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By Jennifer Strailey - 12/01/2012

From heart-healthy headlines to new, flavor-packed products, citrus is one of the juiciest categories in produce.

Women shoppers looking to boost their health with a basketful of superfoods may be interested to learn the latest news on citrus fruits.

According to research that appeared in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association earlier this year, women who eat the most citrus fruit have a 19 percent lower risk of having a stroke than women who eat the least.

The study, of more than 69,000 women, attributed the preventive health benefits of citrus to a subgroup of flavonoids called flavanones, which are found in citrus juices. The researchers involved in the study recommended eating more citrus fruit, rather than drinking more juice, as a serving of juice contains more sugar.

The good news about the heart-healthfulness of fresh citrus doesn't end there. According to Bartow, Fla.-based Florida Citrus, oranges contain hesperidin, a phytochemical associated with lower blood pressure, as well as pectin, a soluble fiber that may help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Citrus fruit is also a terrific source of antioxidants. Florida Citrus further notes that one medium orange or half of a medium grapefruit (154 grams) provides 100 percent or more of the recommended daily value for the antioxidant vitamin C.

California's New Navel

The eagerly awaited California navel season is now underway, but this year anticipation is heightened for the launch of "The New California Navel."

"A number of years ago, we used to move 2 million-plus cartons of California navels a week around the holidays," recalls Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual (CCM), a nonprofit grower-based trade association in Exeter, Calif. "But recently, we had seen that volume subside."

When CCM realized California navels were not only facing fierce competition from Spanish clementines, but also weren't drawing the repeat business they once had, the organization embarked on a study that sought to uncover where its adoring fans had gone.

Interestingly, the research revealed that baby boomers had one idea about how a navel should taste, while younger generations had another. "Baby boomers compared California navels to apples and bananas, rather than other citrus. But the next generation had grown up with an abundance of citrus choices from South Africa, Australia and Spain," explains Nelsen.

Younger consumers, the research found, were hungry for fruit with a more complex flavor profile. Based on the feedback, the industry decided to overhaul its maturity standards for navel oranges. Where it had previously focused on the acid-to-sugar ratio when determining fruit quality, the new standards examine a broader spectrum of criteria such as flavor profile, aroma, color and juice content.

If sales at the Philadelphia-based Fresh Grocer chain of eight supermarkets are any indication, the new California navel is a hit. "California navels are a really big driver," says Dave Barto, produce supervisor. "They're basically selling themselves."

With the new navel, its expanded acreage and extended harvest season (October through July 4), as well as California's increasing production and distribution of mandarins, Nelsen finds the entire industry reinvigorated.

"We've recaptured the consumer's imagination with regard to California citrus," asserts Nelsen. "We think the new California navel is going to create more sales and customer traffic for California citrus purchases before Christmas." To help seal the deal, CCM has developed point-of-purchase and marketing materials to give consumers and retailers a better understanding of its new standards.

Smaller Citrus, Huge Appeal

The trend in smaller produce with dynamic packaging that appeals to kids and their parents is here to stay. One of the newest introductions in this category is the result of an unprecedented partnership between Stemilt and Sunkist.

Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt has sold its Lil Snappers line of apples for the better part of two years. More recently, it added pears. The line extensions were successful, and to keep the brand momentum going, Stemilt approached Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist with the idea of partnering on a Lil Snappers navel.

In mid January, 3-pound resealable standup bags of Lil Snappers Sunkist navels will be available for retail distribution. To support the introduction, a new Lil Snappers Sunkist website featuring kid-friendly recipes, health and nutrition information for parents, and more is slated to launch the first of the year.

"I can't tell you how many people have told us they're looking for smaller fruit," says Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt. "People are also so into convenience. They love that they can grab the Lil Snappers bags with a handle. It gives people the impulse to buy."

Pepperl notes that sales of fruit packaged in the Lil Snappers bags are typically 15 percent to 20 percent higher than fruit sold loose. "There's a volume uptick and a dollar uptick," observes Pepperl. "It's not too often that you get both."

Florida Sets Sights on Seedless

The Sunshine State is entering the seedless mandarin game, and sweet and crunchy — yes, crunchy — results are expected in as soon as three years, with full production in five, according to Darrell Genthner, director of marketing and market development for Winter Haven, Fla.-based William G. Roe and Sons, parent company of Noble Worldwide Sales.

"Florida is one of the last regions that will grow a seedless mandarin," notes Genthner, adding that the hope is that retailers will embrace these new varieties as signature items.

William G. Roe and Sons is currently working on the cultivation of several proprietary varieties. "They are special for several reasons," Genthner says of the Florida mandarins. "They will peel more easily, and the taste and flavor will be very unique, with different flavor profiles by variety. Some varieties will actually be crunchy and juicy."

Florida already has two seedless mandarin varieties, the Early Pride and Tango, in the ground, but growers say it will be seven to 10 years before the next round of publicly funded varieties hits the market with significant commercial volume.

"We've recaptured the consumer's imagination with regard to California citrus."

—Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual

"Florida is one of the last regions that will grow a seedless mandarin."

— Darrell Genthner, William G. Roe and Sons