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April 25, 2016

Food For Thought
43

President’s Choice “Wild Blueberries” Are Not Wild

My wife and I love berries. We love them because they taste great, but also because they pack a nutritional punch. When they are in season, we gobble them up like it’s the first and last time we’ll see them. With the beauty of modern technology, we are able to prolong the berry season, and stock our freezer up with the delights throughout the year. As such, we often purchase wild frozen blueberries, as wild blueberries are much more nutritious than their counterparts. They boast up to 2x more antioxidants.

I was chatting with my wife the other day, talking about nutrition, as we often do, and I couldn’t help but bring up something that had been irking me for a while.

I always noticed that the wild blueberries that are for sale in the grocery store aren’t at all like the wild blueberries that we enjoy in the summer from the Farmer’s market.

If you’ve ever bought them, you’ll have noticed that they are much larger, and don’t taste as sweet. Though they are obviously different than what you get fresh and wild when in season, I couldn’t help but think that many consumers may be mislead by the packaging.

As I always like to get to the source- whether it’s a symptom of the body, a study, or a food producer. And so I contacted Loblaws, the producer of the President’s Choice “Wild Blueberries” about their “wildness”.

Loblaws/ President’s Choice Rep Spills the Juice on Wild Blueberries

Our email correspondence.

Josh:

I frequently notice the PC Wild Blueberries in your stores, and just had a couple of questions about them. Do the producers use any sort of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc) on the blueberries or the land on which they grow them?

Where are they grown?

Thanks!

—————————

Loblaws Representative:

Dear Mr. Gitalis, 

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. Blueberry bush is a wild variety species that is farmed. The only time we can guarantee free from pesticide use is with our PC Organics line.

Blueberry bush is a wild variety species that is farmed.
– Loblaws Representative

—————————

Josh:

Your response is much appreciated. I still have a few questions. So these wild blueberries below are only wild in the sense that they are a “wild” variety. But they are grown conventionally with chemicals in a farm setting?

And these below are chemical free, but still grown in a farm setting and not wild?

—————————

Loblaws Representative:

Yes, you would be correct about both your statements.

And there it is.  I responded again, suggesting they may wish to consider more clarification, or what might also be interpreted as truth, in their labelling. I pointed out that every plant they currently package and sell was at one time wild, and that the labelling of a conventionally farmed product as wild, was very misleading to the consumer and “wild” usually implies grown in the wild and thereby free of direct application of manmade chemicals.

The public relations rep responded by letting me know they would pass along my feedback. When I inquired about being kept in the loop they let me know that they “follow all requirements set out by the CFIA in regards to their labelling laws” and that at this point the decison to change it would be “purely a business decision as to how they would like to proceed with this matter. We will not be able to share any reasoning as to why the label will stay the way it is or whether it will be changed”.

In other words, they’re not going to be changing any labels because they’re following the rules set by government regulations who allow food corporations to use marketing claims and names positioned as health claims that consistently deceive the public.

What Can We Learn From This?

My disenchantment and subsequent education about the questionable intentions food industry and their deceiving marketing began many years ago. I try to get as much food as I can from farmers, and the rest, I am super-vigilant about the source. However, every once in a while something gets past my radar. This was one of those times.

You might be thinking, what’s the big deal about eating conventional blueberries instead of wild?

My question to you would be, which of the two would be more nutritious? The blueberries that have to fend for themselves from pests, other plants, the sun, wind, animals, and fungus? Or blueberries that have of those things controlled for?

If we want to be in control of our health, we need to be in control of our food. If we give up responsibility of our food to larger companies, we give up control of our health.

If we want to be in control of our health, we need to be in control of our food.

If we want change, we need to share our thoughts with these companies. I encourage you to contact the producer of these “wild blueberries” and share this article with your circles. Change in the food movement comes when consumers demand it. It comes from us, not the regulators.

It takes a movement to influence big food.

Update (January 10th, 2017): One Person can Make a Difference

After I posted this blog, there was quite the response. There were people thanking me for the post, and others defending Loblaws and President’s Choice for their packaging standards.

One comment that really stuck out for me was the following (you can see it below in the comments section):

Suzy: Great article! I actually work for Fortinos (a Loblaws chain) and I can confirm the packaging IS changing on the PC organic wild blueberries (removing the word ‘wild’) within the next month. So the squeaky wheel does get the grease so to speak! Just thought I’d share.

Well, I didn’t fully believe it at the time, but seeing is believing.

Highbush Blueberries

Photo Credit: Katherine Mossop, taken at a Loblaws in Toronto.

