According to the National Mango Board, mango consumption quadrupled in the U.S. from 1980 to 2008. Tropical fruit marketers have their own theories about which item in the category will take off next.
“Papaya demand is increasing, definitely moving from novelty to mainstream,” said Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla. “Papaya has gained such consumer recognition that there are Droid social gaming networks, retail clothing stores, artwork, and even fabric named after it.”
Of course, not everyone agrees which papaya is the best.
The most common variety sold in the U.S. is the small strawberry papaya, while the larger maradol is popular in Mexico and Central America.
However, Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce, which markets product under the Melissa’s brand, said the red Caribbean papaya, which was introduced to the U.S. market from Belize a few years ago, has the characteristics of a strawberry papaya but is much bigger like a maradol.
“You get more papaya for your money,” said Schueller, who added that red Caribbeans are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and potassium, are available year-round, and have a longer shelf-life than many other papaya varieties.
Ostlund said volumes of red Caribbean papayas had been down for seven months because of damage from tropical storms last year. However, she said Brooks expects new plantings to be ready for harvesting this summer.
Steve Hayworth, commodity manager for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., said the Hawaiian papayas the company ships to both coasts on a year-round basis have higher brix levels than other varieties.
“Recent bountiful crops and good overall quality over the last couple of years has made the product more available,” he said. “Retailers and foodservice companies are experiencing year-over-year growth on the product.”
While some other products have not yet developed the wide appeal of mangoes or papayas, marketers are excited about their potential. Schueller said more recent introductions to the U.S. market, such as mangosteen, have helped add excitement to the category.
Mangosteen was first allowed into the U.S. in 2007. Schueller said the fruit, which is touted for its flavor and health benefits, is a good source of antioxidants. World Variety imports the product from Taiwan, Thailand and Puerto Rico from mid-April through August.
“The price is fairly high, $3-4 a piece in some cases,” he said. “The price is going to be pretty high again this season because there have been some weather issues. It takes a few years for people to get an understanding of particular fruits — how to use it and when it’s available.”
President and chief executive officer Karen Caplan said mangosteen is the No. 1 item sold on the website of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.
Caplan and Schueller agreed coconuts are another item increasing in popularity.
“Coconuts are very hot these days for their nutritional benefits, especially the young Thai coconuts and the white coconuts, which are younger and contain more of the beneficial coconut water inside,” Caplan said.
Schueller also said he expects demand to be higher than supply for dragon fruit, which World Variety sources from California, Florida, Vietnam in an August to December program.
Oh, and what about those mangoes?
“In the mango category, tommy atkins is the most well known,” Schueller said. “It’s available year-round, and it has the most beautiful exterior, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best tasting mango. People are starting to understand the different varieties.”
Schueller said yellow ataulfo and green keitt have less fiber and better flavor than the more common red and green tommy atkins, and consumers are beginning to understand that color is not an indicator of ripeness with mangoes.
Ostlund said mainstream retailers initially started tropical programs to connect with Hispanic and Asian shoppers.
“This appearance in supermarkets spurred upscale dining and food show chefs to try and to enjoy the exotic flavors these fruits add to dishes,” she said. “Food blogs, websites and specialty food magazines weren’t far behind.
“New reports show that Americans are always interested in new flavors as long as they are not too far out, and tropicals nicely fit that bill.”