Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=80519
Story Retrieval Date: 5/20/2013 11:08:57 PM CST
Courtesy of Ian Crown/mangosteen.com
WASHINGTON – Far East travelers whispered about them. Queen Victoria fancied them. Soon American shoppers may see the “queen of fruit” in their produce aisles.
The United States welcomes Thailand’s mangosteens this year, meaning the elusive fruit will be available, though hardly affordable, in some grocery stores and high-end restaurants. Since January, the fruit has been sighted in New York, New Jersey, Texas and California.
Mangosteens, “Garcinia mangostana,” originated in Southeast Asia. They range in size from an apricot to an orange. The purplish tropical fruit is picked from trees and cut open to reach the white, fleshy heart. Those who have tasted it testify that the mangosteen is one of the most delicious on Earth.
Mangosteens test the patience and budgets of those in its small community of fanatics. The price of mangosteens can range between $11 and $35 a pound, limiting the possible American demand. But investors, farmers and distributors in both hemispheres are betting American shoppers will appreciate the taste.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized mangosteens for import from Thailand in July 2007—too late for the fruit’s peak harvest season—marking this April and May for the fruit’s big debut. But Kings Supermarkets in the New York metropolitan area are already selling offseason mangosteens.
“We wanted the mangosteens as soon as they were available,” said Paul Kneeland, vice-president of produce for Kings Supermarkets Inc.
Kings sells mangosteens for $3.99 each. Kneeland said the stores started selling the fruit in packs of four for $14.99, but shoppers hesitated to spend that much on a product they had not tasted. Kings started the year with 150 cases of mangosteens and has gone through more than 100 cases in about three weeks, Kneeland said.
Before 2007, the USDA banned mangosteens and other fruits from Thailand because of risks associated with fruit flies that could infect U.S. citrus crops. For the U.S. to allow the import, Thailand agreed to have its shipments irradiated—a technique that kills organisms with radiation. While many meat and produce products sold in the U.S. are irradiated without health concerns or taste loss, some consumers are still suspicious.
Whole Foods Markets Inc., for example, does not sell irradiated food. The company said it only sells non-irradiated, Caribbean mangosteens at one store in Manhattan. Mangosteens grown in the Caribbean do not pose a pathogen risk and do not need to be irradiated.
“The demand from my clientele has dropped since people know (mangosteens) are irradiated,” said Erwan Landivinec of New York-based distributor Baldor Specialty Foods Inc., which began getting Thai mangosteens earlier this year. Landivinec said he has seen a “huge demand” for mangosteens from specialty stores and posh restaurants. He estimated that mangosteens could sell for as much as $35 a pound.
For an alternative to irradiated mangosteens, Landivinec turns to Puerto Rican mangosteens, which Ian Crown is eager to supply.
Crown and his wife own Panoramic Fruit Company in Puerto Rico. For more than a decade, Crown waited for his mangosteen trees to bear fruit that he could sell on the U.S. mainland. Crown, who planted his first mangosteen trees in 1994, said the farm has not reached its potential with mature trees.
While Crown shipments are dwarfed by the Thais’, he said his non-irradiated mangosteens fill the niche demand in markets like Baldor’s. Landivinec said Baldor has received about 300 pounds of mangosteens from Crown’s company.
“They were sold out even before they landed,” Landivinec said.
The mangosteen’s allure dates back to the court of Queen Victoria who allegedly received the fruit from Sir Frederick Broome, the governor of Western Australia. The mangosteen can thank writer David A. Karp for its contemporary fame.
In 1994, Karp was in Puerto Rico when he contacted Crown about his mangosteen farm.
“His trees were just sticks in the ground at that time,” Karp said, “but each year I tried to contact him and finally, 12 years later, I wrote the story.”
Karp’s article appeared on the front page of the Dining section in the New York Times on Aug. 9, 2006. The story and the resulting “buzz” helped fuel the present demand for mangosteens, Landivinec said.
Other businesses have tried to profit from mangosteens’ alleged healing potential. Xango LLC, based in Lehi, Utah, ran into trouble with the FDA for touting the health benefits of Xango’s bottled mangosteen juice.
In a September 2006 letter to Xango, the FDA warned the company that it could not claim its juice “lowers blood pressure” or “helps in the prevention of cancer” without being subjected to FDA regulation as a drug. Xango, responding on its web site, said its product “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Xango sells 25 oz. bottles of mangosteen juice on its web site for $37.50.
“The research at this point is anecdotal,” Crown said of mangosteens’ health benefits. Mangosteen rinds are rich in cancer-fighting anti-oxidants, but Crown said there is little research on potential benefits.
“I cannot see it soon enough,” Crown said.
Crown, who lives in Connecticut and owns the domain www.mangosteen.com, began his quest in 1992 when he started looking for property to grow coffee. He soon realized that there were no commercial mangosteen farms in the Caribbean—a climate capable of sustaining mangosteen growth.
Today, Crown’s investment is slowly paying off. This year’s crop, which will peak in July, will be double the size of his 2007 harvest, Crown said. Competition from Thailand does not worry him, he said, because his fruit is non-irradiated and can be shipped “fresher” to the U.S. mainland. Crown estimated he could sell five tons in the U.S. with “no problem”—if only his production met that demand.
“As opposed to a car that loses value once you drive it off the lot,” Crown said, “the farm is worth more each year.”