I must hand it to the Loblaws/Presidents Choice rep. It appears he did pass along my message, and even better, someone listened and initiated the change.

Although they didn’t outright admit that they were misleading customers with the original labelling (intentionally or unintentionally), I take the change as an admission that they realized they were wrong, and wanted to make it right. I respect that.

43 Comments

  1. Marguerite says:

    Shame on Loblaws – wild blueberries should be wild,

  2. Tanya says:

    Thanks for confirming something I’ve wondered myself. I do sometimes find I have purchased what appear to be wild blueberries, but the giveaway for me has always been their size. Wild berries are much smaller and a little chewier. And to expect organic I buy organic. I also know the availability and labour required to find and harvest wild blueberries would make them prohibitively expensive. Ultimately thought this is about misleading the public, who wouldn’t ask the questions we ask. Thanks for your work Josh.

  3. Kasua says:

    No offence but I find it incredibly naive if anyone thinks something commercially prepared could actually be “wild” (I.e not farmed). And “wild type” IS a variety, something I’d expect someone who claims to be an expert in nutrition know. The one thing I found disturbing is that they claimed that the organic are free from pesticides which isn’t true – they just can’t use synthetic ones and the organic ones aren’t necessarily “better” or safer to ingest.

    • Josh Gitalis says:

      Thank you for your feedback Kasua. The overwhelming consensus from people reading this article is that they believed the blueberries were wild. People have been misled.

      Why can blueberries claim the title of “wild type” when everything was essentially wild at one point?

      • Yoni says:

        Possibly for the same reason that we don’t really expect “Granny Smith Apples” to actually be harvested by the matriarch of the Smith family. =)

        If ‘wild’ is simply a variety, then it seems the label would be fair game.

        • Josh Gitalis says:

          Thank you for your comment Yoni. The main issue is that people are purchasing the “wild blueberries” thinking that no chemicals are used, when in fact there are.

      • Mark says:

        You also assume that the blueberries you bought from the farmer’s marker are ‘picked from the wild’, but this is also false. These are farmed the same as the Loblaw’s product.

        • Josh Gitalis says:

          Thanks Mark. My main focus is the use of chemicals. I’m happy with the organic version (even though they say “wild”) because I know they are chemical-free. The “wild” version of the non-organic version are misleading many people into thinking they are not being exposed to chemicals.

  4. gary says:

    I Googled and found that a number of commercial low-bush wild blueberry producers have websites. Those who are interested in whether pesticides are used could contact one of them to find out. I suspect that pesticides are not needed since the low-bush blueberry is a native plant that naturally grows in many areas in Canada and the US.

  5. Raja says:

    In my mind this is a fraudulent misrepresentation of a product intended to mislead the consumer entirely for corporate greed. It’s obvious that we can’t trust or rely on these corporations to advertise and label a product correctly. It may be similar to salmon where the label says “Fresh Atlantic Salmon”, but it’s really farmed. The origin of the product should be clearly labeled, such as Farmed.

  6. aran says:

    odd – their complaint form isn’t working anymore…

  7. Mike says:

    I’m shocked by how many people are disappointed by this news. A 1kg of wild blueberries from the forest would cost about $75. Come on people use some common sense. If you are into nutrition be educated and LOGICAL.

  8. Matt says:

    I work in the ‘wild’ blueberry industry, as a harvester operator. I totally agree that marketing these berries as wild is very misleading.

    The reason they are called wild is that they are naturally occurring(thinly scattered) on the land before it is developed. The land is cleared and the blueberries naturally spread out over a number of years. This is encouraged by fertilizers and herbicides to kill off trees and other competing plants.

    Once the berry field is fully established it is sprayed as much as any other fruit crop(which is a lot). This includes pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and is repeatedly sprayed during fruiting to just several days before harvest, to stop fly larvae (maggots) in the fruit which is very common, and sprays to prevent the fruit from naturally falling off the stem as different plants ripen at different rates, so it can all be harvested in one pass without losing berries falling on the ground.

    I’m not familiar with any of the organic producers. I would definitely support organic product if it is feasible. I would like to see someone have an analysis done to see what resides are left in the fruit from all this spraying.

