As 36 America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest finalists duke it out at AIB International in Manhattan, KS, this month, thousands of baked products are being snapped off grocery store shelves with one common ingredient: raisins. In fact, grain-based foods account for more than 45% of the usage of California raisins every crop year, according to Larry Blagg, senior vice-president, marketing, California Raisin Marketing Board (CRMB).

For this year’s annual contest, contestants paired raisins with hazelnuts, pistachios, mango, lychee and goat cheese in preliminary rounds, during which judges evaluated the merit of formulas presented. Finalists received a complimentary trip to Manhattan Oct. 11-13 to bake their formulas before a panel of judges drawn from both artisan and commercial baking operations.

“Clearly, the variety of ingredients paired with California raisins in this year’s contest is even broader and more exciting than in past years,” Mr. Blagg said. “Importantly for us is that 31 of the 36 finalists are first-time winners, showing that the contest’s word and reputation are spreading.”

What is it about raisins that make the contest so popular — not to mention the ingredient itself? As CRMB points out, California raisins are fat- and cholesterol-free, naturally low in sodium and packed with antioxidant protection for heart and colon health. A 40-g serving contains 130 Cal, 0 g fat, 10 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 29 g sugar, 1 g protein, 2% of the DV for calcium and 6% of iron’s DV. “California raisins can add to the nutrient value of any baked product simply by being included,” Mr. Blagg said.

The US Department of Agri­culture’s Food-A-Pedia website lists raisins as having 0 Cal from added sugars. “Other sweetened dried fruits can contain up to 66 empty calories per serving,” Mr. Blagg said. “The recent publicity on ‘toxic sugar’ and the drive by many health organizations and federal agencies to list added sugars as a separate ingredient will hopefully make consumers more aware of the issue and begin to reduce their risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

Naturally sweet and with a rich brown color, raisins allow bakers to clean up their product labels. CRMB offers its raisins in a variety of forms, including whole sun-dried seedless raisins and golden raisins, raisin paste, and raisin juice concentrate, opening up applications in baked foods, bread, cereals, snacks, confectionery and dairy. Raisin paste, in particular, can sweeten baked foods effectively, replacing added sugars.

Beyond their nutritional properties, raisins can help lower blood pressure. Earlier this year, Harold Bays, MD, medical director and president of the Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center in Louisville, KY, conducted a study among 46 men and women with hyper­tension. At random, participants were asked to snack on raisins or prepackaged commercial snacks three times a day for 12 weeks. “Blood pressure was reduced by an average of 7% and post-meal blood glucose levels by 16%,” Mr. Blagg said. “These are amazing results for a simple and natural food product, as opposed to prescription drugs.”

CRMB cites several reports detailing raisins’ antimicrobial properties for shelf life extension and mold prevention on its website,, where scalable formulas are also available.