Can cranberries take over the world? The US industry is dependent on it

Short-term gains in agriculture can blind players to the bigger picture. Farmers increase production when crop prices go up, resulting in surpluses, which push the costs down. The example of cranberries is a good one.

After adjusting for inflation, the cranberry price increased steadily at 6.3% over almost 25 years before the mid-1990s. In 1996, cranberries reached $65 per barrel. This led to record crop yields and an oversupply of cranberries in the following years. In 1999, cranberry producers were earning only $17.20 per bar.

How can a product so uniquely American and tied to holidays break through the mainstream? Take the humble soybean as an example.

From animal feed to human staple

In the 1970s, most Americans considered soybeans to be a nonfood product. It was such a stigma that soybean oil had no choice but to be labeled Vegetable Oil.

A representative of the American Soybean Association told me recently that “it was viewed as cow food, not people food.” 

This is what I call the bridging path, and it has worked for dozens of foods, including tofu dogs, edamame fries, soyburgers, and cricket gumbo. It is more important to integrate new foods into current meal patterns and eating habits than to try to replace century-old recipes and practices overnight.

This pathway is a long-term strategy, as bridges are usually the way to a destination. You first get people to eat a certain food by extending it into another, more acceptable food. You then get them to eat the food straight. My American Soybean Association representative explained to me, “Now,, it’s all about making edamame cool and normal.” This includes getting cooked edamame in schools and into the mouths and hands of trend-makers, such as teen social media personalities and video bloggers.

All seasons berries

You might not want to eat cranberries directly. You’ll understand why if you’ve tried one fresh: It’s pucker-tart. Currently, they’re almost exclusively associated with holiday dinners. We could eat them at any time of the year and every day for two meals.

The cranberry sector could learn from the soybean industry and use the term “meat filler” – although I’m certain the marketing wizards who came up with the name “Craisins” would have come up with a better word. Growing up in rural Iowa, I can confirm that there is an overwhelming desire in certain parts of the United States for meat to be served at every meal or something that looks like it. I’ve heard chefs praise the properties of cranberries as a meat extender: they add a rich red color, a sweet-sour zing, and moisture to hamburgers.

The cranberry industry is working hard to get its product included in the National School Lunch Program as a meat extender. They could satisfy USDA requirements for “meat/meat alternatives,” but they might also be able to represent an entire serving of fruit or even more. Remember that a pizza with two tablespoons of tomato sauce qualifies as a vegetable, according to Congress. Proanthocyanidins, anyone?

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