A small and colorful orange berry with a red center grown in places like the Himalayas, Russia and the Canadian prairies is slowly making its way to the U.S.
From juices and smoothies to chocolate bars and dried fruit snacks, sea buckthorn is entering a variety of products to add flavor and health benefits. The sea buckthorn bush, which is native to Asia and Europe, is rich in vitamin C, about 12 times as much as an orange, and contains B12, a nutrient typically found in animal products. It’s also one of the few edible plants with all four omega fatty acids. Companies and experts told Food Dive that sea buckthorn is gradually gaining ground in the U.S. and will continue to do so as more consumers seek out functional products.
"For reasons unknown, it hasn't had a huge wave of popularity. It's just been a slow, steady climb," Peter McMullin, president of Sibu, the leader in sea buckthorn raw material sales, told Food Dive. "That might be partly due to a very non-sexy name, sea buckthorn doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But it is legit and has some amazing qualities both used topically and consumed."
Sea buckthorn has been used as a natural solution for the anti-aging and organic markets since the early 2000s, providing a variety of skincare treatment options from moisturizing to reducing inflammation and healing sunburns. The plant’s leaves and flowers have also been used to treat arthritis, gastrointestinal ulcers and skin rashes, according to WebMD.
When discussing the upcoming ingredients for 2020, Kara Nielsen, an expert in food and beverage trends, told Food Dive that there is an increasingly blurred line between cosmetics and food. She said companies are blurring the boundaries between categories and consumers are seeing more functional ingredients in food products, like collagen and sea buckthorn.
Collagen, which was made popular in the U.S. in the 1980s as a pricey injectable filler to plump lips and soften lines, has been made its way into several different foods and beverages. Similarly, sea buckthorn has more often been used in oils and balms until recently.
"For reasons unknown, it hasn't had a huge wave of popularity, it's just been a slow, steady climb. That might be partly due to a very non-sexy name, sea buckthorn doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But it is legit and has some amazing qualities both used topically and consumed."
"I put sea buckthorn on a trend report back in like 2008, and it didn't really hit at that time," Nielsen said. "For Northern Europeans, sea buckthorn has always sort of been a skincare product, but now we're also starting to see edibles."
Sourcing a 'coveted fruit'
McMullin said his father founded Sibu after his parents took his adopted sister back to India about 15 years ago to learn more about where she came from. During the trip, they learned about sea buckthorn and how it grows in the wild in the Himalayas and has medicinal proprieties, but is largely unknown to the U.S.
He said some people they met were looking to find a champion of sea buckthorn and bring it to the West, so the family set up a cooperative of local villagers in the Himalayan mountains of Ladakh, India region.
"That's right up to the very highest Northern part of India into the Himalayas, where they hand harvest it using the same techniques they have for 1,000 years, and then it's processed into purée and then sent to us where we create oils, both from the seed and the berry," McMullin said.
The company eventually rolled out a line of products in 2009, including supplements and a drink. Now the company makes two drinks, one is a blend with other juices and the other is just pure puréed sea buckthorn berries in a bottle, which is "the most potent source of Omega-7 in the world by far," he said. It has 720 mg of Omega-7 per ounce.
McMullin wrote in a release in October that sea buckthorn was skyrocketing in popularity as more foodservice chains, like True Food Kitchen, have reached out to Sibu to use the ingredient in recipes. But despite the company's activity pushing the ingredient on social media, blogs and trade shows, it still needs to grow consumer awareness.
"That's our biggest hurdle and continues to be," he said. "What we focus a lot on is the education aspect of it."
Ian Purkayastha, founder of Regalis Foods, which offers sea buckthorn preserves, told Food Dive that sea buckthron has became a "coveted fruit" and they were able to find a source for the berries in the Quebec province of Canada.
As wild, foraged ingredients have become more popular on menus and in high-end restaurants, sea buckthorn has been "at the forefront of the foraging craze," Purkayastha said. Last year, Regalis launched a line of six shelf-stable foraged fruit preserves, including sea buckthorn.
"Due to sea buckthorn's flavor being very unique and very tropical but yet coming from the forest, I think that was super interesting for a lot of chefs' prospectives," he said. "But there is still a lot of education that needs to happen. It is still a very rare fruit."
Expanding its reach
In May of last year, Finnish company Fazer Confectionery announced the U.S. introduction of the Nordi Chocolate brand. The brand launched a line of "Nordic inspired" dark chocolate bars, including a Sea Buckthorn & Salty Caramel flavor.
Heikki Savolainen, innovation director at Fazer Baker & Confectionery, told Food Dive that when the brand was deciding on flavors and recipes that could be signature to its chocolate, sea buckthorn stood out. Savolainen called the sea buckthorn variety its "most iconic bar and recipe that we have in our series."
Savolainen said people are thinking about food, and even chocolate, more holistically nowadays. It's not only about the indulgence, he said, consumers are also looking for more from the flavor, texture and functionality of the products so Nordi wanted to combine sea buckthorn with flavors that consumers would recognize.
"It's capturing both the expectations in the flavor and the health benefits and the wellness. And then at the same time, it's something we want to combine with something familiar, so the dark chocolate and sea salt," he said.
Savolainen said Faver plans to expand in the years to come and is exploring opportunities in other categories outside of chocolate, because the berries are "clearly resonating."
"My wish and dream and thinking is that it will be the next super berry, super fruit which is understood as coming from the Nordic countries," he said. "So I think that through this knowledge and people understanding better the beauty of the berry, there will be more implementations."
Looking toward the future, researchers have said that consumer education and evidence-based directions for product development will help food producers to launch products with sea buckthorn.
But Sibu's McMullin said it is a good thing that sea buckthorn's growth has been a slow and gradual rise in popularity because that means "it wasn't a flash in the pan like some other things." He said some trendy ingredients like green tea extract and Garcinia Cambogia have faded away while sea buckthorn is here to stay.