In December 1996, John Sauve, then-executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America (WBANA), received an unexpected fax. It contained an article from the latest issue of AgResearch titled: “Plant Pigments Paint a Rainbow of Antioxidants.”
At first, Sauve wasn’t sure what to make of the article. Like most people at the time, he had no real idea what antioxidants were: they were only just starting to enter the public consciousness, thanks to the emergence of mutually supportive research and marketing. Sauve definitely didn’t know they would soon become fundamental to the public perception of wild blueberries, which are smaller, more flavorful, and less common than the cultivated highbush blueberry familiar to most shoppers.
Back then, blueberries weren’t seen by many consumers as an especially healthy fruit. They were just something you put in a pie. You found them in the supermarket next to the whipped cream. In 1994, Sauve gave a presentation on the five points of appeal he’d identified for wild blueberries—none of them were related to nutrition. “We were still trying to sell blueberries because they taste good inside of muffins, and we were doing OK with that,” he says in a droll Maine accent. “Health wasn’t even on the radar screen.”
Poring over the AgResearch article, Sauve learned about a new assay test being used at Tufts University called ORAC (short for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), which ranked blueberries number one in terms of antioxidant activity. By this point, antioxidant compounds were known to be a factor in reducing oxidative stress, the potentially harmful overaccumulation of negatively charged atoms called free radicals. While blueberries’ place at the top of the results wasn’t clearly stated in the article, Sauve connected the dots. “I said, ‘Hey, we came out first!’” he recalls. “I had no idea what we had won, but it sounded good.”
The next day, Sauve was on the phone with Ronald Prior, who led the research at Tufts. Soon, he was meeting with Prior in Boston, along with neuroscientists Barbara Shukitt-Hale and the late James Joseph, lead author of the 2003 book The Color Code: A Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health. It became clear they had a story to tell: that blueberries carried exceptional amounts of this health-helping thing called antioxidants. There was no guarantee that the message would resonate, but WBANA bet on it anyway. “We threw our hat into the ring with health,” Sauve says, “and invested most of our money in that area.”
Savvy promotion of the fruit was about to help usher in an era of health food obsession that we’re still living in today. No longer mere tasty treat or part of a balanced diet, blueberries would become known as cancer combatants, inflammation interceptors, defenders of cognitive function—each berry a nutritional Navy SEAL.
A superfood was born.
For anyone who grew up around the Down East area of Maine, wild blueberries evoke a cherished landscape and way of life. The roughly 38,000 acres of lowbush wild blueberry fields form pastoral patchworks that stretch to the horizon. With about 500 farms devoted to wild blueberries, they’re the leading fruit crop in the state. “People have long memories here of raking when they were kids and earning money for their school clothes,” says Nancy McBrady, former executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission (WBC). “It’s very much a part of Maine’s heritage.” These berries thrive almost exclusively in the rough, acidic glacial till along the coasts of Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. Their shallow, resilient rhizome roots can survive fires and, unencumbered by weeds, trees, and other competitors, will slowly fill out over years or decades. Wild blueberries aren’t really planted—they’re unleashed and managed.
Savvy promotion of the fruit was about to help usher in an era of health food obsession that we’re still living in today.
While wild blueberry acreage and farm count has shrunk in recent decades, improved crop management has steadily increased the total pounds of berries produced and sold. “It has gone up astronomically as far as the production of fruit, both for wild and cultivated,” says David Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine (and the man who sent Sauve the AgResearch article). “We’re producing more blueberries than we’re eating, but we just have to get more people to eat more wild blueberries, or blueberries in total.”
In 1971, the quasi–state agency WBC was formed, funded via a self-imposed tax on blueberry farmers with the mandate to “conserve and promote the prosperity and welfare” of Maine’s wild blueberry industry. While WBC mainly handles crop research, a large part of its budget is funneled to WBANA, which covers marketing and advertising for both Canadian and U.S. wild blueberries—and funding for health research that may support their marketing and advertising. “Promotion has very much been a springboard for the research,” McBrady says.
While WBANA was keen to leverage the Tufts researchers’ antioxidant findings in 1997 to the specific benefit of wild blueberries, the organization eventually agreed on a promotional health narrative that could stimulate demand for all blueberries. It committed most of its budget to the project and decided that the scientists themselves would carry the story. “Very quickly, I began to look across the country—and in other countries—for researchers that were involved in blueberries and found a number of them,” Sauve says. These researchers came from a range of fields, including neuroscience, cardiology, gerontology, and oncology. Conveniently, their work could speak to the health potential of blueberries, lending critical credibility to the nutrition-focused marketing push. While similar association groups exist for other fruits and now market on the same health research–related grounds, wild blueberries were leaders in making this connection in the public’s mind.
In August 1998, these blueberry-interested researchers, together with representatives from WBC, WBANA, and Maine’s larger blueberry growers and processors, gathered for the inaugural Wild Blueberry Research Summit. Eventually dubbed the Bar Harbor Group after the picturesque town in Maine where they meet, it’s an influential club—Steven Pratt, MD, co-author of the hit 2003 book SuperFoods RX, which is credited with mainstreaming the term, attended one of the group’s earliest meetings. Maybe you’ve caught one of the other members on Dr. Oz, singing the praises of cancer-fighting blueberries.
But while WBC is focused on Maine wild blueberries and WBANA works to support berries from Canada and the United States, the first taste of marketing success—perhaps surprisingly—came from Japan.
Maybe you’ve caught one of the other members on Dr. Oz, singing the praises of cancer-fighting blueberries.
