In Search of The ‘Superfruit’

Move over pomegranate, it’s pitaya time. A wave of exotic fruits exploding with nutrients and antioxidants is hitting produce shelves, and it’s worth getting to know them better. Varieties like ligonberry and schizandra berry are making their way into the market in hopes of becoming the next health hero, and others, including baobab, mangosteen, sea buckthorn berry aren’t far behind.

Pitaya is a fruit that was first discovered in Central America centuries ago and has traveled to all corners of the globe. Early missionaries brought it to Asia where it has since been renamed and is more commonly known as Dragon Fruit.

The amazing Pitaya fruit is famously known as a natural fiber rich digestive aid that is packed with Antioxidants, Omega-3s but low in sugar. It is also a good source of Vitamin C, Calcium and magnesium. The best Pitaya fruits can be found in Central America

Since the mid-2000s, sales of superfruits have spiked on the heels of POM Wonderful’s success in making the relatively unknown pomegranate a household staple. And global superfruit launches grew by 6% in 2011 following a 10% boost between 2010 to 2011.

Celebrity and mass media exposure don’t hurt, either. “When The Dr. Oz Show featured goji berries, the phones lit up,  websites crashed and grocery stores around the country simultaneously sold out at once,” says Eric Cutler, chief marketing officer of Sunfood, a bulk superfood supplier based in San Diego.

And you don’t even have to chew them. More businesses are combining exotics fruits and the healthy juice trend to produce unique beverages that are tasty and nutritious. Even Starbucks is finding new ways to bask in on the glow of the superfruit juice halo. In November, 2011, the coffee company bought juice company Evolution Fresh, originally started by Naked Juice founder Jimmy Rosenberg, for $30 million. Starbucks sells bottled juices in select stores and has opened Evolution Fresh retail shops in the west coast that serve hand-blended, made-to-order juices.

Yet nutrition experts aren’t convinced that the trend will translate into positive benefits for America’s health. The term “superfruit,” for one, is a marketing term and not recognized by the Food and Drug Administration or US Department of Agriculture. “There’s an implication that if I eat one superfruit, it’s the equivalent of eating two fruits,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the antioxidants research laboratory and professor of nutrition at Tufts University. “Americans already do not eat enough fruit. I have nothing against goji berries, I am sure they’re delicious and you should eat them often, but I am reluctant to say that’s all you need to do. Ordinary fruits like apples and bananas are good too.”

And regardless of whether you consider them to be “super” or not, nutritionists say you should aim to eat two to four servings a day, mostly as whole fruit. “I think every year we are going to see a new fruit or vegetable that’s the hot new thing,” says Jessica Kolko, Whole Foods Market’s Healthy Eating registered dietitian and culinary educator. “From my perspective as a dietitian, the more fruit you eat, the more super you are.”


Native to Mexico, Central and South America, the pitaya—also known as dragon fruit—is very sweet and high in fiber and antioxidants.

At New York City juice bar, Juice Generation, consumers can purchase a drink called “Pink Pitaya,” a hot pink beverage made of pitaya pulp from Nicaragua and served in a coconut shell from Thailand. Juice Generation founder and chief executive officer Eric Helms purchased exclusive import rights for the fruit for a year, and currently stores two full crops of the pulp in warehouses in Philadelphia.

“People have been very receptive,” says Helms who is also credited with spurring a mangosteen frenzy in 2007. “It is very low in sugar, which makes it so healthy, and it’s mixed with coconut which is also very of the moment.”

Baobab Fruit

Commonly found in Africa, the baobab fruit is high in vitamin C as well as omega-3 fatty acids that improve heart, are brain and eye health.

“All of these fruits like baobab have been around forever, but thanks to the Internet, people are finding out, ‘wow, you can actually have good nutrition and it can taste good too.’ These fruits taste good. It’s a great combination,” says David Wolfe, nutritionist and author of The Sunfood Diet Success System.


Monk Fruit

Known for it’s natural sweetness, monk fruit–which is common in China–has grown in popularity as a way to reduce calories and sugar. More brands are using the extract as a calorie-free sweetener.

