When Keith Harris and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus Whit Jones first crossed paths two years ago, the meeting was anything but ordinary.
Harris, CALS assistant professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences, and Jones, a 1982 horticultural sciencegraduate and retired Extension agent, had gathered with other scientists, as well as Jones’ business partner and 1987 CALS horticulture alumnus Ron Cottle of Cottle Farms in Faison, to discuss the potential for a new family of muscadine products.
“We were talking, and before I knew it, Whit got out a really high-horsepower blender and proceeded to make smoothies out of whole grapes,” Harris said. “I thought it would taste bitter, but I was pleasantly surprised that when you blend the entire grape, it’s actually very good.”
According to Harris, Jones simply replied, “I know.”
Before retiring from his post in Cooperative Extension, Jones discovered that powdered muscadine nutritional supplements were very effective in relieving his muscle and joint pain.
“After that, I knew the chemicals in the seeds and skin worked,” he said. “So I had the idea to take the whole grape and grind it down, seed and skin and all. I’d like to transform the way people consume muscadines.”
Jones got his hands on a very powerful blender that could pulverize an entire frozen grape. So he froze 250 pounds of grapes from a local grower’s muscadine harvest in late 2009 to test the idea of a muscadine smoothie.
“When I grind these fresh grapes, most people say they like them,” he said. “And they can’t believe that all I’m doing is blending them with water. There is no sugar, nothing else added.”
Muscadines boast high antioxidant properties and have been dubbed a super-food in fighting cancers, diabetes and inflammation. They’re also very high in protein and fiber.
“It’s the perfect food,” Jones said of his smoothie. “It has all of these incredible nutritional benefits and tastes good.”
His crusade to develop a muscadine smoothie gaining steam, Jones turned to Harris for help in early 2010.
After their initial meeting, Harris and his team began brainstorming ways to get the product from farm to market.
“As food scientists, we have to think about everything from how to store the fruit after harvest to the best way to process it into something useful,” Harris said. “Food science is essentially food business. After processing, we also have to investigate packaging, shelf stability, how long the nutrients stick around, the venue for the package and the audience.”
Dream became a reality
In fall 2011, Jones’ dream became a reality, in the form of a shelf-stable bottled smoothie called Muscadine Time.
Success has been steadily coming. Cottle Farms harvested their first muscadines in 2011, and volume should increase substantially over the next two years, Jones said.
He and Ron Cottle have contracted with U.S. Foodservice to distribute whole, frozen muscadines to Port City Java, and they’ve partnered with a Canadian grocery chain to sell fresh muscadine grapes in 2012.
Jones also has met with representatives from the Carolina Panthers football team, who have expressed interest in incorporating frozen muscadine grapes into the team’s diet next year.
Cottle Farms soon will begin operating its own bottling line in Duplin County. Other muscadine products such as popsicles, ice cream, pie filling and baby food will be investigated in the future, Jones said.
Jones praised Harris as “a crucial link in the chain.”
Harris and his team specialize in understanding the health-related properties of foods, and they also examine how processing affects the product, considering everything from appearance to nutrient retention.
“There is a tendency to believe that processing is 100 percent negative in terms of its effect on nutrients,” Harris said. “That’s not always the case. In some instances, processing actually can improve the body’s ability to access nutrients.”
One of Harris’ master’s students, Amanda Draut, is conducting research on the affect of microwave processing on nutrient retention in muscadine purees.
“Through Amanda’s work, we’ve found that many of the nutrients in muscadine grapes stand up very well to even very harsh heat processing,” Harris said.
Another of Harris’ master’s students, Sanja Cvitkusic, is conducting a human clinical trial examining the effects of muscadines on blood sugar control in normal versus overweight individuals.
“Sanja’s study represents another way of looking at this overall effect of the product on human health … and a much more important way, because it involves real people,” Harris said.
All of the grapes used in both Draut’s and Cvitkusic’s studies have come from Cottle Farms.
The researchers are just beginning to examine the product’s effect on athletic performance and its ability to help the body recover from exertion.
The bottom line on these projects, Harris said, is simple: help the growers.
“To be intimately involved in this process and see it evolve from an idea to a product on a store shelf is very cool,” Harris said.
“We want to be sure that everything we do is benefitting farmers,” he said. “Our role is as adviser to them, to make sure that at each step of the process we’re guiding farmers or producers the right way. That’s the purpose of the land-grant mission, to benefit the state of North Carolina. That’s why we’re here.”
(To get some idea as to what North Carolina growers are facing in trying to market their muscadines, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/marketing-mess-north-carolina-muscadine-growers).