  9. TerryK says:

    OK, this article points to the mass confusion about nomenclature. Most wild blueberries we purchase commercially are “low bush” blue berries. Non wild (or conventional as the author calls them) are medium bush blueberries. It is the low bush (i.e. wild) blueberries that contain twice the nutrients as medium bush (i.e. conventional) blueberries. Low bush (wild) blueberries are still farmed/ cultivated. It is utterly unrealistic of us to expect to find enough *uncultivated* wild blueberries out there to be able to meet commercial demand. So your best bet is to look for wild (low bush) blueberries that are pesticide free. Nature’s Touch brand sold at Sobey’s (and possibly at Independent too) will have the pesticide free and GMO free logo’s on it’s cover. There you go.

  10. Dayna says:

    Technically, in the farming world, the berries are “wild”, or lowbush berries.
    This is a link to the Wild Blueberry growers of North America, that explains how they are grown and farmed, and why they are considered a wild plant.

    http://www.wildblueberries.com/the-better-blueberry/the-story-of-wild/growing-wild-blueberries/

    Wild does not mean someone went in to the forest and spent hours collecting your $6 bag of blueberries. Just like when you buy “wild honey”, a farmer didn’t search a forest for bee hives to collect honey from.

    The PC rep totally misrepresented the Organic label though, by saying that your statement of the organic berries being “chemical free” was correct.

  11. David Percival says:

    Good morning Josh,

    I am sorry about the misgivings you may have regarding wild blueberries. Fields arise from naturally occurring stands of wild blueberries that belong to a different species of blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium along with Vaccinium myrtilloides) than those that are cultivated highbush (typically Vaccinium corymbosum). There are no selected varieties planted or cultivation/tillage practice used in wild blueberry fields. Although the industry has become increasingly mechanized, this is to ensure there is a balance of shoot growth to support the development of a berry crop and to try and maintain an efficient production system with a low cost of production. The differences in berry size that you have noted are most likely due to the berries being sized during the freezing of the berries. Prior to this, producers also bring in pollinators including honey bees or bumble bees to ensure there is sufficient pollen movement to allow fertilization and resulting berry growth and development (berry size is proportional to seed number in the berry which is governed by the delivery of pollen from other plants during bloom).

    I understand your concerns about the production of the crop but I would like to reassure you that the wild blueberry is one of the most sustainable ecosystems and uses a fraction of the energy and inputs to produce the crop compared to other foods including other native berry production systems. It is also one of the safest fruit crops available globally with health benefits that have been found to be a little better than the cultivated highbush blueberry. If you are interested in seeing the production system, I will gladly set aside time to take you to some fields and show you the production system. I am sure this will alleviate the concerns you may have.

    In closing, research is ongoing to try and reduce input use and further improve production sustainability and I am hopeful that you will see significant improvements in the next 5 years. With the crop being so important to the rural economies of the Maritimes (there are over 2,000 producers), this is something that we take seriously, especially given that the crop is now being exported to over 30 countries.

    Sincerely,
    David Percival (Ph.D., P.Agr., M.Sc., B.Sc.Agr.)
    Professor of Whole Plant Physiology
    Department of Environmental Sciences
    Dalhousie University

  12. Martine Dubois says:

    I’m not sure that PC is in the wrong, the differences between Wild and Cultivated blueberries is really their sizes. Wild blueberries are smaller in size, so if the PC brand provides the berry that is smaller, then they are using the correct terms. http://www.superfoodsrx.com/healthyliving/wild-blueberries-benefits/

    • Josh Gitalis says:

      Thanks Martine. Technically, they are not wrong. It’s the fact that’s it’s misleading that is the issue. Many people think that the “wild” label means that there are no pesticides used on them. This is the part that is misleading, and therefore people are being exposed to farming chemicals that they normally would have chosen to avoid.

  13. Chuck says:

    I call BullS**t on Professor Percival’s answer. Notice he didn’t say the word’s pesticides or fertilizers, but “input” use. These berries are called “wild” because you can’t plant them, their rhizomes have to be present in the soil and then farmers encourage them by burning the fields. Once the crop is establishing, out come the sprays and the fertilizers. They even invented a herbicide-Velpar-that killed everything but the blueberry plant. Once all the weeds are eliminated, then they can use fertilizers and such to bump up the growth of the plant. This “wild” label has been the biggest snow job going on for years. Thanks for exposing it, Josh.

  14. Janice says:

    Thanks so much for investigating this! Your committment to our health is much appreciated.

