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Scientists congregate in Oregon to push health benefits of state's key cash crop.

PHOTO: SUE HARRELL - Several dozen attendees of the Berry Health Benefits Symposium took a bus up the Willamette Valley to tour berry farms and the North Willamette Research & Extension Center.

Berries are important to the Oregon economy, and scientists and growers brought their annual Berry Health Benefits Symposium to Portland on Wednesday, May 8.

The conference focused not on exotic berries but on the familiar raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries.

Scientists did most of the talking at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Portland Downtown, on topics ranging from "Gut Health & Gut Microflora" to "Food Technology & Chemistry."

Dr. Britt Burton-Freeman of the UC Davis Nutrition Department, explained to the Business Tribune their message:

"One of the major messages from the berry industry is that they deliver nutrient-rich products, whether they're in raw form, or in a formulated form. And they want to have that message driven from the science. So, they want to understand the science of their berries, and then create the messages that are supported by the science."

Burton-Freeman estimated the crowd was 50% berry scientists, 30% berry industry folks, and 20% students and other faculty academia.

SOURCE: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE - Blueberry production has quadrupled since 2004 in Oregon.

Science diet

From the consumer's point of view, more interesting than vitamin C is the news that anthocyanins, which give color to black currants, and other types of red-to-blue-colored fruits, are strong antioxidants.

"Anthocyanins are biologically active, and when people eat them they can help maintain health. But they can also help people that might be struggling with glucose control, for example, or might be having issues with their cholesterol. There's also some data shared around blood pressure control."

Burton-Freeman said berries are great for people whose doctors tell them to change their diet soon before they need medication to save their cardiovascular system. Blueberries are good for lowering blood pressure; strawberries and cranberries help with cholesterol control.

"This is a great time to either add more berries in your diet, add a nice fruit variety or have a diversity of fruit intake. But then the science is pointing to health benefits," he said.

And then there's metabolites.

"So you've heard the relationship between blueberry and brain health? Well, there was some question was it a black box? Do these compounds actually get in there? Or is there something happening peripherally, then showing up from a behavioral standpoint in your brain? And so we had a couple investigators discuss the availability of these compounds in the brain. It's just more evidence that, yes, these compounds that we consume through the berries, are metabolized, they get into tissues, including the brain, to have their effect," Burton-Freeman

PHOTO: SUE HARRELL - At the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Canby, Dr. Bernadine C. Strik, Professor of Horticulture at OSU, Extension Berry Crops Specialist & Berry Crops Research Leader, NWREC, speaks to the group about caneberries, that is, any berries grown on canes.

Packers

Oregon farmers grow about 40 million pounds of blackberries, and 90% of those end up being frozen. The berries are ripe for just a short window of time. They're picked at the peak of ripeness, and flash-frozen within hours to lock in taste and nutrition.

Raspberries are mainly grown in Washington state. The Oregon strawberry crop here is quite small, about 11 million pounds.

Conference organizer Darcy Kochis explained the berry market.

"The Northwest for raspberries (and) blackberries is primarily a processed industry. The blueberry crop is about 50% fresh and 50% processed here."

At the cannery or packers they are run through an IQF machine, or individually quick-frozen tunnel, leading to the individually frozen berries you buy in a polypack in the supermarket.

Oregon has about 250 blackberry growers and 13 packers. The berry market is growing. However... "We are definitely facing a lot of competition. As with many commodities, food is a world market. We have some challenges with some of the trade agreements that are zero-% tariff for some of our competitors like Chile, where we may have a 35-to-40% tariffs," said Kochis.

U.S. berries are tariffed entering China, whereas those from Chile are not. (The Chilean Blueberry Committee sponsored the conference luncheon.)

"Those are all done at a federal level. We try with our representatives in Washington, D.C. And we do talk to them and make sure that they understand that the challenge for us is something to work on," Kochis said.

Go global

Because of flash freezing, container shipping and homogenized tastes, berries are in a global market now.

"What we need to hang our hat on is that we grow some of the best blackberries and raspberries in the world here in Oregon and Washington," Kochis said. "The varieties we grow are special to this region. The marionberry is 50% of the blackberries we grow. It is just a variety of blackberry, just like a Pink Lady apple is a variety of apple. We have some new and up-and-coming blackberry variety, specifically like the thornless Columbia star, which do very well in the climate that we have. What we are really focusing on is our berries are different, better and special. And in order for us to be competitive in this world market, we really need to make sure that's our story."

Good Farms in San Diego sent its director of value-added sales, Rachel Donnan, to speak for the strawberry. The company owns farms in Baja (Mexico), Ventura and northern California.

"Value added" includes things like strawberry juice as a health drink. A 14-and-a-half-ounce bottle of Good Farms strawberry juice sells for $5.99 in Whole Foods. Costco is one of Good Farms' biggest customers. Their strawberries can be found there, and at Charlie's Produce, Kroger and

Albertsons.

"We grow strawberries, we also do raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and we grow a lot of different tomatoes," Donnan said. "We're members of the California Strawberry Commission board. And we're here supporting them and also just supporting the conference."

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Scientists did most of the talking at the Berry Health Benefits Symposium. Their topics ranged from "Gut Health & Gut Microflora" to "Food Technology & Chemistry."

In the latter, Dr. David Rowley, a University of Rhode Island professor in the College of Pharmacy, presented a paper titled "Sweet Health Prospects for Cranberry Sugars."

Rowley said it was folk wisdom that cranberry juice is a good treatment for urinary tract infections, and he went to on show the science behind it. He showed how the bacteria huddle together as they grow, then break off, using long frond like sea urchin spines to attach to the bladder wall. Cranberry xyloglucans prevent these spines from working. The bacteria can also form a quiescent reservoir and hang around, leading to recurring infections. Cranberry oligosaccharides can wake these quiescent colonies so they can be killed by antibiotics. Rowley was working in collaboration with Ocean Spray Cranberries.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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