UF/IFAS study: Asian vegetables’ untapped potential

Departments - Consumer Corner

Researchers are exploring a new, growing market for produce.

January 24, 2017

Varieties like Asian eggplant are gaining popularity with consumers along the East Coast.
Photo: Istock.com

Gene McAvoy, a county extension manager for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Extension (UF/IFAS), was part of a 17-person team exploring Asian Americans’ penchant for Asian vegetables. The project, undertaken by UF/IFAS and three other land-grant universities on the East Coast, concluded that there is an emerging market for Asian produce in the U.S. According to a press release, these cultivars were the most popular for Asian-Indian consumers: bitter gourd, eggplant, fenugreek leaves, cluster beans, bottle gourds, turmeric, fenugreek, sorrel spinach and radish greens.

Produce Grower spoke with McAvoy to discuss the basis of the project, and what its findings might mean for grocery stores.

Gene McAvoy
Headshot courtesy of UF/IFAS

Produce Grower: What was the reason you and the rest of the team decided to pursue this research?

Gene McAvoy: Basically, we’re looking at changes in demographics in the United States. We’re seeing a dramatic increase in different ethnic groups in the United States, so we wanted to see if there were opportunities for vegetable growers to capitalize on (bit.ly/2iSBm1X). The piece on Asian vegetable markets is part of a bigger study where we looked at buying patterns in the Northeast in conjunction with Rutgers [University] and the University of Massachusetts in major markets with Philadelphia, New York and Boston. [Asian Americans] tend to buy more produce as compared to Caucasian Americans who buy fresh food. They spend 2.5 to three times more on produce and they are willing to pay a premium for a taste of home.

PG: There are some slight differences between Asian varieties and varieties we normally see in stores. Does that change the potential impact of the study?

GM: Not really because they grow basically the same. It may take some getting used to, but look at bok choy for instance. It grows a lot like cabbage. It shares the same pests as cabbage. It grows in the same season as cabbage. Even though they are alien, they aren’t that different, and it’s fairly easy to plug them into a system.

PG: Do you think we could see Asian vegetables become widely available in grocery stores soon?

GM: I think so. If you look at the Asian vegetables, napa [cabbage] and bok choy are widespread now. Ten to 15 years ago, that wasn’t true.

We were surprised at the size of the markets. But you need to do your homework, you need to line up your markets. You don’t just want to go out and plant a bunch of something and expect your local supermarket to take it. A lot of these vegetables are going to need to be sold in large urban centers to buyers that are maybe different than what growers are used to. And the volumes have to be scaled to the size of the market.