  15. Suzi says:

    Great article! I actually work for Fortinos (a Loblaws chain) and I can confirm the packaging IS changing on the PC organic wild blueberries (removing the word ‘wild’) within the next month. So the squeaky wheel does get the grease so to speak! Just thought I’d share

  16. Michael Oosting says:

    You’re not entirely correct. Wild blueberries are sort of half way between farming and foraging. The process is essentially to find a sandy, acidic forest where blueberries cover the forest floor, the cut down the trees, and then to burn down half the land every year (wild blueberries resprout from fire, in their natural cycle they are one of the first things to regrow after forest fires) for a harvest every 2 years per acre. Large mechanical harvesters are used to rake these blueberries from the low-lying plant: https://static.dal.ca/sites/precision-agriculture/research/phase-ii/research-posters/_jcr_content/contentPar/featureslider/featureSlider/featureslide/image.adaptive.579.high.jpg/1427551442860.jpg

    Herbicides and insecticides are used on wild blueberry farms, yes, but the plant is indeed wild, the farm modifies the environment around the wild blueberry instead of growing blueberries somewhere else.

    • Josh Gitalis says:

      Thank you for your comment Michael. The last clause is the part that I have an issue with. That people are being exposed to chemicals when they think they are not. It’s misleading.

  17. diane.pure says:

    Agreed! We should all pay more attention to food labelling and address any concerns.
    I recently wrote the company that makes the ‘Spike’ line of herbs and seasonings. I asked them where they sourced their Spike garlic. I hope to hear back from them soon as its been 2 weeks since I sent them my questions.
    Thanks for your article, Josh.

  18. Alexandra says:

    this totally changes my impulse to buy the product; thanks for sharing! can you give me an example of a brand that actually sells wild blueberries?

  19. Janice says:

    Re: Loblaws changes blueberry labelling…….
    Yay Josh, you rock!

  20. Dave Malcolm says:

    My question is not regarding the use of chemicals just one of cost. I’m a large consumer of the PC “wild” frozen blueberries because I like their taste and size as opposed to the larger berry variety that Welch’s uses which to me are quite watery. My question is about price. The regular price of the 600 gram package is $5.99 but often on sale at $3.99 or $3.49 and I have also purchased them at $2.99. How come “wild” blueberries that you can purchase along Hwy 400 near Sudbury cost what seems like a million dollars a basket that might make two pies and yet these blueberries albeit frozen are mere fractions of that price. I understand modern farming and such but they certainly bear little price relation to each other.

    • Josh Gitalis says:

      The ones that you purchase in northern Ontario are most likely authentic wild blueberries. While the packaged ones are cultivated of the wild variety.

  21. Andre says:

    Walmart sells wild at 3.87 for 600gr , and Organic wild at 7$ per 600 gr bag. Both bags almost look the same.

  22. Matthew says:

    Thanks for this article Josh.

    We had been buying these “wild blueberries” instead of other types of berries thinking that they would be free of pesticides. We are always conscious of what we eat but my wife is pregnant with twins so we have been even more vigilant.

    Something was bugging me the other day though about these blue berries as they just seemed to be so consistently cheap and there was also an organic version of the wild blueberries which sort of seemed redundant. A bit of searching and I came across your website. Now I am feeling a little foolish for trusting the marketing but I am glad that I found out the truth.

    Thanks again!

  23. Rob says:

    Thanks for your research into this and for your contacts with Loblaws. I’d been wondering about it for months now.

  24. Ken Whiteley says:

    Does anyone know of actual studies done on the Nova Scotia, commercially grown, “low bush” blueberries for various contaminants (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides)? That is the kind of fact that it would be good to have to contrast with both organic and actual wild harvested low bush blueberries.
    As one of the comments pointed out, the so-called “wild” (but lets say low bush blueberries) do have a higher nutritional content than high bush blueberries, even when they are commercially cultivated. Loblaws didn’t just change the labelling but actually changed the product on the President’s Choice Organic blueberries, so they no longer carry organic, low bush berries, but organic, commercially cultivated high bush berries.
    Does anyone know where to buy organic or wild harvested frozen, low bush blueberries in Toronto?

  25. Ann Wright says:

    I buy 1.5 kg pkg. “wild blueberries (frozen plain) for $9.98 at Walmart in PEI. This price is about 2-3 dollars less than the “wild” ones. Why would this be if both types are treated with the same nasty insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and Lord knows what other “…cides”?

    My second question – Before freezing either blueberry type, what process do the berries undergo before they are frozen? Are they thoroughly washed to get ride of the various “cides” residue?

    Lastly, before consuming either blueberry type, should I be washing them before I give them to my grandchildren to eat?

    Finally, a comment: We consumers (for the most part) rarely take to task the wholesalers who process our foods, so trusting are we that the Federal agencies relative to food will undertake due diligence.

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