U.K.: Sunburst apple volume triples in second season

September 28 , 2018

From the pages of Produce Business UK

Starting in October, Sunburst apples, born and bred in the UK, will be back threefold, for its second season as high demand for the fruit reveals itself through consumer research.

Sunburst apples will triple in supply from 500 12kg boxes in its first season to 1,500. Grown at NIAB EMR, a horticultural and agricultural research institute at East Malling, Kent, the apples will be distributed exclusively at Waitrose for the second season running, with a supply that is scheduled to be sold in the next four to five weeks.

The apples first launched as part of Waitrose’s seasonal Halloween product range last year. Their orange skin and red flesh, looking like little mini-pumpkins, were branded as Waitrose Seasonal Sunburst Apples, available for a limited time, and priced at £2.50 for a pack of four.

“In terms of taste panels, Sunburst has performed extremely well, coming top of the last three tasting panels it was involved in,” Martin O’Sullivan, group business development director at Richard Hochfeld Ltd., tells Produce Business UK. “Consumers love the flavor and texture of the apple. The variety fits the increasing demand from UK consumers for homegrown sweet apples, with a firm, crunchier texture.

“Consumer research for the Sunburst variety was conducted by Kantar Worldpanel and other specific projects carried out across the country, including customer panels, which highlighted the increase in demand. 

According to O’Sullivan, “the high levels of anthrocyanins in colored flesh makes the apple super healthy. This has a natural place amongst consumers who have enjoyed the rise in superfoods like blueberries in recent years. We think its taste and texture compare favorably with any other apple, and the consumer feedback from last year’s crop was excellent. This season, the appearance and taste of the fruit is even more consistent.”

A unique apple

Technically speaking, Sunburst is a cross between Gala, lesser-known traditional garden variety Falstaff and the purple-fleshed Pink Pearl. Its orange skin and sweet taste fits the increasing demand from UK consumers for homegrown sweet apples. It is also exceptionally juicy, with high sugars.

O’Sullivan explains that Sunburst’s unique package of taste, appearance and heritage will appeal to a wide range of consumers and that the variety also stands out from the crowd for other reasons. “Unlike other pink- or red-fleshed varieties, Sunburst was bred first and foremost for taste, not the color of its flesh,” he said.

When it comes to categorizing the fruit, Sunburst apples are considered a British top fruit, a definition that O’Sullivan clarifies to Produce Business UK as “selecting parent apples, crossing them, trialing and planting. All done in the UK.”

Professor Mario Caccamo, managing director of NIAB EMR, added that Sunburst’s potential was immediately obvious. “Plant breeding is about choosing the right parents to cross. It can then take over 25 years until a new apple variety reaches the marketplace. Fortunately, we sped up the process once we saw Sunburst’s unique coloring and were delighted this variety, with a true ‘wow factor’, has hit the supermarket shelves only 14 years from the first cross,” he said.

Sunburst is managed in the UK by Scion Fruits Ltd., a joint venture between Richard Hochfeld Ltd., a large supplier of apples and pears for the retail sector, and Frank P Matthews, a UK nursery that supplies the farming sectors with new top fruit varieties. 

In terms of what the future holds, the company Scion Fruits Ltd. has big plans for the apples. “We have already planted a lot more trees in Kent and Herefordshire and by 2024, we expect to have 200,000 trees in the ground in Europe,” O’Sullivan explains.  

“Ours is the only programme focused on British-bred top fruit, and we have 35 varieties at various stages of development,” said O’Sullivan. “Sunburst is hopefully the first of many new British apples we will introduce to the market in the near future.”

When Produce Business UK asked O’Sullivan about the process involved in the apple development itself, he said, “We are looking at early apples, mid-season and late. Our focus is on flavor and taste first. We will be introducing apples as they complete the rigorous testing required before becoming a commercially sold apple.”

The science behind it

NIAB EMR is an internationally renowned plant science organization that conducts research on horticultural crops and their interactions with the environment. With more than 100 years traditional plant breeding and growing experience, combined with the latest in genomics-assisted breeding, NIAB EMR works with industry consortia across the world in the selection, trialing, evaluation and commercialization of new material. 

In the United Kingdom, there are about 3,000 different types of apples. According to English Apples and Pears Ltd., six varieties will be in season for the month of October, joining the Sunburst variety:

  • Cameo, a crunchy and juicy apple originally discovered in America and now grown in England. This fruit has hints of honey and citrus.
  • Cox, known for its balance of sugars and honey aroma.
  • Egremont Russet, a distinctive apple with light brown, russet skin and small cream freckles.
  • Royal Gala, a stripy red skin apple with a crisp bite and a sweet flavor; Rubens, with a sweet hint of melon;
  • Zari, first created in Belgium, its bright red stripes over a green background, has a firm, crunchy texture.

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