Today they belong to the category often labelled as “superfoods,” but Dave Buck has always known that lingonberries were good tasting and nutritious.
“I grew up in the bush,” he said. “And I can remember when I was young, my parents would pick the berries, they’d juice them. We’d have juice at Christmas and then we’d have jam for the turkey… we used it all the time.”
Only he didn’t call the tart red berries by their Scandinavian moniker, he called them lowbush cranberries.
“They have different names right across the country,” said Buck, adding that in Newfoundland they’re called partridgeberries and redberries in Labrador. In other areas they’re referred to as mooseberries, fox berries, moss berries, whortleberries or beaverberries.
But what the retired Northern Forest Diversification Centre manager and others didn’t know until recently, was that lingonberries from northern Manitoba are even more potent than those grown in other areas.
“We are doing health benefit research, what health benefits there are, looking at the evidence, and finding what is the scientific basis for these health benefits,” said Chris Siow, a research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine, located at the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre in Winnipeg.
“What we found… when we compared them to those grown in Newfoundland, there was even more antioxidant activity in the Manitoba berries. And we said, ‘wow,’ because this is something we just stumbled upon.”
Touted for their high levels of vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, organic acids and other nutrients, lingonberries are grown commercially in Newfoundland and Labrador. Nearly 100,000 kilograms are harvested there each year, largely from domesticated European cultivars.
Manitoba has no commercial growers. However, the berries are native to northern Manitoba and are particularly plentiful around Lynn Lake, The Pas and Flin Flon. There have even been reports of lingonberries growing in the Churchill area.
For Alphonsus Utioh, manager of process and product development at the Portage Food Development Centre, the potential for lingonberries is clear.
“We can capture these health-promoting components by processing them into food products,” he said. “It can be processed into a purée for example… something that is used in ice-cream topping; it could be something that people could add to their yogurt in the morning, or people can just take it straight, because of the level of antioxidants,” said the food scientist.
Utioh has previously worked on the development of fruit bars and fruit leathers with individuals and organizations in the Lynn Lake area, but he said finding a constant supply of berries makes large-scale production difficult at this point in time.
“You have to have a consistent raw material to turn it into a commercial activity,” he said. That could mean growing the berries in an agricultural setting or finding a way to better organize the northern harvest.
The catch-22 is that people don’t want to invest in cultivation or intensive harvesting without knowing that someone is there waiting to buy and process lingonberries at the end of the day, he said.
“So far we have not seen anyone come forward to say, yes, I want to develop this product and I do have a source of lingonberries, or people who harvest lingonberries, or a source where I can buy the lingonberries,” Utioh said.
And while Manitoba’s wild cultivars have higher levels of antioxidants, they also have lower yields, Siow said. New hybrids could change that, as researchers at the Atlantic Cool Crop Research Centre in St. John’s work to blend European varieties of the berries with wild Canadian ones.
“For Manitoba, the conditions are right. I think if given the opportunity, growers should try to grow this. This could be something unique for our province,” Siow said.
But more research needs to be done, he added, noting that it’s not only the cultivar that makes Manitoba lingonberries more potent, it’s also the cold climate.
For that reason, not everyone thinks that lingonberries should be farmed commercially.
“There may be potential there, but I’m against farming it,” said Buck. “There’s no fields in northern Manitoba, you’d have to take that berry from the North, bring it farther south and put it under cultivation. It would lose its northern vigour, I’m convinced.”
Moving lingonberries farther south also means northern communities would lose out on the potential economic and social benefits of having a new industry, something no one involved with the berry wants to see.
Buck worked through both the Northern Forest Diversification Centre and University College of the North to bring products to market with local labour and talent, offering training courses in both harvesting and processing the fruit. But differences of opinion over the success and role of lingonberries in the local economy led to programs being cancelled.
“What we were doing was a social business, but they didn’t realize it. It was the social aspect of it that was key,” said Buck, explaining harvesting the berries wasn’t sole employment for people who did it, it was part of a diverse income strategy.
“People picked berries, but that wasn’t all. It was a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They would pick berries, then make wreaths… they did trapping, they did fishing, guiding, this was just part of northern life,” he said.
Ideally, he envisions lingonberries as an industry similar to wild rice, where sustainable, seasonal, wild harvesting gives way to value-added items and people become familiar with the benefits of the product.
There also may be ways of increasing wild berry production, said Siow. In some cases trimming tree branches so more sunlight reaches the plants results in greater fruit, although more study is needed. The researcher added that additional exploration may also uncover areas of wild berries not currently accessible by road.
Buck believes that what the industry really needs to get going is sustained government support over at least 10 years. He and others hope Siow’s research helps convince officials that lingonberries are a worthwhile investment.
“It really would help to stimulate economic activities in the northern communities,” said Utioh. “And people are looking at how they are able to work together to arrange the harvesting, looking at even working with schools.”
Siow too, hopes to see the industry grow with value-added products, and plans to continue his research.
“The berry really has been full of surprises,” he said.