The southern Hemisphere's best-kept secret
Green-lipped mussels, manuka honey, horopito, feijoa and kiwi enzymes — these are just a few of the novel ingredients originating from a small country deep in the South Pacific. FF&N editorial director Peter Sofroniou reports on how New Zealand is becoming a leader in ingredients innovation
New Zealand has ridden a wave of publicity in recent years on the back of movies like The Lord of the Rings, and its spectacular scenery regularly garners votes as one of the more-popular tourist destinations. But what's not so well known is the plethora of ingredients, natural products and gourmet foods that originate from this small country. In fact, New Zealand is quietly earning a reputation as a leading supplier of healthful and functional ingredients and products.
Building on many ancient traditions handed down from the Maori indigenous people, and with an envious reputation for food safety and quality, the country has combined its traditional ingredients and plants with new technologies and cutting edge research — and is positioning itself as a leading player on the functional foods world stage.A small country only the size of Japan, Britain or California, its distance from other major continents has resulted in a clean environment, well protected from disease, pests and pollution. A small domestic market combined with its geographical isolation has forced the industry to seek out external markets and trade, with its nearest large neighbour, Asia, going back many years.
The resulting strong business relationships have helped fuel the growth of New Zealand's health-ingredients industry, driven by strong consumer demand for functional foods in Asia, the largest market for these exports. These account for 56 per cent of sales, with 20 per cent exported to Japan alone, according to a report by New Nutrition Business for the government agency New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.
With 128 companies operating in the field of health ingredients and functional foods, many are turning to other major markets such as the US and Europe, with a high-profile presence at international trade shows like SupplySide West and SupplyExpo in the US and Vitafoods in Geneva — where they report growing awareness and interest in New Zealand and its unique ingredients. The country's technology and clean, green environment are major talking points, say exhibitors.
Michael Flatman, marketing executive from raw materials company Keratec, has exhibited at recent international events and believes his customers perceive New Zealanders to be innovative and resourceful. "We have to be," he says. "Our distance from any sizeable markets means that we have to develop and produce products that are leading-edge."
Traditionally seen as a country focused on primary agricultural sectors, this image is changing as a study into the level of value-added products in food and beverage exports shows. Professor Ray Winger of Massey University found that New Zealand food manufacturers have a high level of value-added in both food and ingredients. Value-added products represented 54 per cent of all food and food ingredient exports in 2004, and while the dairy sector recorded a decline in total revenue for 2004, it still notched up a hefty 20 per cent increase in value-added products compared to 2003.
Innovative companies of all sizes have focused on sourcing unique bioactive materials, applying appropriate R&D skills and working toward innovation in product and process development to add value.
Keratec is a good example of a young company, owned by a conglomerate of sheep farmers, based in a traditional sector that has added value to create an entirely new ingredient. Flatman observes: "Of course, everyone thinks that New Zealand is simply full of sheep, and we have been the butt of many sheep jokes over the years, so we're quite used to them. In reality we do have a lot of sheep, and they are raised using the world's best agricultural practices. At Keratec, we have linked into this agricultural sector to develop our unique keratin protein products using patented technologies."
In contrast, Fonterra is New Zealand's largest company, a co-operative owned by nearly 12,000 dairy farmers that generates 20 per cent of New Zealand's export receipts. But the world's largest dairy ingredients company has seen the potential for functional foods and invested in researching new ingredients with a seven-year Bioactives Discovery programme to examine the components of milk. It has more than 20 technical teams investigating everything from probiotics, flavours, and health and nutrition, to applications, formulations and packaging.
As part of a four-year programme in conjunction with BASF and the New Zealand government, Fonterra is also investigating individualised nutrition — developing food products toward individual needs. It's a measure of how seriously large players are taking the functional foods market.
The health opportunity
New Zealand's industry has worked hard to identify health benefits of greatest importance and opportunity, and also those in which it can gain some competitive advantage. Joint health is a good example of a category that has produced a number of speciality ingredients unique to the country.
