CONTACT: Chadelle Robinson, 575-646-5093, chadelle
The small, oval fruit from jujube trees has a plum-like appearance and a texture similar to an apple when eaten fresh, although it’s more fibrous and not quite as juicy. Rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients that give it “superfruit” properties, the fruit – more commonly known as a Chinese date – has a pleasantly chewy texture and a sweetness that intensifies when dried.
The tree itself can tolerate a wide range of climates, including areas faced with high heat and drought-like conditions, attributes that make it an ideal crop for food producers in New Mexico.
But one problem remains: “It’s a new fruit that consumers are unfamiliar with and its brown, which inherently consumers are hesitant to eat,” said Chadelle Robinson, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University who has conducted extensive research on consumer behavior for food products.
Robinson, who earned a Ph.D. in marketing from NMSU last month, is part of a team of researchers in NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences working to better understand consumer perceptions of jujube fruit, a highly nutritious but oft-misunderstood fruit native to China.
“It has a lower glycemic load and higher amount of vitamin C than an apple, but it’s compact,” Robinson said.
The goal is to identify the cultivar of jujube fruit that appeals to consumers and producers alike in New Mexico and has the potential to supplement and eventually provide the agriculture sector an alternative crop that is drought tolerant. The project is a joint effort by three departments in the College of ACES – Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Family and Consumer Sciences – and the Cooperative Extension Service and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
NMSU researchers have been developing jujube cultivars since 2010, working to find the best cultivars suitable for New Mexico’s dry climate. Today, more than 60 cultivars are being grown at the Sustainable Agriculture Science at Alcalde, Leyendecker Plant Science Center in La Mesa and Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.
Robinson’s involvement in the project began in 2014, she said. Her research involves analyzing consumer responses to the fruit and identifying key consumer preferences, data that will help in food development and marketing.
“We know they will grow in New Mexico, and we have cultivars that are producing quality annual crops, but now need to answer the questions of identifying which cultivar consumers like and how do we take them into the market,” she said.
Robinson hopes to answer these questions this fall when she conducts two studies in which participants will taste-test samples of dehydrated jujube fruit. The first study will center on the shape of the dried fruit presentation, and they must choose which they prefer based on appearance.
From there, the overall preferred shape will be used in the second study, which will examine preferences on drying techniques. In this study, participants will receive three samples of dried fruit, each dehydrated using a different technique: oven-dried, sun-dried and freeze-dried. Each technique imparts a different texture in the fruit.
“That’s going to give us information on how to move this crop forward,” Robinson said.
Previously, she conducted jujube taste tests at farmers markets in Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, giving more than 250 marketgoers samples of five fresh cultivars to rate based on flavor. This taste test allowed researchers to identify attributes of each of the cultivars that consumers like or disliked, she said.
“If consumers don’t want to eat it, then we’re not helping our producers and stakeholders,” she said. “My research is an effort to help find the one that consumers like and will buy.”