One thing to remember about exotic fruits like monk fruit that come from far off places — you’re not likely to find them fresh. Instead, most are added to higher calorie products or turned into extracts or dietary supplements, which don’t have all the healthful benefits of the whole fruit.

“There is a lot more to a fruit than an extract or a juice. Sometimes it’s the combination of the whole package,” says Jess Kolko, Whole Foods Market Healthy Eating registered dietitian and culinary educator. “Tart cherry juice may be really awesome in a study, but more often than not it is about the fiber and the phytochemicals and antioxidants in the whole fruit rather than just an extracted form.”

Sea Buckthorn Berry

Found widely in Europe and Asia, this fruit is high in nutrients, especially the relatively rare omega-7s, which promote healthy skin, hair and nails, making the oil a popular beauty product ingredient. It’s the trendiest ingredient in make-up and beauty brands such as actress Salma Hayek’s brand for CVS Pharmacy, Nuance.

Juice Generation is also planning on riding the Sea Buckthorn Berry wave; in 2013 the juice bar will be offering vials of raw concentrated Sea Buckthorn as a ”beauty boost.” “Sea Buckthorn is the hottest new super ingredient used is many creams, serums and elixirs. We will be jumping on this major trend and selling the edible high potent version to take as a shot,” says Emily Parr of Juice Generation.

Incan Berries

As the name suggests, Incan berries are indigenous to South America. They are also referred to as golden berries and contain around 16% protein, as well as vitamins A and C. The berries contain pectin, which can keep digestion regular and maintain healthy cholesterol and glucose levels.

Incan berries are often sold dried, and look similar to raisins, but lack their sweetness. “With all the protein, these berries are a great snack for endurance,” says David Wolfe, nutritionist and author of The Sunfood Diet Success System. “It’s not very sweet for a fruit, and it has great flavor that’s not overly sugary. It has an almost smoked tobacco note in it. I think it’s that deep, rich earthy taste that people love.”


Originally from Indonesia, this sweet fruit has nutrients in both its white pulp and thick purple rind. It’s high in vitamin A and vitamin C.

“Normally, you don’t eat the rind of the fruit. You peel an orange and throw the rind away, but with mangosteen the rind is considered in Southeast Asia to be one of the most powerful immune system supportive herbal substances there is,” says says David Wolfe, nutritionist and author of The Sunfood Diet Success System.

Some early studies of cells and tissue cultures showed that mangosteen rinds may contain anti-cancer compounds, as well as agents that fight inflammation and infection. But other experiments have shown that these agents may also interfere with blood clotting, so researchers warn that not enough is known about the fruit’s effects on the body to justify anything beyond enjoying it as a snack.


Common in Scandinavia, the lingonberry is related to the cranberry and blueberry. These berries contain phytochemicals known to fight urinary-tract infections and taste tart, which is why they are typically sweetened and found in the U.S. as jams and juices.

Demand for lingonberries climbed after Dr. Oz promoted them on his show, but although animals studies showed the berries can lower inflammation, there are few human studies to support the same health perks.

“As I see it, the promotion of the various drinks, supplements and other products containing lingonberries or other less familiar berries touted as “superfruits” is marketing hype. You can get the same, or better, health benefits by eating organic blueberries, which are more readily available and less expensive,” writes Dr. Andrew Weil, a leader in integrative medicine and author of TRUE FOOD: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure 

Schizandra Berry

In Chinese medicine, this berry is used to encourage immune system health as well as treating cough, wheezing, liver and heart problems. It’s considered a “five-flavored” food because it tastes sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty.

Although fruit extracts like schizandra have been used by Chinese health practitioners for many years, there isn’t strong scientific research to back up some of these so-called therapies. “No clinical trials have tested whether schizandra has biological effects in humans, or whether it is safe to take for long periods of time,” the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City.

Gac Fruit

The bright red fruit originated in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and has 70 times the antioxidant lycopene content as a tomato by unit weight.

Lycopene is found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables like red peppers and papayas, and some studies have connected the carotenoid to lower risk of heart disease, cancer and macular degeneration. But because most of those studies involved tomato consumption, it’s not clear whether lycopene, or some other nutrients found in tomatoes, are responsible for the health benefits.