Since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, blueberries have played a vital role in cultures across the globe. From Native American to Roman societies, blueberries have been an invaluable source of food and income, and relied upon for their unique medicinal properties.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that blueberries were grown in any significant commercial quantities in New Zealand. Starting in the late 90s, a series of ground-breaking scientific studies identified the health-giving qualities of blueberries. Packed with antioxidants, they were shown to assist in repairing cell damage, promoting brain function and preventing health problems such as cancer and health disease.
Officially declared a true super food, the demand for blueberries exploded.
In the comparatively short time since, blueberries have rapidly become one of New Zealand’s most popular fruits. From October 2010 to May 2011, $106,246,974 worth of fresh fruit was sold in New Zealand supermarkets. Blueberries ranked fourth overall, after perennial staples strawberries, bananas and apples.
Domestic sales of blueberries have increased a staggering 233% in the five years from 2006 to 2011.
And yet New Zealand’s per capita consumption of fresh and frozen blueberries is around half that of America’s. Blueberries New Zealand Inc, the trade body that represents around 90 local blueberry growers, believes that their product has the potential to become part of Kiwis’ everyday diet.
“Blueberries are an exceptionally delicious, versatile and healthy fruit, appealing to everyone from kids to adults,” says Dan Peach, President of the Blueberries NZ Association.
“In places like America, they’re so commonplace even McDonald’s sells packets of fresh blueberries. Our exports to international markets were worth $16.9 million in [year], while our domestic sales were less than half that at $7.1 million.1 However, New Zealanders are consuming more blueberries than ever and we see this trend continuing.”
To achieve their bullish target of a 10% increase in domestic sales by the end of 2014, blueberry growers across the country are being innovative. This includes expanding into organics, creating new products (even, imaginatively, blueberry wine), and working with government agencies to develop new varieties ideal for New Zealand growing conditions. The results mean local consumers can now enjoy blueberries with a longer shelf life, and the blueberry season has been extended right through into May.
Recently, Massey University and Plant & Food Research discovered that New Zealand blueberries can hasten muscle recovery after exercise.
“Kiwis are being encouraged to look at all the ways they can enjoy New Zealand blueberries, fresh or frozen, on their own or in recipes, all year round,” says Peach. “Blueberries have four times the antioxidants of apples or bananas, so even a handful each day can deliver real health benefits.”
The move will not apply to workers at franchisee-owned restaurants, which make up 90 percent of U.S. stores.