Workers inspect golden raisins as they head down a conveyor just before being infused with a pineapple-flavored coating at National Raisin Company in Fowler. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
If you’ve raised a school-aged child over the past decade, chances are you’ve noticed a change to one of the most iconic childhood snacks — raisins.
Yes, they are still dried grapes, and they still come in little boxes.
What has changed is that at some schools, raisins are now available in different flavors — lemon, peach and even sour fruit, to name a few.
Among the leaders in popularizing flavored raisins is Fowler-based National Raisin Co., which for about the last 10 years has been supplying schools with boxes of its Raisels brand flavored raisins to the point that schools in most states offer them as the fruit portions of their school meals.
Not that there was anything wrong with plain raisins, but based on feedback from National’s client school districts, students are getting more of their allowances of fruit from school lunches, “Because they eat their Raisels,” said Jane Asmar, senior vice president of sales and marketing for National, the largest independently-owned processor of raisins in the nation.
Some parents of those students have tried Raisels and become fans, so much so that Asmar said her company has heard from parents who said they gave their children money to buy extra school lunches so they could bring the extra boxes of Raisels home.
In addition, National received so many calls and emails from parents wanting to know where they could buy Raisels that a couple of years ago the company set up online ordering at Raisels.com.
In the fall, National plans to make Raisels more readily available, not just to parents and schoolchildren but also to anyone else who already has tried or wants to try flavored raisins, by making Raisels available in grocery stores.
Raisins for school meals is a small part of the market for National, but before Raisels, National sold no raisins — even plain ones — to school districts, and now it sells just Raisels to them, Asmar said.
“It opened up that market for us.”
That gives National reason to feel some optimism going into the retail sector, said Asmar, who declined to speculate if Raisels sold in stores might become a hit, considering how crowded and competitive the snack industry has become.
Raisels have a leg up on a large percentage of those other foods, she said, noting that “it’s a healthy snack.”
As for how Raisels came about, Asmar said National can’t take all the credit.
Gin-soaked raisins have long been eaten, in part for their reported medicinal benefits. And in Italy, Málaga — rum-soaked raisins — has long been used in deserts, including in the rum raisin-flavored ice cream that Häagen-Dazs introduced in the U.S. back in the 1980s.
As for non-alcohol flavored raisins, more than a decade ago, another Valley dried fruit producer had success flavoring prunes, and then took a stab at flavoring raisins, Asmar said.
Looking at the success of the flavored prunes, officials at National decided to try making flavored raisins, but one important factor was they wanted their product to also possess a smooth taste, like the other company’s flavored prunes, while also having bolder tastes than that company’s flavored raisins.
Soon, National’s food researchers had developed 20 flavors to coat onto test raisins, from common ones you might expect, lemon and orange among them, to the less common watermelon flavor to a more out-of-the-box root beer flavor.
“Any flavor we thought we could use, we tried it,” Asmar recounted.
National quickly ran into a problem, not with the flavors the company had developed, but with the raisins used in the initial testing.
The researchers used Thompson seedless grapes, which dry to become brown raisins, the sort most often eaten in the U.S.
But every time the brown raisins were flavored, “the flavors did not come together,” as the added flavor didn’t exhibit smooth tastes once combined with the caramelized flavor the grapes develop as they dry out under the sun to become raisins, Asmar said.
So they tried again, this time using golden raisins, “and we found that works,” as they didn’t have the flavor conflicts, so National picked its first five flavors to begin shipping to school districts — orange, lemon, watermelon, peach and apple.
As Asmar sees it, Raisels have spearheaded raising the popularity of flavored raisins, to the point that other dried fruit producers and users have entered the market in recent years, including Sun-Maid and Alabama’s Amazing Fruit products.
Still, Asmar said, “We consider ourselves the O.G. [original gangster] of the flavored raisin. We popularized it. Kids became familiar with it with us.”
National — which marked its 50th anniversary earlier this year growing, packing and processing raisins and other dried fruits — is working to elevate interest in its flavored raisins among youths and adults, having dropped two of its least popular flavors, peach and apple, and introducing its “Sours” flavors — Watermelon Shock, Fruit Splash, Lemon Blast and Orange Burst.
Asmar said the company also is doing its own research and hired consultants to find new flavors and see what flavors in other snacks the public likes.
Among the favors looked at are the ethnic ones, often involving salt and spices that have been used in recent years in products ranging from ice cream to soda to various products found in the chips aisle, Takis and some varieties of Cheetos among them.
That research resulted in the addition of Raisels’ newest flavor, Fiesta, a mix of lemon, pineapple and chili flavors, as well as sugar, Asmar said.