Sunsweet: Prunes are fashionable in Japan but face image problems in US

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Japan's high regard for prunes gives bakers ammunition to liven up a flat bakery sector, says Sunsweet Ingredients
Japan's high regard for prunes gives bakers ammunition to liven up a flat bakery sector, says Sunsweet Ingredients

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Prunes hold bakery promise in Japan because they are fashionable and highly regarded for digestive health properties, but there are challenges in the US given the fruit’s image problem, says Sunsweet Ingredients.

US-based Sunsweet Ingredients has a lot of business interest coming from international markets like Japan, Latin America and Northern Europe, according to Tom Leahy, president of Sunsweet’s global sales agent CropSource International.

Speaking to at IBIE 2013 in Las Vegas, Leahy said culinary interest was driving popularity across Europe and health awareness was the main driver in Japan.

The fruit carries health, and particularly digestive health, connotations in Japan, he explained.

“Awareness level is quite high and prunes can be found in every retail store across Japan. That’s why we see the opportunity on the ingredients side – we know people eat them, they understand them and have the awareness level and it’s something new for the bakery and confectionery channels to try,”​ he said.

Leahy said the ingredient offered bakeries in Japan the chance to liven up a flat market and offer something different to consumers while also hitting on health points.

A young, trendy fruit

“Interestingly enough, a fairly high percentage of young Asian women suffer from digestive problems and that’s how the prune industry first started gaining traction. It started to become popular as a snack food or just a regular dried food and since then it’s expanded,”​ Leahy said.

The fruit can be found in dried snack form, but prune concentrate and plum juice are also popular in the country.

“Prunes in Japan are considered a young woman’s food, which is actually the opposite to the US. They are really fashionable in Japan,”​ he said.

While use of prunes as a bakery ingredient in the country remains a fairly new concept, Leahy said the potential is huge because of these connotations among a younger generation.

Battling a US generational image problem

The opposite can be seen in the US, he said, where the prune has a “negative image”​, particularly among the older generations.

Bakers using prune as an ingredient even list it as plum because of this, he added.

“Everywhere else in the world it is acknowledged as ‘prune’ and is a highly regarded food. But here, there’s still a perception that it has an image problem,”​ he said.

Use of the ingredient is more of a challenge in the US, he said, because a majority of the developers in the baking industry were of the age that viewed prunes with scepticism. “It would be more successful if all the developers were 30 years old,”​ he said.

For the US market, use of prunes (or plums) in bakery are used predominantly for their functional aspects – in reducing calories, fat and sugar, Leahy said.

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