Shelf prices of hot cross buns, trail mixes and fruity breakfast cereals could be set to rise. That’s because sultanas are becoming more expensive, following a short crop from Turkey

Mintec Benchmark prices for Turkish sultanas rose 167.2% year on year to $2,675/Mt for the week ending 7 February 2024, after production yields were impacted by heavy rains in May and June 2023.

The UK is Europe’s largest importer of dried grapes – a catchall term for raisins, sultanas and currants – and relies predominantly on the Turkish crop to meet demand.

Some retailers are already paying higher prices for dried grapes, but all retailers can expect to see cost increases by “no later than April”, according to one industry expert.

As a result, buyers are seeking alternative markets – like South Africa – to fill the gap left by the Turkish shortfall.

But how does the South African crop compare to Turkey? What’s the difference between a raisin and a sultana? And what are their applications in food manufacturing?

An advantage of the South African crop over Turkey’s is it carries very little to no chemical residue. This is because the hot, dry climate of the Kalahari Desert, where South African raisins are grown, reduces the risk of pests and diseases damaging the crop, so fewer chemicals need to be applied.

The hot, dry climate also means the grapes can be dried out quickly to make raisins.


Source: South African Raisins

The dry, arid climate of South Africa’s Kalahari Desert means the grapes dry quickly with little risk of damage

What’s the difference between a raisin and a sultana?

Raisins are naturally sun-dried white grapes. Sultanas, meanwhile, are white grapes which have been treated in a lye solution (often made with water, oil and potassium carbonate). The solution degrades the skin of the fruit, helping it dry out faster.

“This is usually done in regions where climate is a production risk, therefore reducing the drying time to reduce the risk of exposure to rain specifically,” says a spokesman for Raisins South Africa. 

While this process mitigates the risk of rain damage, it also means the fruit has a shorter shelf life.

The shelf life of a naturally sun-dried raisin ranges between 16 to 18 months; this reduces to around 10 to 12 months for sultanas.

As there are higher levels of rainfall in Turkey, most of its dried grape export is made up of fast-drying sultanas. In South Africa, however, where there is less risk of heavy rainfall, most of the crop becomes raisins.

Food manufacturers might also add golden or crimson sultanas – which are made by fumigating white or red grapes with sulphur dioxide before drying – to products like cereals, in which the fruit is more visible (essentially, because they are prettier!).

Then there are currants, which are dried black grapes. In the UK, these are imported predominantly from Greece. However torrential rains there in recent months have also led to a short crop of currants, meaning manufacturers might again look to the South African market to fill the gaps.


Source: Raisins South Africa

Golden sultanas are made by fumigating the grapes with sulphur dioxide before drying

Applications in food manufacturing and retail

Food manufacturers buy around two-third of the dried grapes imported by the UK. They use them in baked goods, such as fruit loaves and hot cross buns, and add them to cereals, snack bars and trail mixes.

All food manufacturers will have a set specification – detailing the required size and colour of the fruit, along with the level of extraneous vegetive matter (number of stalks) they can tolerate – which will be shared with the relevant processing plants.

Manufacturers provide strict specifications for dried fruit because they want to maintain the same quality and eating experience for shoppers each time they buy a product which includes it. For example, a consumer might notice if there were considerably fewer sultanas in their bowl of cereal from one month to the next.

As the UK has an established relationship with Turkey, factories in the region have been able to invest in the infrastructure required to meet manufacturers’ exacting standards.

However, South Africa has also been improving its infrastructure over recent years, achieving compliance with British Retail Global Standards and supplying 8,000 metric tonnes to the UK as recently as 2019.

South African raisins have historically been more expensive than Turkish sultanas, and increased demand amid the Turkish shortfall has pushed them to a record high.

However, even at $2,450/Mt, they are now cheaper than Turkish sultanas, which presents an opportunity to grow the South African export market [w/e 7 February 2024].

Are raisins and sultanas interchangeable?

In theory, UK food manufacturers using Turkish sultanas in their products could switch over to South African raisins. In practice, however, this isn’t so simple…

That’s because the lye treatment gives sultanas different organoleptic properties: they have a slightly different taste and texture to raisins. As manufacturers strive to achieve consistency, they would want to avoid making changes to their product that a shopper might notice. 

Additionally, the new packers would have to prove they could meet the same exacting standards as those met by previous processors to strike a deal, by closely matching the desired colour and size of the fruit set by the manufacturer’s specification.

Finally, changing the ingredient and country of origin could have implications for the back of pack, which could be costly to update. 

Sun-Maid raisins

What does this mean for consumers? 

While there has not yet been any significant shelf price increases on packs of raisins or sultanas, the increased cost could be passed on to shoppers in the coming weeks, industry insiders have warned.

“As raisins are a common line that is price matched across many retailers, I do expect the market will wait for someone to move retail pricing first before we see the rest of the market follow,” says one industry expert.

As another industry source says: “How retailers manage pricing can vary – sometimes it happens immediately, or they may reduce pack sizes to keep the price the same.”

It’s less likely, however, that we’ll see dramatic price increases on products that include raisins and sultanas as an ingredient – like baked goods and cereals – as both manufacturers and retailers are under pressure to absorb cost pressures, and can often recoup losses by cutting costs elsewhere. 

So, while sultanas and raisins are getting more expensive, shoppers need not fear being priced out of buying hot cross buns just yet.