The first -- and last -- encounter I remember having with freeze-dried anything was back in the late Sixties when General Foods' Maxim coffee commercials -- "so close to fresh ground you'd swear it perks" -- were on the airwaves. I don't know why exactly, but the product seemed cooler to me than, say, Folgers, and I bought a jar or two when I went camping in the Seventies. That was so long ago, however, that "actress and housewife" Patricia Neal could say, with no apparent irony: "I use Maxim because I think it's excellent. But, more important, my husband thinks so, too."
Somewhere during the decade, I decided Maxim wasn't so excellent after all and the rest of America apparently did, too. As best I can determine, unless you're in South Korea, you're not going to find it on the shelf today.
You can only imagine my delight when, after sampling the wares at all 34 booths at the 2011 Health & Nutrition Editor's Showcase in New York last week, I realized that fully three of them were offering four brands of freeze-dried fruit.
"Hark, a trend!" I declared on the spot. "A story to feed this hungry beast of a daily column." And after a week of nibbling samples, I've got to think there's really something worth writing about.
The three exhibitors I visited were: Crispy Green, which markets under the Crispy Green and FruitziO product lines, Crunchies and Funky Monkey. I later heard about a fourth brand, HappyMelts from Happy Baby, a line of freeze-dried yoghurt and fruit snacks for the little folk. Then, on an expedition to Costco, I came across Brothers All Natural Fruit Crisps. Clearly, these products are out there. Why then, had none of the couple of dozen people I talked to ever heard of them?
I did learn from an attorney friend who wrote a paper on the process in college that freeze-drying was originally developed in the pharmaceutical industry and has been in the public domain for some time. As he recalled, Maxim got trounced by Nestle's freeze-dried competitor, Taster's Choice, if for no other reason than the latter had a better name.
Several people recalled sampling freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., with varying degrees of gustatory delight/disgust. Come to think of it, I tried it, too, but had filed the experience away in the "done that" folder. It appears that the Internet now has its own Astronaut Ice Cream Shop. And why wouldn't it?
Robert M. McMath the founder of the erstwhile New Products Showcase & Museum in Ithaca, N.Y., with whom I wrote a book called What Were They Thinking? (for you? $14.82) tells me that he hasn't seen or thought about freeze-dried foods for quite some time. But, he emails, "I do know that Sean Hannity is pushing (on his radio show) some emergency food preparations in case there is a food emergency -- a bombing, earthquake, or whatever." Sure enough, so is Glenn Beck and this page on foodInsurance,com provides a nice primer on how the process works.
To be sure, there are some marketing challenges. I'm not a fan of the processed fruit chews, snacks and rollups that most of the big guys -- Welch's, Betty Crocker, Mott's, Kellogg -- offer, but I'd guess that most kids would find them sweeter and more palatable at first. But, as we pointed out Monday, new research shows that taste is, well, an acquired taste. Of the four varieties I sampled, I was partial to Funky Monkey bananamon, which had the texture and consistency of a thick chip. But that's me.
The point is that this is a presumably good-for-you (and good-for-your-kids) food that is shelf stable, nutritious and convenient.
"Because most fruit is composed of 50-90% water, the freeze-drying process removes the water resulting in a significant concentration of the bioactive compounds," says Gary Stoner, professor emeritus in the Department of Internal Medicine at Ohio State University. "In addition, because the freeze-drying is done under anoxic [without oxygen] conditions, there is relatively little loss of most constituents in the fruit."
Stoner was not familiar with any of the brands I sampled. But he says that the companies should be measuring the levels of fruit-specific compounds before, during and after freeze-drying to determine how well the active compounds are preserved. "This is important for the consumer to know," he says.
Stoner himself is involved with a company called BerriProducts that sells freeze-dried black raspberries and black raspberry powder that are grown in Oregon and purportedly have far greater antioxidant levels than other berries.
"We have more than 60 publications on the ability of this powder to prevent cancer in animals and in humans -- probably a stronger data base than any other freeze-dried product available," Stoner says. "Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to market in a big way, so our sales are modest. It would be nice if we could turn this around."
Sounds like a category waiting to happen.