Shaji – seabuckthorn – the unknown superfruit

Shaji (sea buckthorn; Hippophae rhamnoides) is an indigenous fruit of North China. China is good for 90% of the world output of this fruit. It has been used as an ingredient of various foods and beverages in China for some time but is still not very well known abroad.

Shaji is regarded as a medicinal herb in TCM, but has been put on the official list of ‘herbs that can be used in food and medicine’ in 1987. Medicinal ingredients, including TCM, are not allowed to be used freely as food ingredients, but plants on that list are exempted from that regulation. The same applies for other super fruits like the yangmei (yumberry) introduced in another post.

Shaji have a high content of vitamin C, about 15 times greater than oranges. The fruit also contains high contents of carotenoids, vitamin E, amino acids, dietary minerals, β-sitosterol and polyphenols. Seabuckthorn oil is a good source for omega-7 fatty acid.

Shaji fruit can be used to make pies, jams, wines, etc. Fruit drinks were the earliest seabuckthorn products developed in China. Shaji berries are edible and nutritious, though very acidic (astringent) and oily, unpleasant to eat raw, unless ‘bletted’ (frosted to reduce the astringency) and/or mixed as a juice with sweeter substances such as juice of other fruits.

Sea-buckthorn berries combine nutritious agents usually only found separately. Its list of vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids reads like the label on a pack of multi-vitamin pills. All of these components are classified as natural anti-oxidants, which form a vital part of the body’s defence system.

Main Biochemical Contents of Seabuckthorn Oil

Contents Pulp oil (mg/100g) Seed oil (mg/100g) Residue oil (mg/100g)
Vitamin K 110-230 54-59
Vitamin E 206.9 171.0 300-600
Carotene 2.0-4.0 10-80
Carotenoids 30-250 300-870 1280-1860
Protein 95.55 7.06
Total acid 10.7 37.6
Total sterol 1093.6 720.6
Unsaturated fatty acids 87.4 % 66.8 % 70 %
Saturated fatty acids 11.8 % 38.8 %  –
Oleic acid 20-25 % 20-25 % 33 %
Linoleic acid 37.0 % 5-10 % 4 %
Linolenic acid 27.6 % 2.1 % 5 %
Unsaponificable matter 1-3 % 0.5-2.5 % 2-5 %
Total flavonoids 0.55 %

Since the discovery of the nutritional value of sea-buckthorn, hundreds of sea-buckthorn products made from the berries, oil, leaves, bark and their extracts have been developed.

China has become one of the largest producers and consumers of sea-buckthorn products in the world. Fruit drinks were among the earliest sea-buckthorn products developed in China. They have rapidly gained a reputation as both a satisfying drink and a nutritional beverage that enhances stamina and vitality.

Though seabuckthorn has been grown for many years in India and China, and its healthy qualities are well known, but it languishes behind other superfruits. While it is gaining increased recognition, seabuckthorn is lagging behind other so-called superfruits, such as açaí.

This is possibly because it has just slipped under the radar: applications are growing in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry, and it is likely that the fruit will gain in popularity in the next few years.

The reason for China’s domination of the fruit is that China has long used the plant for soil and water conservation purposes. They typically grow in dry, sandy area, are tolerant of salt in the air and soil, and demand good sunlight.

The common seabuckthorn is by far the most widespread, with a range extending from the Atlantic coasts of Europe right across to north-western China. In western Europe, it is largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from outcompeting it, but in central Asia it is more widespread in dry semi-desert sites where other plants cannot survive the dry conditions.

The female plants produce soft and juicy orange berries 6-9mm in diameter, rich in vitamin C (average 600mg/100g and sometimes up to 1 500mg/100g). Some varieties are also rich in vitamin A, vitamin E and oils.

The berries contain about 56-70% juice. However, the fruits have some drawbacks as far as processing goes. First, the shrubs are covered in thorns, which makes picking difficult. The fruit falls off the branches of its own accord at temperatures below -20°C, but obviously this method of natural harvesting will only work in very cold regions.

