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Wisconsin man's Berry Bits take the pucker out of cranberries
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Wisconsin man's Berry Bits take the pucker out of cranberries

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Cranberries seldom appear on the dinner table except for Thanksgiving. There's an obvious reason for that — their bitterness is so intense that even mounds of sugar can't entirely disguise it.

Now, a Wisconsin entrepreneur said he has come up with a way to make cranberries much more likable. Jonathan Smith, who has a Ph.D. in horticulture from UW-Madison with an emphasis on cranberries, found the inspiration for his invention, Berry Bits, at a cooking convention when he asked chefs about cranberries.

"They all said they love the flavor but hate the bitterness and the need to add lots of sugar, which always affects recipes," Smith said. "It was impossible to eat them without adding sugar or putting them in bakery."

So Smith, a co-owner of Alpine Foods in Nekoosa, came up with what he said are pucker-proof cranberries. Berry Bits can be eaten on their own, like cherries, without adding sugar.

The process for making Berry Bits is chemical-free. The method removes the berries' acid while retaining the juice. Three patents are pending.

Wetherby Cranberry Co., of Warrens, a Dane County Farmers' Market vendor, is one of three Wisconsin cranberry growers who sell to Alpine Foods. Wetherby's Nodji

VanWychen said interest in Berry Bits is growing quickly.

"People are interested in the health benefits and they tell me they like the taste much better (than traditionally processed cranberries)," she said. "We sell a lot to students who throw them on breakfast cereal or salads, put them in smoothies or ice cream or they just eat them plain as snacks."

Brennan's Markets in the Madison area and Sendik's Food Markets in the Milwaukee area also sell Berry Bits, $3.50 for a 12-ounce package.

Diabetics are among the target market for the product, Smith said, adding that his Berry Bits are a lower-sugar, lower-calorie alternative to another cranberry product, Craisins.

"Craisins are like candy," he said. "One pound of Craisins contains 13 ounces of sugar; 100 grams of Craisins have 375 calories, while Berry Bits have 73 calories, with a scant amount of added sugar in some versions of the product."

Smith said another growing market for Berry Bits is producers of healthy entrees, for whom Alpine makes customized savory-flavored Berry Bits. Smith also is experimenting with infusions for his cranberries, using blueberry juice, white grape juice, curry, Thai basil, a Jamaican spice blend and even chocolate marshmallow.

Berry Bits are not shelf-stable, so they are sold frozen (they can't be sold online). They can be thawed and refrozen indefinitely.

The bits can easily be used in Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, said Christine Sohns, who develops recipes for Alpine Foods; www.alpinefoods.net. Simply cook in the microwave until they are the desired consistency, with no other ingredients needed, she said.

And bakers have also begun discovering uses for Berry Bits, Smith said, noting that some bakers have made the drive to Alpine Foods' Nekoosa plant to buy the product by the case or pallet.

"They like them because they don't dry up and get leathery in bakery," he said.


Berry Bits cranberry nut bread

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ⅔ cup orange juice
  • 1½ tablespoon grated orange peel
  • 3 tablespoons shortening
  • 1 egg, well-beaten
  • 1½ cups Berry Bits
  • ½ cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt in medium bowl. Stir in orange juice, orange peel, shortening and egg. Mix until well-blended. Stir in Berry Bits and nuts and spread evenly in pan. Bake 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on a rack 15 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely.


Cranberry fluff-freeze

  • 4 cups Berry Bits (chilled or frozen), divided
  • ⅔ cup crushed pineapple, drained
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped
  • ½ cup sugar (optional)
  • 8 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)
  • 8 ounces whipped topping

In large mixing bowl put 3 cups Berry bits, pineapple, nuts and sugar. Put in a blender and add softened cream cheese, blending in small pieces at a time. Blend at low speed, stopping several times to stir. Fold mixture, adding remaining 1 cup Berry Bits and whipped topping. Refrigerate 4 hours before serving.


Chicken Berry Bits salad

Salad

  • 1 chicken breast, cooked and shredded
  • 3 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 cup pineapple chunks
  • ½ cup carrots, diced
  • 4 scallions, diced
  • 2 tablespoons pickle relish (optional)
  • 1 cup Berry Bits
  • ¼ cup sliced smoked almonds

Dressing

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Alternative dressing

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon sweet curry powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine salad ingredients. Toss with dressing of choice and garnish with almonds

— Alpine Foods recipes

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