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An Australian first, blood oranges processed for Sicilian customers

While Sicilian farmers are renowned as being the world’s premier producers of blood oranges, a title well deserved on account of the fact that most commercial varieties of blood oranges originated on the slopes of Mt Etna - the Sicilians now have some competition from down under.

Landing on the southern shores of Italy in December 2017 was the first shipment of concentrated blood orange juice made in Australia from Australian blood oranges. The shipment from Redbelly Citrus Pty Ltd, the largest supplier of blood oranges in the southern hemisphere, represents a whole new market for Aussie blood oranges, both in Australia and overseas. 

Director of Redbelly Citrus, Vito Mancini, said the vast majority of blood orange juice consumed around the world, as an ingredient or as a juice, is imported in the form of blood orange concentrate from Sicily, Italy.

“The world's major producers of blood oranges, centered around Catania in Sicily, have enjoyed the lion's share of the blood orange market worldwide and particularly, the blood orange juice concentrate market which is huge," he said. "Australian producers, who have focused on the fresh fruit and single strength fresh juice markets have never attempted to enter the concentrate market due to the scale and volume of the Sicilian trade. We always thought we could not be competitive with their products. However that all changed when we were approached by an Italian beverage manufacturer, Canditfrucht Spa, who visited our orchards in October and immediately placed an order for all of our remaining crop to be juiced and concentrated. Whilst we had received enquiries before from Sicily, none had proceeded to an actual sale."

As it turned out, the reason Italian juice companies scout for foreign blood orange juice concentrate in Australia was because the blood oranges available to them in Sicily have in recent years have not had high levels of the naturally occurring anthocyanin pigment which produces the distinctive red hue in blood orange products.

“We were told that in recent years, many Sicilian producers have turned over their orchards to newer Tarocco varieties that were highly prized in European fresh fruit markets," Mr Mancini said. "Unfortunately, Tarocco blood oranges lack the deep red crimson colour of the Moro variety, which happens to be the main variety of blood orange grown in Australia. As a result, suppliers of Sicilian blood orange concentrate have difficulty in supplying highly pigmented blood orange juices that their customers are demanding."

In what Redbelly believes to be an Australian first, blood orange juice was extracted, concentrated and containerised at a facility owned by Parmalat in Griffith NSW.

“We suddenly realised that despite the long distances and associated freight and import charges, we could be competitive with Sicilian product based on the levels of anthocyanin contained within our fruit," Mr Mancini said. "This could be a game changer for the Australian blood orange market as it indicates we can compete both overseas and domestically within the Sicilian product. As anthocyanin is an extremely delicate molecule, excess heat in the concentration steps could cause it to brown and lose its antioxidant properties. It was really a couple of hair raising days spent wondering whether the process would yield a good product. As it turned out, the product turned out a magnificent blood red colour.” 

The Mancini’s, who had previously travelled to Sicily and California to inspect their growing and processing techniques, were surprised to learn from producers that they met that they were aware of Aussie blood oranges. Mr Mancini puts that down to the levels of pigmentation in our fruit.

“One of the largest Sicilian juice companies showed us a chart which they grade blood orange by reference to the amount of anthocyanin," he said. "The chart starts at zero and went to one thousand mg/L of anthocyanin. Our Redbelly blood orange juice routinely hits 1300 mg of anthocyanin per litre. This is the reason why we get so much interest. Our anthocyanin levels in our juice was literally off their chart." 

The Mancini’s at Redbelly Citrus credit the high levels of anthocyanins found in their blood oranges to the growing conditions and climate of their orchards, which matches perfectly to the climate of Catania.  

“Sicilian blood oranges are known as the best blood oranges," Mr Mancini said. "Principally this is because blood oranges varieties are very sensitive to the climatic conditions in which they are grown. You don’t get the deep crimson colour that is distinctive of blood orange unless they are grown in areas that have climates that are similar to those found in Sicily. Days with warm daytime temperatures and cold night time temperatures are absolutely required. As a result, Sicilian producers have had the advantage of having varieties that are perfectly matched to their environment. Our goal was to grow blood oranges that were as good as those produced in Sicily. We would never have imagined that ten years on we’d be selling Sicilians our blood oranges. It feels like we just sold ice to eskimos!”

The main objective now for the Mancini’s at Redbelly Citrus is how to best approach the new market for blood orange concentrate. 

“There are some very large importers of blood orange concentrate in Australia and also big buyers of blood orange concentrate for use in juice blends overseas," Mr Mancini said. "If we capture a segment of that blood orange concentrate market, it will be a good outlet for fruit that would otherwise not be juiced or sold fresh. This will help the whole blood orange market in Australia which has seen increasing supply and reduced prices in recent years."

Not content with producing some of the reddest blood orange juice available, Redbelly will be working closely with scientists at the Queensland University of Technology in 2018 to quantify the anthocyanin content of Redbelly’s crop at various points during the season, and also, the effects of different processing and storage techniques on the anthocyanins.

Len Mancini, co-director of Redbelly Citrus, added: “We are aiming to devise growing, harvesting and processing conditions that maximise the amount of VitaminRed in our blood oranges. VitaminRed is mainly comprised of anthocyanins but also a complex mixture of other phenolic compounds that have amazing health benefits as we discovered recently when we published our blood orange health overview with nutritionist Kathleen Alleume in 2017. We aim to provide consumers with highly potent and active juice that don’t just look red and sound healthy, but actually provide all the health benefits that anthocyanins bring to a product.”

For more information:
Len Mancini
Redbelly Citrus Pty Ltd. 
Phone: +61 2 6964 3288

Publication date: 1/22/2018


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