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Fruit recreated

New combinations fit for the most refined palate

from Fortaleza

EDUARDO CESAR E WIKIMEDIAWould you like a diet pineapple, with 40% fewer calories than a normal pineapple? Or a piece of mango, already peeled and still with the smell of mango, protected by an edible film made from mango pulp? What about an even yellower chip than those made from potatoes, which is made from orange or pawpaw pulp? And to drink: would you prefer a probiotic cashew juice – similar to a probiotic yoghurt, but fruit-based – or a fermented cashew drink, the color of which is reminiscent of white wine, with a taste of cider? Many new Brazilian fruit-based innovations are maturing in the laboratories of Embrapa Agroindústria Tropical [Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation – tropical agroindustry] and at the Federal University of Ceará (FUCI) in Fortaleza. It is the result of the work of teams operating on various fronts at the same time, from microbiology to  consumer testing.

To show one of the new products in the final development phase at Embrapa, chemist Edy Sousa de Brito puts on the table two pitchers of bacuri juice, a fruit from the northeast of Brazil that has yellow peel and white pulp. “Try it,” says Edy, from Alagoas, who has been living in Fortaleza for 10 years, as he pours a little juice into a glass. It is tasty, but fairly thick – it must be great in ice-cream or creams. “Now this one,” and he offers the other version: equally tasty, but fluid, liquid, a lot more attractive than the first. “It’s enzymatic treatment,” he explains, “that gives this fluidity and retains the marvelous taste of bacuri.”

Industrial chemist Gustavo Adolfo Saavedra Pinto, also from Embrapa, worked for six years until he found the most suitable combination of enzymes that would remove just the viscosity of the bacuri juice. It was not enough for just him and his team to consider what they had done was great. In sensory tests carried out in a large room at Embrapa itself that has six individual areas, on two occasions 100 consumers who had never tried bacuri juice before, rejected the initial formula and Pinto had to review his choice of enzymes. The tasters only approved it on the third test, with another combination of enzymes, like pectinases, which break down pectins, the carbohydrates that make liquids thick.

It was not enough. In December 2010, Gustavo and two researchers from his group, Andreia Aquino and Janice Lima, went to Belém, in Pará, to test the formula they hoped would be the last one, with another 100 tasters, this time regular consumers of bacuri juice. “They gave lower marks than the tasters from Fortaleza, but they approved it,” says food engineer, Deborah dos Santos Garruti, who looks after sensory analyses – the color, aroma, taste or texture of new juices or fruits – with a minimum of 50 tasters every time.

In another laboratory, Henriette Azeredo and Delane Rodrigues prepare layers of fruit pulp – the one made from acerola makes red discs on a transparent sheet, from acerola and alginate, an algae extract used as a thickener. Mango, minimally processed or in pieces, prepared by Ebenezer de Oliveira Silva, received a covering made from a mango and alginate puree – and the tasters liked the combination. “This layer substitutes the peel and protects and maintains the mango’s aroma,” says Henriette. “Some fruits, like mangos, make great coverings, but others, like acerola, need more pectin to make them stronger.” Using a new machine that should begin functioning shortly in a roomier laboratory, she intends to make strips of fruit one or two millimeters thick that can be used as snacks. She sees it as a way of producing fruit bars and if all goes according to plan, the pineapple ones, for example, will dispense with consumers having to peel them, get rid of the peel and tidy up the sink before they can start eating them.

SILVESTRE SILVABacuri, for fluid juices, if treated with enzymes SILVESTRE SILVA

When William Sallum, president of the Brazilian Association of Producers and Bottlers of Nectars and Juices (Abrasuco), found out about the innovations that are being developed in Fortaleza, he considered them to be “pretty specific and progressive.” They are also welcome in view of the competition among companies: “Different ways of adding value are very important for juice manufacturers.” Right away the research, which is linked to the National Institute of Tropical Fruit Science and Technology (INCT), whose headquarters are at the Federal University of Sergipe, is increasing the value of the fruits that fascinate Edy because of the generous quantity of vitamins and other important nutrients they possess and because they are sources of pleasure for all the senses – they are attractive, colorful, pleasant-smelling, tasty and pleasant to the touch.

