John Tentomas travels the world searching for ripe summer fruit.
The best is rushed to the nearest processing plant to be washed, peeled, cut, diced or sliced before travelling through a tunnel of frigid air at -60C, where each individual berry or chunk freezes solid in less than a minute.
“Nothing captures ripeness and structure better than -60 in a freezer,” says Tentomas, president of Nature’s Touch. The process locks in the flavour and quality until you open the bag to make a smoothie, or pop a few pieces of frozen fruit in your mouth as a snack.
In his 19 years in the business, the chemical engineer turned frozen fruit guru has discovered that soil and climate impact the flavour of fruit just as “terroir” gives wine its character.
Though nothing beats a fresh Ontario or Quebec berry in season, he says Serbia and Chile are the world’s raspberry capitals, with the large amounts he needs to feed the growing market for frozen fruit. Chilean strawberries are another favourite. “They have the right mix of acidity in the soil and the way the sun hits the fields – it’s perfect.”
He also waxes enthusiastic about wild blueberries are grown in the acidic soil of northern Quebec forests, where little to no pesticides are needed. And he says British Columbia grows the best-cultivated blueberries in the world.
“I’ve tasted blueberries everywhere and ours are phenomenal,” says Tentomas, who took his love of science to Dow Chemical after graduation and ended up in New York City in his late 20s as an industry manager, calling on big guys like Unilever and Proctor & Gamble.
Homesick for Quebec, he and his wife moved back to Montreal to start a family. The city’s port has long been an international trading mecca, and Tentomas was soon travelling the globe to improve the quality of frozen fruit used in French firm Danone’s fruit-bottom yogurt.
“I gained a lot of knowledge setting up contract growing and processing operations in North Africa, China and Latin America and breaking down the specifications for fruit, which appealed to my technical background,” he says. “I was on the ground – both my grandfathers were farmers in Greece – and it felt like I was home.”
By 2004, when frozen fruit appeared in attractive stand-up pouches with names like Europe’s Best (with no European fruit), igniting the smoothie craze, Tentomas decided he could do a better job and launched his own company. Costco remains a loyal customer, yet he still packages much of his fruit under the private brands of major retailers.
“Today 80 per cent of frozen fruit sold is private label,” he says. The market is so international, I recently bought a bag of frozen mixed cherries and berries sourced from Canada, Mexico, the U.S., Chile and Poland.
Since berries and other fruit bound for the fresh market are often harvested unripe to survive their long journey to the supermarket, frozen fruit buyers can pick up good deals when a surge of ripe fruit overwhelms the fresh market. Tentomas also buys fruit that’s too small or too big for picky fresh buyers, which puts extra money in farmers’ pockets.
He says working with farmers in poor countries such as Peru and Ecuador gives companies like Nature’s Touch a chance to raise families out of poverty, particularly women.
“The decisions you make on where you buy can have a huge impact,” he says. “A lot of suppliers we work with are medium-sized enterprises with people on the ground, not multinationals. As you see peoples’ lives improve, you know you’re benefitting farmers as well as giving healthy food to consumers. It’s still my inspiration.”
With frozen fruit commanding more space in supermarket freezers, thanks to millennial shoppers who love its ready-to-go convenience and long shelf life, the challenge now is to offer more new and innovative products.
Tentomas says mango is the fastest-growing fruit in his line-up, since he takes the guesswork out of ripening and cutting up expensive fresh mangos at home. Though the exotic fruit grows in many countries, he says the smooth texture and citrusy finish of Peru’s Kent variety appeal to North American tastes.
“We’re probably one of the largest buyers of frozen mangos in the world,” he says.
Frozen chunks of Hass avocado from Peru, which took more than three years to perfect, is another product that challenges the limits to what can be offered frozen, but Tentomas isn’t stopping there.
He’s working on freezing watermelon chunks, dragonfruit and acai berries. He’s also found a pear that “ripens and freezes beautifully,” and is considering plums and figs.
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “You have to build the technology and do it right, which takes time.”
The fruit-focused entrepreneur is also committed to tracing the path of every piece of fruit he sells from farm to freezer, so consumers know exactly where it comes from.
“The quality and authenticity of the fruit,” he says, “that’s what we see.”
Beyond smoothies: How to make the most of frozen fruit
Prep it: If you’re using frozen fruit in recipes, thaw at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes or pour contents into a bowl and microwave about 30 seconds. Once thawed, do not re-freeze fruit.
Top it: Spoon slightly-thawed fruit over yogurt, oatmeal or cereal. Throw frozen fruit into overnight oats and the texture will be perfect by morning. Add mango chunks to a green salad.
Bake it: Bring on summer year-round by baking pies, cakes and crisps with frozen blends like strawberry-rhubarb. Add frozen berries to cookies, muffins and energy balls.
Infuse it: Staff at Nature’s Touch load the infusers in their water bottles with frozen berries. “It’s great for people who don’t like to drink water, or for kids who just want juice,” says Woods-Briskin. “It’s also a good way to stay hydrated and not worry about added sugar.”
Baby food – Moms concerned about pesticides appreciate Nature’s Touch organic or tested-for-pesticide lines of frozen fruit and fruit-vegetable blends.
Smoothies – “The biggest trend is green smoothies and acai,” says Woods-Briskin, “You can counter the bitterness of acai with other fruit, like our Mango-Kiwi Fusion or Tropical Avocado Bliss, which combines avocado, mango, pineapple and kale.”
Avo it – Nature’s Touch launched frozen avocado chunks in Canada, ready to add texture and “good fat” to many recipes. Substitute for oil in dressings, try avo-chocolate pudding or swap for sour cream to make a dairy-free dip.
Check out all our delicious recipes here!
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