Sheep have proven to be an innovative source for one such ingredient called Cynatine FLX, derived from functionalised keratin protein extracted from pure New Zealand wool. "It's positioned as a natural alternative to glucosamine and chondroitin combining joint health and antioxidant properties into a single ingredient," says Keratec's Flatman. "This is something entirely new for the sector. Many of our customers are actually using Cynatine FLX in existing joint-care formulations that contain combinations of ingredients."
The company claims its patented extraction process from the wool keeps the natural amino acid keratin structure intact, enabling the body to absorb the amino acids during digestion. Extensive research has shown it to help prevent joint breakdown and build joint resilience with an anti-inflammatory effect. It can also increase the antioxidant glutathione and offers direct antioxidant protection for cells.
In the US, the joint health category is dominated by glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM, but New Zealand's formulators have investigated other ingredients and combinations with considerable success.
An extract from the green-lipped mussel, probably the first ingredient ever to be sold for joint health, has been marketed for more than 30 years as an oral supplement for joint inflammation, stiffness and pain. The first major clinical study in Scotland in 1980 on the Biolane brand showed it was effective in treating osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Since then, numerous laboratory and clinical studies have shown it has gastroprotective and even free radical-scavenging properties, in addition to its well-known anti-inflammatory properties. The ingredient is now used in combination with other joint-health compounds, including glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids.
Green-lipped mussel extract comes from New Zealand's indigenous green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus), which are grown on licensed coastal marine farms situated in pollution-free waters. 'Green Shell' and 'Green Lipped' are trademarks owned by the NZ Mussel Industry Council and can only be applied to this Perna canaliculus species. It's thought the development of the green-lipped mussel extract industry is the first example of the sea being farmed to produce a medicinal product to manage one of the world's most widespread diseases.
Clean and green animals
For marketers, the country's clean green image has proven to be a strong selling point, particularly in regard to animal-derived ingredients such as glandulars and chondroitin. New Zealand has made much of its government-certified BSE-free status, now recognized by the World Health Organization, and strict quarantine laws mean the country is free of all major animal diseases, such as foot and mouth disease and scrapie. With an internationally recognised high standard for animal husbandry practices, it has strong ingredient traceability systems from the farm to the consumer.
Waitaki Biosciences has led the commercialisation of animal-derived functional ingredients for the international market place. Its glandulars include pancreas, thymus, thyroid, adrenal and liver from free range-fed pasture animals, without the use of antibiotics and steroids, and certified BSE-free. Regional export manager Campbell Naish says the biggest demand is from the US, which remains the largest market for glandular products. "There has always been a very?strong?demand for New Zealand-derived glandulars, mainly on the West Coast, and there is growing demand from customers who specify only New Zealand glands."
In a country where the kiwifruit is the largest horticultural export, (worth US$440 million in 2005) fruit is increasingly being researched for functional applications. The hottest new trend in superfruits is fuelling the interest in all types of fruit, which looks set to play an increasingly important role in new-product development. New Zealand berryfruits are regarded as some of the best in the world, and there are a number of emerging less well known speciality fruits — aromatic feijoas, tamarillos and baby kiwifruit, fondly known as kiwiberries — all with the potential to enter the superfruit category.
HortResearch has specialised in fruit research science and technology for many years, with a reputation as the world's leading research centre on the health benefits of fruit. One of nine government-supported Crown Research institutes, Hort spends 15 per cent of its annual US$30 million budget on researching and developing health ingredients, with approximately 40 per cent of its revenue derived from commercial sources, including many successful collaborations with multinational companies.
Among many innovations, Hort-Research is developing new commercial varieties of baby kiwifruit called a kiwiberry (Actinidia arguta). The size of a large cherry, the fruit has a super-sweet flavour and can be eaten whole like a grape. A prototype drink concept has been developed called Belli, a natural defence 'fruit shot' based on the kiwiberry.
