Q&A: Could white strawberries become a new berry category?
When Dr. Vance Whitaker, Professor of Horticulture and strawberry variety developer at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at the University of Florida, learned about white strawberries in Japan, he realized the product's growth potential for markets around the world.
In 2012, after a friend in Japan sent him a few white strawberry seeds, he germinated them and crossed them with the red Florida strawberry.
Essentially, Whitaker moved the white color trait into the background of a conventional red Florida strawberry, to get something that could be grown in the winter and early spring and in different places in the world with the commercial characteristics to be produced at a large scale.
This past year, for the first time, there were over 300 acres dedicated to white strawberries in Florida.
“Once our Florida growers in the trial said ‘This variety yields enough and has enough quality to create the product’ we released the white strawberry,” Whitaker told FreshFruitPortal.com.
This became the first white strawberry variety to be commercialized in the U.S. market; the Florida Pearl.
How did this white strawberry variety come to be and what motivated the idea of breeding it in the U.S.A?
I learned about this variety from breeders in Japan who were at the forefront of developing this type of project. Then seeing the very high price of the fruit in their market I realized that white strawberries have existed in the wild, and in commerce in different places, sort of as a hobbyist type of industry, with varieties that have a very soft, small fruit.
I then realized that in the United States and Europe, and most of the world outside of Japan, white strawberries are not available to the average person. The varieties that were available were either adapted specifically for Japan, and bred and grown there, or they were not suitable for large-scale production anywhere else in the world.
So, I think that’s what makes this unique because it's not so much that white strawberries didn't exist, it's just that they weren't widely available. So the Pearl variety has a similar size and shape to a red strawberry with enough yield to be produced commercially and made available in grocery stores to the average person, and it's the first time this has happened.
Is there anything in particular in the production process that made it such a ‘niche’ product and reduced it to only one market (Japan)?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that the demand for red strawberries in the U.S. is still increasing a lot. Therefore, I don’t think there was a need in the market to introduce something new.
In the berry market as a whole, which has been growing so much and is so successful, I don’t think anyone was actually looking for a new berry category.
We just wanted to try something different, the pineberry, and if in the end, we can create add a 5th berry to the berry basket, apart from red strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry, then it may create an opportunity for our growers to expand their markets a little bit more.
The expansion in the acreage of white strawberries this past year is explained by how profitable the segment is. Some of our growers are choosing to invest in the product, and it is providing some benefits because it is a distinct product, both visually and in terms of flavor (it tastes and smells a bit like pineapple).
This has the potential of expanding the strawberry category as a whole.
Why is the cost of white strawberries higher than that of the conventional red?
It's a combination of the fact that there is not a lot of it available and because it is a new, special type of product that people are interested in, and they see it as a niche, high-value product.
People in general are all willing to pay a little bit more to try it.
I’ve fed these to a lot of people over the last few years and I found that some people like them better than red strawberries, so I think those will continue to buy the product over time.
What response is expected from consumers? A white strawberry that tastes like pineapple is so unconventional that it might set some people off.
Initially, everyone recognized that people are not going to know what this is, so there's gonna have to be some marketing to educate people on the fact that, for example, this is not an unripe strawberry, it's actually a different type of strawberry.
Companies in Florida who were the first to start growing this invested a good amount in marketing through social media and media outlets as a way to educate the public about this new variety.
Getting somebody to try it for the first time is a challenge, but once they do they get it.
On the positive side, it has started to become more of a thing in social media, Instagram, and TikTok, which allows the word to spread more organically.
It's going to be fascinating to see what happens during the next couple of years: Will it continue to grow? Will there be a ceiling because of the price? Can it grow as much as the organic side?
These are all outstanding questions because we are just in the first years of the product.
Primarily, consumption is focused on the southeast U.S. for now, even though there is some acreage in California(around 100 acres) with Wish Farms, it still hasn't penetrated through the whole country.
Challenges of growing white strawberries vs red strawberries
Producing white strawberries is more challenging than red strawberries.
However, it can be grown using basically the same production systems, and that's the beauty of it, because it is a commercial strawberry too.
Challenges come in the harvesting period because the visual cue for being ripe is not as obvious. With red strawberries of course, you see the red majority and know it's ripe.
However, for the white, there are two cues when the fruit is ready to harvest, one is that the seeds on the outside turn from green to red. The other is that there is a pink blush that develops on the white background.
These cues are much more subtle, so harvesters have to be trained.
The other thing is that the amount of pink blush can change with the environment, there's more pink blush in warmer weather, so harvesters have to adapt depending on the time of the season.
Another challenge about the white fruit is that if a leaf or a stem rubs over the surface of the fruit, it can cause bruises on the fruit, particularly when there is wind. Those types of bruises you usually don't notice on the red fruit.
At the end of the day, you are going to get more unmarketable fruit in the premium category for the white berry than the red. That's another reason for the price difference because yields are going to be a little bit lower in the end.
Considering these challenges, what are the incentives for producers to switch to this variety or dedicate more of their land to growing it?
I think it goes down to the fact that it is a high-value product so that's really what can benefit the grower.
Also, if this product grows and spreads over time, retail chains will demand more of it, then it might be like organic fruit where the retailers expect a supplier of strawberries to supply both conventional and a percentage of organic products.
Therefore, in order to be competitive, growers need to have both, so I think there may be a competitive advantage of having white strawberries in your portfolio as well.
Growers must also consider the difference in retail price between a conventional strawberry and a white one. On average, a 16 oz package of red strawberries costs $3.50, in contrast, white strawberries are sold in 10 oz single-layer packages for $6.00. So essentially, the price is more than twice by weight.
The single-layer packages are also an advantage because it preserves the fruit better and prevents bruising, especially for white strawberries which are soft so it's good not to have them stacked on top of each other.
So we are talking about a premium product?
So, what comes now for breeders, what should the market keep an eye on?
The main thing to share from my perspective as a breeder is that we are developing improved varieties of the white strawberry. The initial variety released called Pearl-109 is just the start and this coming season we have a new one called Pearl-166, and it has a few improvements mainly for the grower because the fruit is a bit firmer so it will be easier to harvest. It also has better disease resistance and a more intense flavor, so we think that will be an advantage as well.
In the future we are looking at other selections to hopefully produce a day-neutral variety meaning that it can be grown in places like northern Europe, making it available year-round.
The main message is that we are trying to improve flavor and harvesting conditions. We know there is a lot of improvement to be done over time because this is a new thing for everyone, but there is definitely a lot more coming under the Pearl name.