This fascination is not something new. Portuguese explorer Pero de Magalhães Gandavo felt confused by all the tastes of the fruits he got to know when he lived in Brazil. Because he did not have photographs at his disposal, in his Tratado da terra do Brasil [Treaty of the land of Brazil], published in 1576, he had to describe things that were as strange as bananas, which “look like cucumbers, (…) grow on young, not very tall trees, (…) it is a very tasty fruit and one of the good ones there are in this land; it has a skin like a fig, which they throw away when they eat them” and something that may have escaped our eyes as natives, “within them they have something strange, which when cut them in half with a knife, or in any other part whatsoever, one finds in them a sign like the Cross” (the remains of banana seeds are remotely reminiscent of a cross). Centuries later, in 1968, Queen Elizabeth II visited Brazil and almost lost her composure when she tasted a bacuri ice cream.

Given so many possible flavors, Edy thinks it is unnecessary to encourage the consumption of fruit based only on its nutritional value. However, it was the abundance of antioxidants that changed the destiny of assai, which seemed condemned to never get beyond the boundaries of the Amazon. “Thirty years ago no one believed that assai would be a fruit that could win new markets,” says agronomist, José Edmar Urano de Carvalho, a researcher at Embrapa Amazonia Oriental [Embrapa Eastern Amazon], in Belém. “Many consumers are not worried about the taste, but how the fruit can contribute to improving their health.”

Driven by the pursuit of health or new flavors, or trying to serve modern habits, like a lack of time and patience for peeling an orange, these innovations are feeding an expanding consumer market. In 2006, Coca-Cola bought the Del Valle juice manufacturer for the equivalent of US$470 million, indicating its interest in quickly acquiring a strong position in the Brazilian ready-to-drink juice market, which is worth around R$250 million a year. A lot of fruit might still become juice. Every year worldwide planters harvest some 800 million tons of fruit, mainly bananas (103 million tons), watermelons (93 million) and grapes (65 million). After China and India, Brazil is the world’s third largest producer of fruit, annually gathering some 40 million tons, of which 850,000 tons go to other countries, mainly in Europe, generating annual revenues of some US$800 million for the country. It is still highly concentrated, both geographically, since the State of São Paulo accounts for 45% of Brazilian fruit production, (mainly oranges for export in the form of juice), also few fruits are produced commercially on a large scale. Oranges (18 million tons), bananas (6.5 million), apples, pawpaws, coconuts, mangoes, melons, grapes, cashews, cocoa, pineapples, limes and passion fruit account for three quarters of the revenue generated in the sector.

The business and pleasure for consumers is likely to grow as the better known fruits acquire new uses and the less well known ones become more popular. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in March at least 30 people were lining up in front of an ice-cream parlor in a shopping mall that has revived the fortunes of part of the old port of Belém, on a bay with a view of the Guamá River. What was driving them (or rather what kept them in the line) was the desire to eat ice cream made from regional fruits with unique flavors, like the uxi. “Uxis used to be seen as a poor man’s fruit, but rich people always ate them, generally secretly because they were afraid of seeming inelegant : you have to eat them by chewing the pulp that is stuck to the stone,” says Carvalho. He is betting on the growing consumption of uxis, which in addition to their distinctive flavor, are rich in phytosteroids, compounds which it is believed help lower cholesterol. According to Carvalho, researchers from Embrapa have shown that the uxi tree does not take 30 years to produce fruit, as used to be said, but just 7, when grown from seed, or even fewer (4) when it is grafted.

SILVESTRE SILVAMurici, much to the liking of chefs SILVESTRE SILVA

Another fruit that Carvalho is betting on is the murici, which “smells like Alentejo cheese,” as Portuguese Gabriel Soares de Sousa noted in Tratado descritivo do Brasil, [Descriptive Treaty of Brazil] in 1587. According to Carvalho, the taste of the murici is reminiscent of soup. However, that might be an advantage, not a challenge. “This savory aroma has aroused the interest of great chefs, who are using muricis in sauces, meat stuffing and soups,” says Carvalho. Chefs are really looking at these exotic things. Scotsman Tom Kitchin was in São Paulo in May and went to the Central Market. He confessed to a reporter from the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper: “I’ve never tasted such sweet and juicy fruit as those from here.”

With so many different climates and soils, 827 different types of native or exotic fruit grow in Brazil; around 350 of them are typically Brazilian. In the North Region alone more than 100 species grow, many of which most Brazilians are not familiar with, like the bacabi, biribá, cutite, mangaba and sapota-do-solimões, which journalist and photographic reporter Silvestre Silva presents in a recently published book, Frutas da Amazônia brasileira [Fruits from the Brazilian Amazon Region] (Editora Metalivros, 280 pages, R$180). Like the French, who say they can eat a different type of cheese every day of the year, anyone who lives in Brazil can enjoy a new fruit every day, “without counting the varieties of each species,” observes Edy. He says that specialists from Embrapa are carrying out field assessments of 39 varieties just of acerola, “some of them almost black with the amount of anthocyanin they contain,” the pigment that makes the color of the fruit´s skin vary from light red to purple.

