Kale may be king of value-added fresh produce, at least among leafy blends and mixes.

Grower-shippers report growing sales. New products have continued to come out in the past year. Among consumers the buzz has not ebbed.

“The hottest item I’m seeing right now is kale,” Ed Odron, owner of Stockton, Calif.-based Ed Odron Produce Marketing Consulting, said Feb. 25.

“Red, green, chopped and washed, salads. Everybody’s jumped into value-added kale, including major players like Dole, Taylor Farms, Fresh Express.”

Nutritional benefits are driving the demand, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

“Kale is the darling of everybody these days,” Means said.

“It’s a big deal, in general, and very hot in juicing. Kale is part of the cruciferous family, which we know is one of the most important to be eating — brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage. A lot of folks are taking to it for health.”

Sales of value-added kale products at Oxnard, Calif.-based San Miguel Produce were up just over 100% in 2012, said Jan Berk, vice president.

“The past four to five years, San Miguel has been working strategically with key retailers to drive this kale trend by developing new conventional and organic kale items such as blends and special cuts for cooking and salads,” Berk said.

The company also developed other nutrient-dense greens to build upon that trend. Such greens and kale market equally well as comfort food or health food, she said.

“Both of these categories are trending high,” Berk said.

“Given the current economy, people are turning to traditional comfort foods and/or looking to eat highly nutritious foods to promote better health.”

Uses for kale have been more varied than seems typical for produce items.

“A really interesting development with some of the deeper greens is that consumers are using them not just for salads, but for cooking, juicing and smoothies,” said Samantha Cabaluna, vice president of communications and marketing for San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based organic grower-shipper Earthbound Farm.

More uses are likely to mean more overall consumption, she said.

Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Salinas, Calif.-based Church Bros. LLC, said he’s even seen kale in cocktails. In February, Church Bros. launched Italian Greens for foodservice.

Under the Tuscan label, the product blends black and scarlet baby kales with wild arugula. Church Bros. is likely to bring it to retail later in the year, Van Eeghen said.

Cocktails with kale might be on the faddish side, but the drum beat of new recipes and cooking uses has been steady.

“Everybody’s been touting it and saying how good it is,” Odron said.

“But folks in the South have eaten kale, collards and mustard greens forever. Out West, a lot of consumers realized the nutritional value of it. They just weren’t crazy about putting some bacon in, boiling it and serving it like cooked spinach. Now ways are being found to tantalize the menus and make it attractive. The San Francisco Chronicle just had a kale casserole (recipe) with mushrooms, onions and cheese.”

Guadalupe, Calif.-based Apio Inc. introduced its Sweet Kale Vegetable Salad under the Eat Smart label last year.

“It continues to exceed our expectations,” said Cali Tanguay, director of marketing and technology.

“Our retailer partners were quick to recognize the value of this product and create space for it.”

Kale also draws consumers seeking alternatives to lettuce salads, Tanguay said.

Earthbound’s Power Greens, which includes kale, and its Zen Blend, which includes chards, also launched in 2012.