Fruit leathers, sometimes referred to as fruit rolls or Fruit Roll-ups, are popular dried food snacks. They are formed when fruit is pureed (generally from a concentrate when mass-produced) cooked, dried, and rolled or cut out (for easy storage and packaging). The sticky solution is then spread on a nonstick surface on which it is dried. When dried, the fruit leather is firm to the touch (hence the name fruit leather) but malleable enough so that it can be rolled. The fruit leather can be easily cut in strips and shapes, according to the brand or variety of fruit leather. Fruit leather generally lasts quite a long time in this state and does not require refrigeration. The popularity of the fruit leather has increased significantly in the last 10 years because many view these snacks are more healthful than other confections because it is produced from fruit to which vitamins (particularly vitamin C) has been added.
Fruit leather is mass-manufactured by a number of different companies but can also be made rather easily at home. Recipes abound in cookbooks, including directions for making fruit leathers with grapes, raspberries, apples, and strawberries on the kitchen stove and using the oven or a food dehydrator to assist in the drying process.
It is difficult to know when or who first developed fruit leathers. However, many believe that peoples of the Middle East were among the first to discover that fresh fruit could be utilized and preserved year round if pureed, cooked, and dried. It is likely that an early flavor for fruit leathers was apricot. Antiquarian cookbooks refer to fruit leathers as Persian or Middle Eastern, in fact. Armenian cookbooks refer to the treat as bastegh and give recipes for making them at home, discussing the "old ways" these fruit leathers were produced. The process recommends that the fruit treat be made in dry, sunny weather in that the cooked and pureed fruit be poured onto muslin sheets, hung outside to dry, sprayed with water on the reverse side so that it could be peeled off the muslin, and left to dry again outside in the sun. Recipes recommend that the fruit leather be brought in at nightfall but returned to sunshine the next day if not firm to the touch. The finished product was cut into desired shapes and placed into a glass jar for storage. Updated recipes have the cook pour the slurry onto waxy paper or plastic wrap and place it in the sun under cheesecloth, still others recommend the use of ovens or dehydrators for quick, reliable drying.
Recipes for fruit leathers are often found in organic and health-conscious recipe sources. These recipes call for using organically-grown fruit and eschew the inclusion of artificial ingredients, added vitamins or processed sugar, replacing it with honey (if any sweetener is used at all). In fact, mass-produced fruit leathers are only about one third fruit puree and two thirds additives and sweeteners.
Major food manufacturers have been making fruit leathers in this country for nearly two decades. These fruit leathers are available in a dizzying array of flavors (including watermelon) and have vitamins specifically added to them to make them more healthful. They are extremely popular with children and are designed with their interests in mind. These manufacturers have developed a range of bright colors for these fruit snacks (including hot colors and neon colors that are not natural fruit colors). Instead of cutting the leather into plain strips, some manufacturers cut cartoon figures onto the product to assist in the marketing and sales of the product. Packages feature prominent cartoon characters or movie characters, making the product more appealing to children.
Mass-manufactured fruit leathers contain three primary ingredients: fruit puree, a food additive called malto-dextrin and a sweetener of some sort. In some national brands, the fruit puree makes up only about one third of the product. As important as the fruit puree are the two other main ingredients, malto-dextrin and sweeteners. Malto-dextrin is a modified food starch that is added to a number of manufactured products. It is a white powder that mixes easily with any raw material and is cold-water soluble. When soluble, it turns transparent and is of low viscosity. The malto-dextrin additive is extremely important in fruit leathers in that it provides the soft texture and malleability required for the product. Sweeteners are the other significant additive to the product. Sweeteners generally include corn syrup or sugar, and in some products, include both. Many manufactured fruit leathers include a great many other additives but vary according to brand. These often include: partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, glycerin or diglyceride, artificial and natural colors and flavors, pectin, gums, and added vitamins such as citric acid (vitamin C).
Fruit leather is an extruded snack, meaning the fruit puree solution is forced through a metal die and cut into desired shape.
- 1 Fruit concentrate is generally purchased from a supplier. Once in house, the concentrate is placed in a vat and augmented with water. Corn syrup, malto-dextrin, and all of the various additives are added to the batch. Flavor enhancers and colors are added at this time as well. Only one fruit flavor is made at a time in a vat; thus, either many vats are working at one time or the vats are cleaned to receive a different-flavored puree. The fruit puree is cooked for about five minutes.
Extruding the puree
- 2 The fruit slurry is then piped over to another large vat. The bottom of the vat is piped to an extruder. The liquid fruit solution is fed through a metal die that pushes the hot fruit puree out of the vat, flattens it, and extrudes it onto a thin, waxy paper. Some manufacturers offer different sizes or widths of the product. The shape of the extrusion die varies with the product being manufactured at that time.
- 3 The fruit leather is still viscous at this time and must be and malleable enough to be able to be rolled in the packaging. It is conveyored through a drying tunnel that quickly solidifies the product. The tunnel does not use hot air to dry (as recommended in home recipes or traditional recipes) but cool air to drive off moisture and cool down the still-hot slurry. At the end of the tunnel, a mechanism rolls up the cooled fruit leather into a spool or roll (depending on the product). Some products are wrapped on the outside of the waxy paper with a strap to keep the spools closed (particularly useful for long, thin spools). In addition, some fruit leathers have patterns or images (often cartoon characters or even letters or numbers) cut into them with a die resembling a cookie cutter plate. This occurs before the leather is rolled.
- 4 At the end of the conveyor belt, the rolled leather is taken to a hopper. Individual spools are dropped into a pouching machine, in which the product is enclosed in a wrapper either of metallic foil or plain white paper (depending on the product). The pouch is automatically sealed as it goes through the machine.
- 5 The pouches are then dropped into a larger machine that automatically groups and packages the product. This machine is programmed to fill cardboard packages by weight. The cardboard packaging is generally made out-of-house, and includes all important information such as nutritional information. Packaging is often very brightly colored and full of images of popular cartoon characters and is an essential part of product marketing.
Quality control begins with the acquisition of high-quality fruit concentrate. Many purees are supplied by well-known fruit processors. Other quality control methods include careful calibration of all additives, particularly of those additives that affect hardening/malleability (malto-dextrin in particular). Also, cooking and drying temperatures are monitored closely to ensure moisture content. Scales are carefully calibrated so that each roll contains just the right amount of extruded product; similarly, the packaging machine is checked and re-checked so that each cardboard package includes the correct number of fruit leathers. Sample testing is performed periodically as well.
Where to Learn More
Herbst, Sharon Tyler. The Food Lover's Companion. Barron's Educational Services, Inc.
Atlas, Nava. "It's in the bag: nutritious school lunches and treats that score A+. "Vegetarian Times (September 1998): 48.
Chandonnet, Ann. "Tlingit Food." Skipping Stones (November/December 1997): 23.
Creasy, Rosalind. "Tomato Leather." Organic Gardening (July/August 1989): 32.
Weddell, Leslie. "Home-made fruit leather is ideal for lunches, hiking trails." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (August 30, 1993).
Unofficial Summary. General Mills Canada, Inc. v. The Deputy Minister of National Revenue. Appeal No. Ap-97-012.