Business leader of the food and health division, Karl Crawford, thinks consumers are interested in novel varieties of fruit. "People seem to accept new types of fruit — mangosteen, pomegranate and acai for example, and, of course, the Gold kiwi," he said. Hort developed the cultivar, or plant variety, for ZESPRI's world-famous Gold kiwifruit — a yellow-fleshed fruit with a sweeter taste crossed between a melon and a mango, and less hairy skin.
"You can use conventional fruit as well, but you have to do something different with it," he says. For example, apples appear to be next on the health horizon as scientists seek to pack a bigger health punch by growing a fruit with red, gold and even green flesh.
A new red-fleshed apple has been developed by HortResearch and carries the rosy colouring right to the core of the fruit, given its unique colour by a high concentration of antioxidants. The company recently showed the world's red-fleshed apple beverage at IFT in Florida. Called Smart, it's a mental-performance beverage based on the red-fleshed apple. Hort's chief scientist, Dr Ian Ferguson, says: "Our research shows that consumers are willing to pay significant price premiums for fruit with novel colours and tastes, or added health benefits."
Berries are big
Health attributes associated with blue and red pigments in fruit have contributed significantly to the upsurge in consumer interest in berryfruit. New Zealand is the world's number one producer of boysenberries, an intensely flavoured dark berry with high levels of antioxidants and anthocyanins, and a high content of ellagic acid, which has been linked to cancer prevention.
Studies showing the link between consumption of berryfruit and improvement of age-related diseases are under way. Hort's Crawford says: "We are looking at the anti-ageing effects of blackcurrants — especially for cognitive health and maybe even to help prevent Alzheimer's." The institute's cultivar, the blackadder, has been bred for a stronger, darker colour and vitamin C content.
"Beverages containing juice or extracts from dark-coloured berryfruits are certainly in vogue right now, and we are exploring the potential of both of these beverages and other berryfruit products," he adds. New blueberry, raspberry (red and black), blackberry, boysenberry and blackcurrant cultivars with high antioxidant activity are being developed.
Research undertaken by another Crown institute, Crop and Food Research, and funded by honey company Comvita, has found that blackcurrant and propolis have exceptional antioxidant or free radical-scavenging activity, as well as other potential health benefits. One study showed that "while all the fruit extracts studied had remarkably high antioxidant activity levels, blackcurrant had the highest." Comvita has launched blackcurrant and propolis as part of a new range of antioxidants.
Denise Elliot, Comvita's technical manager, says "Studies of the health benefits of blackcurrants, blueberries and bilberries have confirmed their high antioxidant activity, and that they support circulation and capillary strength."
Apples, kiwifruit, pears, peaches and exotics are just some of the fruits Hort is studying with the aim of increasing scientific knowledge that can be applied to all fruits. "We are building a research platform that is applicable to a range of concepts, including mood, motivation, perception, memory and intelligence," says Crawford. In addition, Hort conducts research programmes on physical performance and fitness, as well as gut health and immunity, to build an understanding of the synergies between food components, and human health and wellbeing.
Kiwi is king
The kiwi bird may be the national icon of New Zealand, but it is the kiwifruit, named after the bird, which has become the country's internationally recognised symbol. The fruit, native to China and brought to the country by missionaries in 1904, has long been recognized for its digestive properties with a history of effective use in traditional Chinese medicine.
It is in New Zealand where most research has been conducted into applications that utilise every part of the fruit, including the seeds and waste materials, and it may be the most patented, as well as the most versatile fruit ever grown. It is being used to treat medical conditions such as digestive disorders and heartburn. In addition, it has significant food-processing applications as a fat replacer, stabiliser and bulking agent, and even use as a water-based sexual lubricant.
A powerhouse of nutrients, green kiwi is high vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, fibre and antioxidants, and a good source of folic acid and vitamin E. The Gold variety has even higher vitamin C levels and also contains lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene. But while ZESPRI, the international marketer of kiwifruit, is considering how best to develop and promote the fruit's functional properties, it is kiwi's enzymes that currently give this humble fruit a unique selling point.