In 1997, Sauve’s advertising partners in Japan connected him with a local eye doctor who was offering powdered blueberries to his patients. This partnership helped lend practical credibility to WBANA’s marketing: armed with a recently published study on blueberries conducted by nutrition specialist Wilhelmina Kalt, the group made the rounds at industry trade shows in Japan and interacted with the press to drive a health message focused on the fruit’s potential vision-related benefits. The data suggests that this approach worked. USDA records show some 1.3 million pounds of frozen blueberries moved from the United States to Japan in 1995; in 2000, totals reached 11.3 million. Fresh berries sold to Japan in the same time frame jumped from approximately 50,000 pounds to 3.1 million.
Domestic success was close behind. In July 1998, WBANA and its advertising partners ran a full-page ad in a special edition of Health with a colorful chart and simple language trumpeting blueberries as number one in antioxidants among fruits and vegetables. In 1999, Prevention published a multipage spread on the subject with the headline “The Miracle Berry.” Sauve also says the popularity of smoothies starting in the 1990s was a real game changer—the fact that smoothies are so often associated with blueberries is largely the result of cross-promotional marketing efforts focusing partly on the antioxidant story.
It’s tough to pin an entire industry’s trajectory to one set of marketing strategies, but there’s no denying the growth. In 1998, Maine alone produced about 63 million pounds of wild blueberries; in 2000, that number nearly doubled to 110 million. And, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which used numbers from USDA’s Economic Research Service, U.S. per capita consumption of the fruit grew 599 percent between 1999 to 2014.
Still, all of this was accomplished without much messaging from anyone as to what antioxidants actually do.
Wild blueberries have a lot going for them, in terms of branding. They’re a glorious shade of blue, they come with a great set of stories, they’re full of enough complex molecules to stain your fingers when you squeeze them. But berry crop sales are a competitive scene, and the market for antioxidant-rich foods has grown crowded. It might be said that, to some extent, wild blueberries are now suffering from their own success—and demanding new marketing tactics. “You look around, and lots of foods talk about antioxidants,” says McBrady, executive director of WBC. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the most special thing right now.”
The goal for food advocacy groups like WBANA is to elevate their product, and nowadays it seems any food that’s high in antioxidant activity wants to label itself a superfood, even if the definition of that term is unclear. “Superfood is a marketing term. It has no nutritional meaning,” says author and NYU professor Marion Nestle. In her book, Unsavory Truth, she dives into the history and strategy behind nutrition marketing and the broader nutritional picture that it often overlooks. “The key to eating healthfully is to eat a wide variety of these foods so their nutrient contents complement each other,” she says.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to the research backing blueberries’ health claims—indeed, there’s a wealth of compelling evidence. In work led by Shukitt-Hale, one of the Tufts researchers Sauve first met, for example, rats showed improved memory and cognition after a steady diet of the fruit. Bits of the pigmented compounds found in blueberries were even found in their brains, suggesting the berry’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and access areas relevant to learning and memory. More recent tests involving human subjects suggest that the compounds can help lower blood pressure and reduce degradations in mobility in older adults. Seeking to set wild blueberries apart from cultivated blueberries, researchers are looking into the specific health implications of the former’s extra density of phytochemicals, defensive compounds credited for their resilience to harsh climates. There is some dispute over whether the difference is meaningful.
Still, all of this was accomplished without much messaging from anyone as to what antioxidants actually do.
But much of the ballyhooed benefits of antioxidant-rich foods in general are tough to pin down. Research into the potential merits of antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene seem contrary to the findings of berry-funded research. There is even research to suggest that certain antioxidant activity can work against one’s health. Eventually, use of the assay ORAC to upsell antioxidants became so widespread that in 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped publishing results from the test “due to mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance” to definite effects on human health. (For what it’s worth, Sauve thinks the USDA was reacting to misinterpretations first put forward by unscrupulous raisin salesmen.)
For its part, WBANA and its marketing partners are evolving strategies by shifting focus to anthocyanins—the fruit’s complex pigmented compounds—and their anti-inflammatory potential. Promoting flavor, which was cast aside in the ’90s to focus on the health story, is also coming back in style for wild blueberries as “real,” “raw,” and “wild” foods gain market traction. WBANA’s new target is the fast-growing “lifestyles of health and sustainability” consumer category, a much sought-after demographic first described by sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Anderson. These consumers don’t just prefer healthier food—they also seek food that is high-quality, minimally processed, and environmentally sustainable. That means appealing to broader wellness sensibilities, as well as certain benefits suggested by research.
But perhaps consumers should just focus on the value of eating more whole fruits and vegetables in general. As Shukitt-Hale will attest, the case for wild blueberries is not as cut-and-dried as saying that antioxidants are good for you. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she says. “There’s something about the synergy of that whole food and the compounds in it. So, when people say, ‘What is the active ingredient,’ I hate that question, because I don’t think there is an ‘active ingredient.’”
If you’re looking for antioxidants, after all, you can find them in all kinds of fruit. “The nutrient claims for blueberries are not specious; they are just overhyped,” Nestle says. “Blueberries are nutritious and delicious. What blueberry trade associations are doing is simply marketing.”
Ultimately, the reason for eating blueberries—or any fruit or vegetable—probably shouldn’t require a scientist’s explanation. “It never occurred to me to think about the phytochemical composition,” says Nestle, who grows her own cultivated blueberries at home. “I just love the way they taste.”
Doug Bierend is a Brooklyn-based writer interested in food, fungi, sustainability, technology, media, and culture.