Fresh Produce Beckons Americans

US eating more of it than ever, as variety and convenience spur consumption

AMERICA'S appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables keeps right on growing - as does the availability of new varieties of fresh produce. Americans ate 102 pounds of fresh vegetables per capita in 1989, up from 72 pounds in 1970, says Bill O'Neil, spokesman for The Packer, a trade publication. In 1970, Americans ate 79.5 lbs. of fresh fruit apiece, compared with 96.5 lbs. in 1989, a figure growers expect will double by the year 2000.

On display at last week's United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association convention and exposition here was some more encouragement: a dozen or more new kinds of lettuces (including mache, frissee, baby red mustard, baby red oak, baby green oak, and baby romaine), a handful of new mushrooms, and more than a dozen new squashes, along with fresh herbs, more Asian foods, and even what one company calls Slim Line vegetables (from mini-carrots and onions to leeks and cactus leaves).

Exhibits ranged from displays of edible flowers and organically grown produce to packaging materials and harvesting equipment. There were gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance.

Forecasters at various workshops spoke about trends in convenience, consumption, and marketing: Miniature produce shows promise, say observers. ``Baby'' vegetables are gaining familiarity with consumers, who are buying more of them. Watch for smaller heads of lettuce, and smaller melons. Pitless cherries, oranges sold pre-peeled, seedless watermelons, and fast-cooking potatoes are also on the horizon.

Asian appetite is biggest

Experts also see room to expand in terms of consumption. Americans may be eating more fresh produce, but they have barely sat down at the table compared to other parts of the world. Canadians eat 500 lbs. of fresh produce per capita per year. The figure for Western Europe is 600 lbs., and Asians eat some 700 lbs. of fresh produce annually, according to Mr. O'Neil.

Convenience is still a top priority, with 48 percent of households favoring quick foods, in a survey reported by Judy Riggs of Vance Publishing. For those consumers there will be greater availability of pre-cut, pre-trimmed, pre-diced fruits and vegetables such as sticks of carrots and celery, sliced mushrooms, flowerets of broccoli and cauliflower, slices of melon, chunks of fruit, and sliced pineapple in a bag. A salad mix and a chop suey mix are already on the market. The latter contains celery, napa cabbage, bok choy, and carrots ready to stir fry.

Exotic produce was popular during the booming 1980s, but how will it fare in a recession? Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's Inc., America's premier marketer and distributor of specialty produce, says there is still a prominent place for such foods.

``In a recession, when consumers are hesitant to buy new homes and expensive cars and are eating out less, we'll be looking for ways to pamper ourselves at home,'' she says. ``People want a continuing variety in fruits and vegetables for cooking at home.

``Americans are very savvy today,'' Ms. Caplan continues. ``They've traveled the world and tasted new foods. They're willing to try them at home but they want them in the supermarkets so they won't need to go to ethnic neighborhoods to find them.''

Frieda's, begun in 1962 by Caplan's mother, was a pioneer in the specialty produce business.

``Although my mother has introduced many new products, her first and greatest discovery was with kiwi fruit which she introduced single handedly to the world'' in the early '60s, says Caplan:

``It was not easy trying to sell the strange, brown, fuzzy fruit with the name `Chinese gooseberry.' But my mother had 240 flats of the fruit to sell. She learned that cutting the fruit in half, showing the bright green center, made it appealing. Then she sent her profits back to New Zealand and asked them to provide material with recipes and uses of the product for the shoppers.''

Today Frieda's is known not only for its quality, but also for its professionally tested recipes, its folders, brochures, and informative labels. Leaflets tell how to prepare vegetables for Oriental cooking, how to choose mushrooms such as dried cepes, fresh enoki, honey mushrooms, and others. ``We give ideas for ways to incorporate exotic fruits into daily menus and we even have a guide to microwaving new and unusual produce,'' Caplan says.

Caplan also sees an increasing demand for different kinds of produce as the ethnic population of the United States grows: Chinese, Japanese, Chileans, French, Indians, Koreans, and Mexicans will want the special foods of their homelands. ``Seaweed, jicama, lemon grass, cactus leaves, kim chee, cherimoyas, shallots, are some of the new specialties that will become available,'' she says.

Labels persuade shoppers

Labeling new foods is important, she says. ``If you're shopping and you see a shriveled, dark purple, egg-shaped thing among the bananas and oranges, of course you won't buy it. But if it's labeled: `Passion fruit: Ripe when wrinkled,' [you may] give it a chance,'' she says.

What shoppers look for when shopping for fresh produce is indicated in the 2,000-household survey reported by Ms. Riggs of Vance Publishing. ``Shoppers consider six major topics when choosing fresh items,'' she explains: taste, flavor, freshness, ripeness, appearance, and condition. ``Price is important, but not at the loss of quality,'' she added.

Why do people say they're eating more fruit and vegetables?

``Diet and nutrition head the list of reasons people give for eating more fresh vegetables,'' according to the survey, says Riggs. Other reasons are snacking, concern about calories (more than half those surveyed), and dollar value. Just under half the survey's respondents said they were eating more produce because there are more kinds available.

Kiwi fruit was most often named as the newest food tried last year. Other new items included snow peas, alfalfa and bean sprouts, baby vegetables, and fresh herbs. Asian apples, star fruit, and pomegranates were considered new fruits.

Increasingly, fresh produce is imported from such regions as Latin America and the Caribbean Basin. But there's a countertrend:

``A few years ago we saw exotic produce being imported, but today many of those foods are grown here in the United States,'' says Sidney Feinstein of RLB Foods in West Caldwell, N.J. ``Today we don't need to import radicchio from Italy or kiwi from New Zealand or yellow and purple peppers from Holland since they're being grown here....''

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