Auckland-based Vital Foods has led the way in adding value to the kiwi. "Fifteen per cent of kiwifruit goes to waste — 30,000-40,000 tonnes is not exported," says director Bruce Donaldson. "So we thought about how to add value to a waste product."
In 1992 the company developed kiwifruit juice — a freeze-dried powdered juice mix called Kiwi Crush containing Zyactinase, a complex of enzymes extracted from kiwifruit by a patented process. The juice is now used by many leading hospitals for relief and prevention of constipation, and also in burns units and oncology wards.
The company has almost completed a blinded placebo-controlled 100-person clinical trial on Zyactinase for nonulcer dyspepsia, run by Dr John Wyeth, head of gastroenterology at Wellington Hospital, and co-authored by professor Nicholas Talley of the Mayo Clinic in the US.
A second trial, a 150-person three-armed clinical trial on chronic constipation, will get under way in August and a 100-person clinical trial on Kiwi Crush is also scheduled for this month.
In other research, the company isolated the protein-dissolving enzyme actinidin from fresh kiwifruit and encapsulated it into a dietary supplement called Zylax to relieve some of the symptoms of digestive dysfunction.
In addition to these functional properties, kiwifruit is suitable for numerous food-processing applications, among which is a patented natural fruit puree ingredient called Nektalite from Nekta International. This is a pastelike carbohydrate extract used as a fat replacer in sauces, cakes, nutritional beverages, cookies, ice cream and whipped desserts. It also acts as a stabiliser, texturiser and bulking agent and offers binding, aeration and suspension properties for conventional food applications.
Research and omega-3s
Much like the famous functional food cluster in Sweden, New Zealand companies work closely with private research institutions, universities and government agencies to ensure their products are based on hard science and then commercialised successfully, maximising the value of the raw materials.
Scientists are busy researching fish as well as fruit, and what's now being called a revolutionary development in omega-3 fish oil technology has been developed at The Riddet Centre, a leading international institute of food, nutrition and health research that is a partnership between Massey University, the University of Auckland and the University of Otago.
Massey's Omega 3 Emulsion is a patented fish oil emulsion that enables very high levels of EPA and DHA to be added to a large range of foods and beverages without fishy odours or flavours. It allows up to 500mg of EPA/DHA to be added to each 100g serving — a much higher level than can be achieved with any other commercially available technology, according to the researchers.
It is stable to heat treatments such as pasteurization and UHT, and comes in a liquid form that has been shown to perform well in yoghurts, ice cream, smoothies, muffins, bars and hummus dip. (See FF&N in September for more details.)
Co-director professor Paul Hougham says results from a human clinical trial on heart health and bioavailability show the omega-3 emulsion supplied in a normal food matrix is highly bioavailable and efficacious with respect to cardiovascular end-point measures. The work is currently undergoing peer review for an international scientific journal.
The centre is also researching protein hydrolysis using meat protein peptides to develop a mixture of proteins that optimises amino acids. This technology would be suitable for older people, for example to rebuild muscle mass and prevent muscle loss.
Another major source of omega-3 is the country's most important commercial fish species, hoki, found swimming in the clean waters around New Zealand. Marketed as New Zealand whiting in the US and Europe, it's used in McDonald's Fillet 'O' Fish and is suitable for many processed fish applications. The line of fat that runs through each fillet is rich in omega-3s and according to leading supplier SeaDragon Marine Oils, it has a naturally higher DHA to EPA ratio.
The Maori herbal heritage
Legend has it that a French nun and nurse, Mother Suzanne Aubert, helped develop New Zealand's native medicines. She worked with Maori healers and herbalists to develop and manufacture a range of remedies from plants — and it's said she was the first to combine Maori and Western medicines.
The leaves were traditionally used by the Maorito to treat fungal skin diseases, venereal disease, stomach pain and diarrhoea. Leaves were chewed for toothache, applied to the skin after being bruised and steeped in water, or they were taken internally as a decoction.
