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(Reuters) - The prospect of eating kale or Brussels sprouts might make some people gag, but a British company is hoping a hybrid mix of the two vegetables called "kalettes" will appeal to taste buds when they start to hit the broad U.S. market this fall.
The tiny, curly-leafed purple and green sprouts are being promoted as the first major new vegetable product since broccolini, a cross between broccoli and the Chinese leaf vegetable kai-lan, was introduced in the United States in 1998.
Though vitamin and mineral-packed kale has become trendy among health-conscious Americans, its marriage with Brussels sprouts in the United Kingdom was a product risk, said David Rogers, sales manager for Britain's Tozer Seeds, which created the hybrid after 15 years of research and development.
"Kale for a long time has just been known as a sheep food, really," Rogers said of its reputation in Great Britain. "For a lot of people, the only time they'll eat Brussels sprouts is at Christmas."
The vegetable was introduced in the U.K. in 2010 exclusively to the up-market Marks and Spencer food chain under the name flower sprouts, and is now moving into other stores. Rogers said it was "catching on" with British buyers although prices are more than 10 times the cost of Brussels sprouts.
"New varieties of fruits and vegetables are introduced all the time, but they’re usually minor breeding tweaks that result in better flavor profiles or color," said Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the United Fresh Produce Association.
Those who have tried kalettes say they have a slightly nutty taste that is milder than kale and less earthy than Brussels sprouts.
"They look like a tiny little head of lettuce on a Brussels sprouts stalk," said Lisa Friedrich, director of marketing for Golden Sun Marketing, the Minnesota company hired to promote kalettes.
Despite the big promotional effort, some Americans have already sampled kalettes, albeit under a different name.
The Tozer seeds have been available for several years in the United States but have been slow to catch on, in part because growers say the vegetable hybrid is labor intensive, heat sensitive and takes almost six months to cultivate.
Nevertheless, some smaller U.S. growers have been selling it as a niche vegetable to the restaurant industry under the names Lollipop kale sprouts and BrusselKale.
"They're saying kalettes is a brand new vegetable. It is a brand new brand name," said John Moore, president of Salad Savoy Corporation in Salinas, who says he has a good relationship with Tozer but will continue marketing his Lollipop kale sprouts.
Small organic grower Rock Garden South in Miami also plans to continue distributing its BrusselKale to food stores in Miami and California.
Tozer is hoping to clear up the confusion by working directly with large growers - mostly in California - settling on the name kalettes, and getting them into U.S. supermarket chains across the country.
"We will have distribution pretty much nationwide in Whole Foods and Trader Joe's by September," said Friedrich.
"Obviously, our preference is to have it all under one name for consumers to avoid confusion. But we understand (that the other U.S. growers) had already started and made headway with their own effort. That's fine with us.""It is a new vegetable," she said. "It will be brand new (this fall) to the majority of customers."
Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jill Serjeant and Andrew Hay