August 5, 2013
Cotton Candy Now Comes In Unique Package: A Green Grape
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
As healthcare experts continue to urge Americans to eat healthier, it only makes sense to produce a food that gives consumers the best of both worlds: junk food in a healthy package. That's what one food producer is trying to do.
While the texture may be amiss, the unmistakable taste is sure to make one reminisce about the good old days of eating those fluffy, pink weaves of sugar at the local fair or carnival. Of course, these globes of sugar may come as proof of concept people are looking to be healthier, but not ready to give up on the sweetness just yet.
Cain, a former scientist with the USDA who now leads research at International Fruit Genetics in Bakersfield, California, told David Pierson of the Los Angeles Times the fruit industry is "competing against candy bars and cookies."
In order to get people to move a little farther away from that cookie jar and a little closer to the fruit bowl, aggressive breeding and branding techniques are necessary. In such a competitive marketplace, fruit producers are constantly working on improvements to fruit in order to come up with the next best thing to junk food. Along with Cuties Clementine oranges and Honeycrisp apples, now come Cotton Candy grapes.
"People are looking for more flavor," Mark Carroll, senior director for produce and floral at Gelson's Markets, which will carry the Cotton Candy grape, told LA Times. "Once they get hooked, they want more no matter what."
Cotton Candy is just one of the sweet snacks being produced by Cain and IFG. The company has more than a dozen special varieties of grapes under its belt including a dark purple Sweet Sapphire, a deep red Sweet Mayabelle and a rich green Sweet Sunshine. However, along with unique varieties, come unique prices.
In grocery stores around the country, typical varieties such as the red Flame Seedless can cost as little as 88 cents per pound. The new Cotton Candy grape could command prices of $6 for just one pound of the sweetness.
Designer fruit is nothing new. LA Times reported the craze was kick-started in the late 1980s when one fruit grower created the plum-apricot hybrid known as the pluot. The new crispy variety took nearly 20 years to develop and when it hit store shelves it took off like wildfire. The development of the pluot inspired fruit growers and farmers everywhere to invest in ambitious breeding programs to boost their sales.
While this cross-breeding program has seen sweet success, fruit growers make it clear it is not to be confused with genetically-modified organism (GMO) engineering. Cross-breeding and hybridization is a centuries-old technique where -- in the case of grapes for example -- pollen is extracted from male grape flowers and carefully brushed onto female clusters of a target variety. Once this part of the process is accomplished, then a lot of waiting comes, followed by replanting and then repeating the process. Such a process can take years or decades to come up with a specific hybridized brand.
But the end result is worth every ounce of energy put into it. And it is continuously needed if fruit growers want to keep competitive in the market. To stay competitive, growers must keep developing new tastes.
And as a plus for Cain and other grape growers whom have produced some sacredly sweet varieties, nutritionists seem to also be on board.
"You would have to eat about 100 grapes to consume the same amount of calories in a candy bar," David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said in an interview with Pierson.
Cain, who has been researching grape and raisin varieties for the USDA since the 1970s, jumped to the private sector in 1987 when US grape consumption exploded, thanks in part to newly-developed varieties of grapes. In 2001, Cain helped start IFG, according to LA Times.
Shortly after beginning his role as lead researcher at IFG, Cain tasted a grape at a trade event that would drive him to produce the Cotton Candy variety that is now ready to ship to stores shelves. By melding the flavor of the eastern variety he encountered at the trade event with the qualities of California grapes, Cain was able to produce a unique grape for market.
Cain signed a deal with the University of Arkansas researchers, the team behind the eastern variety of Concord grape, and began cross-pollinating theirs with his in 2003. Cotton Candy was patented in 2010 and the first batch of grapes is set to be harvested in as little as a week.
While Cain admits he doesn't usually get worked up over such milestones, he said Cotton Candy has his juices flowing. He believes this signature flavor will be unlike anything consumers have had before, apart from the cotton candy from the local fair.
"It's going to be introduced slowly," Cain told Pierson. "Whether it will be a niche grape or start a revolution is hard to say. What we're hoping is it will do for grapes what all these new varieties have done for fruit like apples."