Have you ever snacked on dried fruits and found them deeply satisfying? You are not alone. Millions of people do that on a daily basis worldwide. What makes dried fruits so special?
It has many unique properties. Chief among them is their ability to hold a long shelf life whilst maintaining a good nutritional value depending on the way they were dried. Moreover, you will agree, dried fruits just taste nice!
It is not a surprise then, that dried fruits are as old as humanity. Records of the use of dried fruits date as far back as the ancient Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C.E. They still are a major part of a Mediterranean diet and ancient Romans adored them during the mighty Roman Empire.
At home, many Basotho know dried fruits as mangangajane. While mangangajane have been made and consumed for decades in Lesotho, few people have mastered the art of making them right. No wonder Basotho are yet to commercialize the dish at a more formal level. Mr. Kebitsamang Mothibe, a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) is working to change this reality.
“Dried fruits are very important for health and if we produce them right, we will benefit a lot from them,” Mr Mothibe said. “Research has shown that consumption of dried fruits can decrease risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.”
Most fruits are seasonal and have very short shelf lives due to their high water content. Here at home, we enjoy peaches in summer and oranges in winter. Drying as one form of food preservation helps enjoy the same fruits long beyond their seasons. It is deﬁned as reduction of a food’s water content to certain levels in order to inhibit microbial growth and enzymatic modiﬁcations.
“There are other forms of fruit preservation which include modiﬁed atmosphere, chilling, Juicing, canning and making of ciders and other alcoholic beverages,” Mr Mothibe continued. “However, none of these methods rival drying in simplicity and low cost. Yet dried fruits are also renowned for their versatility. They can be used as excellent nutritional snacks as much as they can be enjoyed in baked products and desserts.”
So if drying fruits is that simple, why is no one trying it at a large commercial-scale at home? “In our studies, we have found that many people who make dried fruits do not understand some basics which are very essential.” Mr Mothibe said. “For instance, they don’t really know how much the appearance of their product influences their customers. Subconsciously, customers look for an appealing texture and color in dried fruit. The better the color and texture, the more customers are likely to buy, even if the same customers are not aware of what influences their choice. Unfortunately, our very own mangangajane, which have found their way into informal markets recently, are not known for their appealing color and texture.”
Therefore Mr Mothibe hopes to bring a new way of doing things in this potentially successful industry. “We are working on producing high quality mangangajane for commercial purposes. In Lesotho, among other fruits that grow, peaches are there in abundance though they are not well controlled. Other fruits such as apples, bananas and oranges from other countries are readily available in our markets. When we dry them, we add so much value to them and they will be available for longer time.”
Mr Mothibe also mentioned that they plan to use a more advanced but low-cost drying technique. “We are going to bypass the current sun drying technique, which does not go quite well when it is rainy. In our labs, we are already using an artificial dehydration method which is not weather dependent and which does a faster job. We hope to use this at a larger scale.”
He also showed that most importantly, they are doing research on improving texture and color of the products. “We use a pre-treatment process called blanching. There are two methods. The first is hot water blanching while the second is microwave blanching. Both methods reduce microbial load in fruits before drying. They also reduce activities of enzymes in the fruits. Microbes and enzymes are often responsible for the bad color and texture of most of the mangangajane we see in the markets today.”
“With this project, we hope that we will increase the abundance and reduce the cost of dried food in Lesotho. In the long-term, we hope that dried fruits will go a long way in fighting food insecurity and malnutrition in the country.”
This blog post was originally written by NUL Research and Innovations