Researchers in the US and New Zealand have shown horopito to be extremely effective against yeasts, such as Candida albicans. In-vitro studies at the Cawthorn Institute in Nelson showed that dried P. colorata was twice as powerful at killing Candida albicans as sodium caprylate (an alternative natural antifungal). Horopito also contains the powerful antioxidant flavanoids quercetin and taxifolin.
During 15 years of research, Forest Herbs Research has pioneered the commercial development of horopito and patented nontoxic and stable methods of extracting active horopito leaf, using the extracts to target specific parts of the body.
The company found it to be a versatile plant with many potential applications, and created Active Horopito as a branded ingredient for use in supplements, functional cosmetic and food applications. The powdered leaf is used in dietary supplement applications and oil extracts in capsules to combat intestinal candidiosis.
Marketing manager Campbell Berry-Kilgour says fragrance and cosmetics companies are interested in Active Horopito extract because it acts as a natural preservative in cosmetics and creams, enabling companies to dispense with paraben preservatives. "Oil extracts are used at low concentrations as natural preservatives and as antifungal actives in creams, principally for vaginal yeast infections and athletes foot," he says. "It also serves as a functional ingredient for the food and beverage markets with applications as a flavour enhancer and a preservative that works particularly well with sorbic acid."
For culinary purposes, horopito is supplied as fine leaf particles and an oil extract. Horopito can also be used in oral products to enhance the peppermint flavour in toothpaste. The company has also launched the Kolorex consumer line of creams and supplements.
Healing with honey
The manuka tree was used by the Maoris for a large number of medicinal complaints, but it was leading honey company Comvita that demonstrated how science can be successfully married to branding and unique materials, with the New Zealand origin and the uniqueness of the material itself as part of the marketing story.
Honey now plays a role in mainstream medicine, helping to heal wounds by clearing them of infection, promoting wound-tissue regrowth, lifting dead tissue, reducing odour and scarring, and providing an ideal moist wound-healing environment.
The efficacy of manuka honey in speeding wound-repair has led to the use of honey-impregnated wound dressings combined with a highly absorbent seaweed fibre, in hospital systems in the UK and Japan, as well as New Zealand.
Researched over nine years in consultation with health practitioners, professor Molan says: "The results from this dressing have been excellent and the reception so far from the medical community and from patients has been very encouraging."
The phytochemical antibacterial activity of manuka is measured by the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), similar to a sunscreen rating — the higher the better. The UMF trademark reassures consumers that manuka honey has been strictly tested for its bioactivity.
A sting in the tale
The bee is the source of another novel ingredient — its venom. Nelson Apiaries has developed what it calls a 'world first' by mixing the venom with manuka honey.
"The therapeutic benefits of bee venom have been know for years — bee sting therapy was used for arthritis relief as far back as Hippocrates in 130 AD," says founder Phill Cropp. Research has been conducted in New Jersey on a group of 108 arthritic patients who failed to respond to traditional therapy. Bee venom was administered twice a week over a six-week period, with no serious side effects. Most subjects showed a marked improvement in their symptoms by the 12th treatment.
It's thought the compounds most likely to assist in healing are melittin (strong anti-rheumatic and anti-inflammatory), histamine (a vasodilator), hyaluronidase (a cell-membrane permeator) and apamin (a nerve-transmission enhancer). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the company is attempting to confirm this for arthritis, inflammatory diseases, tendon injuries, multiple sclerosis and hypertension.
With such a wealth of raw materials, it's no real surprise to find such a hotbed of innovation on the other side of the world, and while New Zealand companies may be small, they are proving to be highly competitive in international markets with a strong focus on new product development.
Concepts developed and successfully marketed in New Zealand are being transferred to other markets with excellent results. Look out — the Kiwis may be coming to a market near you!Additional resources and information from the report 'New Zealand's Health Ingredients & Functional Foods Industry' by New Nutrition Business for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.
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