Entire branches can be removed, frozen, and then shaken to remove the fruits, but obviously this is damaging to the shrub. Mechanical harvesting, developed in the Baltic states, involves shaking the branches without freezing, but this method leaves half the berries unharvested and the shrubs can only be harvested every two years, so an effective annual yield is only 25%. In countries where labour is cheap, hand-picking remains the most effective way of harvesting seabuckthorn berries.

Must be blended

The other disadvantage is that pure seabuckthorn juice does not taste very nice. It has to be blended with other fruit juices in order to be palatable. It is also very high acid, so some form of sweetener (or a very sweet fruit juice) must also be added unless the juice is present in very small quantities in a blend. It lends itself well to being blended with pear juice, at a ratio of 30%. Seabuckthorn juice has a freezing point of -22°C, so it remains liquid even in sub-zero temperatures.

General consumer interest in seabuckthorn began about three or four years ago. China is ramping up its output of seabuckthorn. The total area in China under seabuckthorn is now a colossal 2.13 million hectares (ha), according to China’s National Administration centre on Seabuckthorn Development.

Of this total, 667 000ha are ‘wild’ trees and 1.5 million ha are cultivated, representing 90% of the world’s total population of such trees. The main purpose of seabuckthorn cultivation in China, as in India, is to control water and soil erosion and improve the ecological environment. The country is planting an additional 113 000 new seabuckthorn trees every year, as part of the Chinese government’s program to increase production of the fruit and its derivatives. The government is also funding schemes to develop new varieties which will require less or no watering during growth and which will produce much improved fruit yields.

Most seabuckthorn trees are planted in poor environments such as gullies and river beds. Fruit yields are very low. Under normal conditions, seedling plants begin to fruit in the third year and fruits will be harvested in the fifth year. Average yields are 0.75 mt/ha.

There are some 200 companies in China making seabuckthorn products, such as oils, pharmaceutical items and cosmetics. However, juice processing plants were first established in the 1980s, and plants to add the juice to other beverages appeared in the 1990s. In 2004, China produced about 10 000 tonnes of seabuckthorn juice.

Because of its healthy connotations, China sees it as an ideal fruit for organic production, and future development of seabuckthorn will move in this direction. Seabuckthorn is a key component in many health supplements and is now attracting attention as a component in juice drinks.

Shanxi-based enterprises unite

Shanxi province, China’s main producing areas of sea-buckthorn, set up an industrial association in Taiyuan, capital of the province, hoping to unite local enterprises to build their brands. This move came as most of the province’s sea buckthorn processing, production, and sales enterprises are facing operational difficulties. They hope to cooperate and adjust their industrial mode for future development. Statistics show Shanxi has more than 400,000 hectares of sea-buckthorn shrubs, accounting for nearly 70% of wild sea buckthorn across the country. Due to difficult harvest conditions and a long ramp-up time of 6 to 8 years buckthorn is a relatively expensive raw material.

However, in Shanxi, the fruits of sea buckthorn are commonly sold as fruit juice. The sea buckthorn industry is still at a very preliminary level as it has faced a series of problems, such as lagging scientific research, a lack of high-end products, small scale, poor marketing, and differentiated production standards. Other factors such as Internet sales and strong competition have squeezed the market share of Shanxi’s sea-buckthorn production companies. With its establishment, the association will help integrate industrial resources, give full play to their technology and talented people, and connect companies, bases, and farmers to form industrialization development modes.

Product overview

In this section I am introducing a few seabuckthorn-based products made in China to indicate how the fruit is currently used as a food ingredient.

Fine powder

Pure superfine seabuckthorn powder, void of any additive. Producer: Jinliang Food Technology Co., Ltd. (Shanghai).

Tea

Seabuckthorn tea produced by Wanmei (Perfect) China, Ltd. (Guangdong).

Ingredients: fructose oligosaccharides, seabuckthorn powder, black tea powder, citric acid, malic acid, Luohanguo (fructus momordicae ) extract, vitamin C, sucralose, lemon flavour,  ethyl maltol

Dried fruits

Dried seabuckthorn fruits, produced by Shihutang (Xinjiang). Consumption: put a few dried fruits in a cup of tea or glass of spirits (baijiu).

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

 

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