Hailed as the new king of berries when it comes to health benefits, black raspberries have in fact been skirting on the periphery for years. Produce Business UK takes a closer look at the niche, post-season and nutritious berry as it starts to gain increasing traction among health-driven consumers
After a fairly media-heavy exclusive introduction into Tesco’s supermarket shelves back in 2011, black raspberries were hailed a new superfood – when the term was all the rage. With relatively high levels of compounds thought to help prevent cancer and a juicy quality the fruit seemed to have it all. Since then it has gradually become available in various supermarkets.
After five years of commercial development, it looks like more work is needed, both to attract consumer attention and provide better growing conditions for producers. But with consumer interest in healthy ingredients and plant-based foods becoming the norm, the next couple of years could be the pinnacle for the somewhat surreal-looking black raspberry.
Origin: Black raspberry is a member of the Rosaceae family, which also includes roses, and belongs to the same subgenus (idaeobatus) as its red counterpart. The fruit is grown predominantly in North America, specifically Oregon, Ohio and Vermont.
Also known as: Black caps, wild black raspberry, thimbleberry, bramble berries or Scotch cap.
Varieties: Mac Black, Black Jewel and Black Magic.
History in the UK: Mac Black and Black Jewel are two varieties of black raspberries that have been on trial for commercialisation in the UK.
Mac Black was brought over to the UK five years ago by one of the UK’s biggest berry growers Hall Hunter, based near Twyford, Berkshire.
Amidst much publicity in 2011, a Tesco spokesperson said of the variety: “We think the Mac Black could become a future star among berries, and one day may even be more popular than the traditional red variety.”
Seasonality: It’s painfully short right now – just covering early June and then July in both the US and the UK. Some areas only harvest for three weeks.
Production: A high-value crop in the US Midwest, black raspberries need a warm spring to make them especially juicy. Described as the “unicorn of the food world”, they grow on low shrubby bushes and turn from dark pink to dark purple when they ripen.
UK grower Place UK trialled a few black raspberry varieties a few years ago, but found them difficult to grow here. “As well as the very short season, the canes were extremely prickly and wild, making the vigorous growth difficult to manage,” managing director Tim Place reveals.
“They were expensive to pick as a result. We did try them for a couple of seasons, but we didn’t get much interest from customers for either fresh or frozen black raspberries. We believe the species needs to undergo further plant breeding to increase the fruit size, reduce the thorns and make the plant more manageable.”
The scientific bit: Black raspberries are full of wonderful stuff and the list seems to go on and on. Rich in ellagic acid, anthocyanins and antioxidants, which are said to help destroy cell-harming free radicals, these little nutritious nuggets are worth fighting for. In fact, the free radical absorbance capacity of black raspberries is almost three times higher than blueberries.
A known immune booster, many doctors recommend black raspberries before and during chemotherapy. Ohio State University research has found significant decreases in colon tumours in rats and oesophageal tumours in mice fed a diet with black raspberries, whilst other studies have shown that extracts of raspberries and blackberries may slow the growth of breast, cervical, colon and oesophageal cancers.
A real leader of the berry pack, black raspberries have an extremely high overall level of phenolic compounds compared with all other berries. Phenolic compounds such as ellagic acid, gallic acid and rutin contribute to the healthful benefits of black raspberries. They also contain high levels of anthocyanins, which give black raspberries their rich, dark colour.
Taste: The black raspberry has been described as tasting “as juicy as a blackberry, but with the texture and sweetness of a raspberry”. The fruit is blue-black with a soft hollow core and it’s small for a raspberry, weighing just 2g. It has white matter on the exterior of the berry and a moderately tart flavour. Celebrity gardener James Wong has heralded black raspberries the “homegrown Haribo”, and although the berry has obvious links to both, it’s unlike either the red raspberry or blackberry in taste.
Culinary uses: These uniquely flavoured berries are popular in specialty foods, especially jams and ice cream, and are used as a colouring agent as well. The majority of the crop is processed as individually quick frozen raspberries, frozen raspberry purée, or frozen raspberry juice concentrate. Other processing methods include canning, drying, processed bakery fruit fillings and essence, as well as aseptic packaging.
Traditional dishes: It’s big in mid-summer desserts in the US Midwest. Black raspberry pie or cobbler, black raspberry parfait, ice cream and gelato, jams, cordial and macaroons are popular, to name a few. In a more modern twist, they can be frozen then broken into pieces for desserts and used as a glaze for chicken and different meat joints.
Other facts: The pigment from the fruit is used as a dye and black raspberries may grow in Korea. There has also been speculation that the fruit would be a good-yielding crop in some African countries.