space remains small at the moment — the whole step of getting vegetables into packaged food products is a big one.  

One area of opportunity when it comes to heirloom varieties is found in grains. “I see the heirloom idea more in grains, at least in packaged products, more than in fruits and vegetables,” said Jenna Blumenfeld, senior food editor at New Hope Network. She said heirloom fruits and vegetables are something you will see more of at the grocery store, natural products store or a farmers’ market.

Blumenfeld pointed to company Alter Eco as an example of how heirloom varieties resonate with consumers. The company was one of the first to bring quinoa to the United States, and called its product Royal Quinoa. The product originates in Peru, but consumers didn’t connect that fact with the name Royal Quinoa; it lacked that sense of place. “So they changed to Heirloom Quinoa because it resonates more with consumers that the product has not been hybridized,” Blumenfeld said.

What are the possibilities?

Organic food operations continue to expand, as evidenced by data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found the number of certified organic farms was up 12% from 2014 to 2015. There are now 21,781 certified organic producers in the nation. The total retail market for organic products is valued at more than $39 billion. In addition to demanding organic foods, consumers want to buy locally.

In the last six or seven years, there has been a significant shift by manufacturers toward using vegetables as an ingredient more broadly. Koerten pointed out vegetables appear as ingredients in savory snacks, which are traditionally populated by nuts and tortilla chips, for example. There are now bean-based chips, veggie chips and veggie straws, among many other products.

As ingredient manufacturers continue integrating vegetables into their ingredient profiles, and into packaged food products, heirloom products may present opportunities. “Given the interest in organic, natural, unprocessed, and no artificial ingredients, it definitely seems like an opportunity as manufacturers progress along that spectrum," said Koerten. “They could integrate more heirloom vegetables into their formulations.”

See Also: Vegetables sneak on to the plate with manufacturing innovations

Masienda is a company that wants to market its heirloom corn, grown on small farms in Mexico, to companies in the United States. This year, the company plans to offer its own value-added maize products such as heirloom tortillas, masa harina and chips. The company’s mission is to "source, import and purvey the highest quality Latin ingredients," and create "a fair market that promotes agricultural biodiversity, sustainability and supports smallholder farmers in Mexico."

Tell a story

The use of heirloom varieties in products creates a competitive position, said Koerten. Small manufacturers are entering the market all the time, creating a more competitive market. “For big companies, it seems like it might be competitive. For small companies, it would be a way to get customers’ attention, and differentiate your products using heirloom products — especially if the flavor pays off.”

Consumer interest in the way a company’s products are grown or produced might also come into play, as they are interested in whether a product has been genetically modified. Consider the organic and anti-GMO movement, which has come to a head in Vermont, a state that now mandates the labeling of GMOs in products. During the past several weeks, large corporations have announced they aren’t going to make two sets of labels, one for Vermont and one for everyone else, opting instead to create one label for use nationwide.

Consumers also want to support companies that are “mindful.” According to research by the Natural Marketing Institute, one in three Americans indicate they are willing to “pay 10% more for food products that are made by companies” that pay their workers fairly, provide safe working environments and are certified organic or GMO-free, among other factors.

NMI’s research also found that consumers make their “decisions with an understanding of the effect they will have on health and sustainability of the world, its environment, and people,” increasing from 29% in 2009 to 43% in 2015. What’s more, they are also “more likely to buy products from companies who donate to worthwhile causes,” increasing from 29% in 2009 to 37% in 2015.

Manufacturers should recognize that although heirloom or heritage can be considered marketing terms, they should not only choose heirlooms that are big and delicious — tomatoes in tomato sauce, for example — but take into account the “entire method in which this fruit, vegetable or grain was grown,” Blumenfeld says. “Does it honor this heritage or ancestral way?” Blumenfeld asks. “Are you paying attention to the farm and the farmers? Telling that story is more powerful.”

Top image credit: Deborah Barrington