Garden to Table
December 30, 2007
GARDEN TO TABLE
As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, revelers around the globe will be popping open bottles of… grape juice. That’s right, grape juice has long been revered as an alternative to wine and champagne. Deep-purple, rich and sweet, grape juice is packed with vitamins, minerals and flavonoids. Now, a new study shows that grape juice may even help fight breast cancer.
The juice itself hails from the Concord grape. Commercial grape production actually dates back to 1000 B.C., when winemaking was the main purpose of grape cultivation. But it wasn’t until the advent of pasteurization that grape juice became more widely enjoyed. A dentist named Dr. Thomas Welch processed the first batch of unfermented grape juice in 1869, hand-squeezing the juice from grapes growing in his own yard.
Robust and aromatic, the hearty Concord grape was developed to ripen earlier and thrive in harsher conditions than its European relatives. As the dominant cold climate American variety, Concord grapes are a popular mid-season cultivar and extremely disease resistant. To encourage early growth before the frost, grapes are planted six to eight feet apart in deep, well-drained soils, away from standing water. Juicy and rich in quick-energy sugars with a somewhat fragile skin, Concord grapes are extremely well-suited for pressing into grape juice.
Concord grapes are harvested in late September/early October at the peak of ripeness. Mechanical harvesters pass over the vines and vibrate the grapes off their stems into troughs. Once inspected, the entire grape is pressed in the juice making process, including skins, pulp and seeds. This is beneficial because compounds from all three components end up in the juice.
Pasteurization is the final step, and involves heating the juice to 185 degrees F to eliminate microorganisms. Before hitting the shelves, grape juice is pasteurized numerous times – even after the juice is bottled. The juice is sold as 100% juice products or used to make Concord grape jelly – a process that requires the addition of sugars, pectin and heat. Grape jam is made directly from the grapes.
You can also eat Concord grapes as grapes, but they are only available for a limited time in the grocery store, during the fall harvest. Concord grapes are eaten somewhat like oysters – they aren’t really “chewed.” Interestingly, many people – even growers – eat Concord grapes by popping the flesh of the grape into their mouth, tossing the skin and then spitting out the seeds.
Today, growers harvest more than 400,000 tons of Concord grapes in Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri annually. Well-grown grapevines can produce more than 20 pounds of fruit per vine per year, and can be productive for more than 40 years. Containing no fat or cholesterol, Concord grapes are low in sodium and only 62 calories per serving. For best quality, refrigerate Concord grape juice after opening and use within seven days.
“Concord grape products fit perfectly into the movement toward more healthy eating,” says Jeannie Milewski, Fruit Spread Section Coordinator for the Juice Products Association. “Concord grape juice contains a variety of naturally occurring vitamin and minerals, is easily digested, and provides instant energy.”