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Sweeter and more resistant to pests: The new berry varieties developed by Italian experts

Supermarkets across Europe offer a wide selection of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, even in the middle of winter.

According to Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine, after the seemingly unlimited national and foreign supply on store shelves, the berry sector worldwide faces a serious threat: increasingly erratic production conditions caused by climate change. The result is that these fruits are more vulnerable to pests, diseases and drought.

Professor Bruno Mezzetti seeks answers for European producers. An expert in genetic improvement and biotechnology of fruit crops from the Polytechnic University of Marche (Italy), he directs a project financed by the European Union (EU) to increase the genetic diversity of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, in order to make them more resistant and at the same time preserve the flavor, texture and smell characteristics that consumers seek.

The project, called BreedingValue and running for four years until 2024, it focuses on germplasm: the seeds, plants and plant parts useful for cultivation, research and conservation.

The objective is to identify the best genetic sources, especially in terms of disease resistance, water resistance, elasticity, adaptability, sugar and aroma,” explains Mezzetti.

Bruno Mezzetti professor at the Polytechnic University of Marche (Italy)

Features

Berries not only delight the palate. They are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which play a vital role in a healthy diet and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, senility and cancer.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world strawberry market represented around 2020 billion euros in 14.000, of which Europe's share was around 3.500 billion euros. Since then, the market has grown. How can the EU berry sector meet growing consumer demand?

“It is important to ensure that people have berries at reasonable prices and of good quality, and that they maintain their flavor,” he said. Tuuli Haikonen, a researcher at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland who participates in BreedingValue.

Increase in strawberry production

The EU produced 700 tons of berries in 000, according to Eurostat. Strawberries topped the list, accounting for around half of the EU's total berry production, followed by raspberries and currants.

Spain is the main producer of strawberries in the EU, with a share of more than 25%, followed by Poland and Germany. BreedingValue brings together 20 partners from eight European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and Turkey.

According to Mezzetti, the objective is to increase resistance and discover and improve sensory traits, including color, essential to attract the consumer. Researchers study a wide range of plant material, including wild species and historical and modern varieties. Studying fruits and wild relatives will help find ways to increase the genetic diversity of cultivated berries.

Researchers provide breeding companies with desirable genetic traits, such as disease and water resistance and resilience. In this way they will create new fruits that are more resistant to climate change and diseases and with greater sweetness and aroma.

“We can find resistance and sensory traits in ancient fruits or in wild relatives,” Haikonen explained. In a way, it is a love story.”

Dr. Jahn Davik, a scientist at the Norwegian Bioeconomy Research Institute, another of the project partners, highlighted the advantages for plant breeders. “The goal is to reduce the cost for the breeder and, at the same time, increase the efficiency of the berry breeding process,” he said.

Healthy snacks

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that the berries arrive in good condition and do not spoil before being consumed. This is where another EU-funded project comes into the picture. Is called FRIETS and develops new dehydration techniques to increase the shelf life of berries, replace conventional salts and sugars and create healthier snacks.

According to Marianna Lagonikou, an agronomist in the European research and development department of the Greek food company Rezos Brands, “retailers want to be able to keep berries on the shelves for a long time so as not to waste so much.”

Lagonikou directs FRIETS, which will last four years, until August 2025, and in which 13 partners from five European countries participate: Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Romania and the United Kingdom.

The project focuses on new ways to process strawberries, raspberries and blackberries and turn them into snacks without added sugars, salt or chemical preservatives. Researchers are developing fruit drying techniques that help preserve the bioactive substances in strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, natural antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds that have been shown to be beneficial for health and prolong the shelf life of berries.

Techniques include microwave vacuum drying and freeze-drying, which has a relatively mild quality that reduces the risk of protein denaturation and enzyme inactivation. As a result, bioactive compounds can be preserved without compromising their nutritional or therapeutic value.

A third method is osmotic dehydration, in which water is removed from the fruit by soaking it in a solution of glycerol, a natural alcohol used as a sweetener.

“The goal is to find new conservation methods and products that protect all the compounds in berries,” explained Magdalini Krokida, professor at the School of Chemical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens and partner at FRIETS.

According to the expert, the smart berries They can be adapted to the needs of specific groups such as athletes, children, the elderly and diabetics. “For example, if a group of people suffers from type 2 diabetes, we can make products with less sugar and add more protein. It depends on the type of consumer and their special nutritional needs. This research is in line with the initiative European Food 2030, whose objective is to make European food systems more sustainable and healthy,” he added.

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