Various problems are preventing new flavors reaching more Brazilians. “Bacuri and piquiá trees, among others that produce edible fruits, have multiple uses, have been cut down for the last 500 years and are very scarce,” says Carvalho. “Replacing previous stocks is a slow process.” Regional fruits, he emphasizes, need to be genetically improved to have more pulp and be cultivated like the cupuaçu, which just 10 years ago only grew in the forest. Today, much of the fruit still comes from being gathered in the wild and for this reason is expensive compared with fruit that is already being treated agronomically. “The harvest of the bacuri, which has 10-12% pulp, coincides with that of the apple, which is 95% edible and cheaper.”

If the new juices or fruit in pieces pass the initial tests, researchers from Embrapa will set to work expanding the scale of production, along with specialists from the Department of Chemical Engineering from the Federal University of Ceará. In one of the chemistry laboratories, as the result of a problem raised by the team of Sueli Rodrigues, from the Department of Food Engineering (melon juice fibers were blocking the pipettes) the chemical engineer from São Paulo, Fabiano Fernandes, found that an item of high powered, low frequency ultrasound equipment could improve the quality of juice and of fruit itself.

The vibration caused by the tip of the ultrasound immersed in a solution with pieces of fruit gives rise to turbulence that ruptures fibers, breaks down cells and creates microchannels down which the water and small soluble molecules, like sugars, flow out. The result is a juice with 40% less sugar and more homogeneous than that made with the same fruit that has not undergone this treatment. Sueli puts on the laboratory bench a glass with melon juice that has just been treated with ultrasound and another that has not: the first remains uniform, while the latter decants in just a few minutes. Using another type of ultrasound device, the two teams also managed to reduce the time it takes to dry pineapple and yellow melon pieces by up to 25%. From this diet fruits can be produced, which retain their sweetness, because they are later sweetened with stevia, a natural, no calorie sweetener. “Two minutes in a stevia bath are enough to compensate for the loss of sugar,” says the researcher.

Using enzymatic treatment, Sueli’s team also made prebiotic pineapple, melon, jambo, sapoti and seriguela juice, with no-calorie sugars, called oligosaccharides. These sugars feed the bacteria that live in the intestine and, in turn, produce fatty acids, vitamins and nutrients that are beneficial to the human organism. Another type of sugar, probiotics, contains the bacteria themselves: the lactobacilli, as in fermented milk. “This is an alternative for those who do not want to or cannot drink milk,” argues Fernandes. The only difference in taste is perhaps a small (and agreeable) increase in acidity in some of them. “With fermentation,” says Thatyane Vidal Fonteles, one of the group’s researchers, “the pH of melon juice falls from 6 to 4, heightening the taste and making it difficult for the bacteria that might alter the taste of the juice to grow.”

Two other researchers, Niedla Nascimento Alves and Francisca Diva de Almeida, are developing powdered pineapple, orange, cashew and melon juice, with lactobacilli that remain alive even after the liquid juice undergoes a dehydration process at 130º Celsius, similar to that used in making milk powder. “The microorganisms that survive drying now need to survive storing and then rehydration,” says Niedla. “Our intention is to make instant juice, but it still does not dissolve well.”

In February, Susana Saad, a professor from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP), was in Fortaleza and considered the work being done at Embrapa and in the UFC to be “extremely interesting” and was impressed with the integration between the basic and applied research. “Various professionals are talking to each other, and each one has his or her own focus,” comments Susana, who is seeing how she can collaborate with the groups from Fortaleza. She is one of the three organizers of the book, Probióticos e prebióticos em alimentos – Fundamentos e aplicações tecnológicas [Probiotics and prebiotics – Fundamentals and technological applications] (Livraria Varela, 672 pages, R$143), which shows how to make ice-cream, milk and cheese more nutritional. Increasingly attractive because of its health benefits, prebiotic and probiotic food are likely to produce annual business in the order of US$160 billion worldwide.

“We’re producing, organizing and sharing knowledge,” says Edy. Also this year, he and his team intend to release a database for access via the Internet of the volatile compounds that form the aroma and taste of fruit. Initially, there will be some 200 compounds in the database of five fruits: cashew, pineapple, acerola, mango and passion fruit. “The identity and acceptance of fruit depend a lot on aroma, since the palate only notices savory, sweet, acid and bitter,” says Deborah. The smell of passion fruit comes from around 120 compounds; cashew releases around 80. In bananas, which apparently have no smell, more than 30 are found.