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Berries: Nature's little pills

They’re good on pavlovas, or straight from the punnet. But research shows berries are also very good for the body. And, as Ben Fahy discovers, some savvy New Zealand growers are zeroing in on the increasingly lucrative ‘functional foods’ market.

Heading down to the local berry farm with the family to pick-your-own (or, in some cases, picking up a punnet from the supermarket) is practically a rite of passage in New Zealand.

And while both fresh and frozen berryfruit remains popular on the domestic market, high land costs, extreme weather, low crop yields, the fluctuating dollar and new global competition means the going’s pretty tough for many growers at present. But there’s growing excitement as study after study backs up what the industry has long been trumpeting: some berry varieties can indeed lay claim to being superfruits.

John Gibb from SuJon Berries in Nelson, one of the country’s largest berry exporters, says “health is the biggest industry in the world” and berries are in a good position to take advantage of the growing global consumer focus on healthy foods, with the blackcurrant industry in particular showing a desire to add value by venturing into new markets.

According to Plant & Food Research and Horticulture New Zealand’s Fresh Facts, blackcurrants, blueberries, boysenberries and strawberries are the top earners in terms of combined domestic and export sales for fresh and processed goods. And while New Zealand growers produce around two-and-a-half times the amount of blackcurrants than blueberries, Gibb says blueberries are probably first in consumers' minds because they were first to market their various health claims.

But because blackcurrants have very high levels of anthocyanins, polyphenol content, Omega-3 and Omega-6, vitamins and minerals (up to double that of blueberries, and four times the vitamin C of oranges), he believes they will eventually become number one, as the trend towards functional foods, nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals gains momentum.

“Consumers are becoming more aware of where the goodness comes from. In New Zealand and other markets, it’s an aging population and people are asking what food can do, rather than drugs, and blackcurrants are one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. It’s got the wow factor.”

He says the outlook for growth is astronomical and he has plans to expand its successful products here and offshore (SuJon has already started exporting to China). It’s also come up with new ones, such as a pick-me-up for horses and blackcurrant powder, by investing in technology and research. After a decision was made four or five years ago to own the IP around some of the processes, he says the company has already secured worldwide patents for some of its technology and products and through its international teams and word of mouth it’s starting to see the benefits.

“We’ve got a good story to tell and places like Japan like hearing that story. And when it’s backed up with science, it’s an even better story,” he says.

While the story is enticing, a significant marketing budget is required to tell consumers about it. Or, as Gibb says, what the berryfruit industry needs is “burnable cash” to raise the revenues and point out some of the health properties.

David Eder, who has been a blackcurrant grower and horticulturalist since 1965, has invested heavily in science with Just The Berries, the company he started in 2000. With a Japanese shareholder and a 50 percent shareholding that was sold to New Zealand Pharmaceuticals Limited in 2003, it now has teams in Japan and America promoting the health benefits of the fruit. And while he says blackcurrants might not be quite as sexy as some of the other berry fruit, pomegranates are a good example of what can happen if marketing muscle is exerted.

After being shown to improve heart health, it went from a fringe fruit that was sold as a Christmas table decoration in the US to a massive industry, with juice brand PomWonderful turning over more than US$60 million a year by itself. The same is true of cranberries when it was discovered they helped kidney conditions.

According to Eder, who also exports an award-winning sparkling cassis blackcurrant fruit wine with his son, New Zealand has a competitive advantage over other countries because of our higher levels of UV light, clean air and good soil. This leads to a darker, sweeter fruit and this reputation for quality certainly helps, particularly in Asia.

“We can say we have the best and the healthiest berries in the world because of how they taste,” he says. “We know we’ve got a good product. Zero residues and good traceability. There’s a lot of consumer confidence in how they get there.”

Studies on the health benefits of blackcurrants have shown some amazing results, with extracts shown to lessen the absorption of radiation, decrease the incidence of asthma, decrease inflammation, decrease lactic acid, improve eye, neurological and digestive health, help Parkinsons sufferers, reduce tumours and many other remarkable things.

For Eder, it’s not just about selling more fruit to drinks companies (he says 99 percent of growers belong to the blackcurrant cooperative and largely supply fruit to GlaxoSmithKline for Ribena production, Enza and Barkers). It’s about controlling the value chain. And the only way to grow the sector is to grow the market.

He says sales are going well in Malaysia, Singapore and there are auspicious signs for China, India and Hong Kong. But one of the issues, he says, is that big pharmaceutical companies simply don’t want to get involved with natural remedies, partly because they can’t patent generic foods so there is no money in it for them. Unless companies selling natural products can build a brand and be the first to market, he says it’s on a hiding to nothing.

He says there is a sense in New Zealand and around the world that cooperation rather than competition is a better way to push the industry forward and while there hasn’t been a great deal of marketing money in the past three years, the international blackcurrant association was formed in 2008 with the goal of promoting the fruit.

As part of a research programme called ‘New Berries’ Plant & Food has been looking into the health benefits of berries.

“These crops have very high anthocyanin levels,” says Andrew Mackenzie, business development manager for plant varieties at Plant & Food research. “But it’s nice that we’re finding a whole raft of health benefits. The market has been crazy and it’s taking off everywhere. We’re waiting for it to stop but the suppliers can’t keep up. Berries seem to be good for a whole lot of things.”

Gibb says berries are like the canary in the mine for climate change and, with frosts and wind meaning crop yields have been around 50—60 percent of the normal rate, he says “we’re heading towards a time when good fruit will become more expensive”.

One way to deal with increasingly difficult climatic conditions is through plant breeding. This is a key aspect to the work of Plant & Food Research, which uses plant breeding and genetics to provide cultivars that are more productive, give better yield and are more resistant to disease.

Mackenzie says research is also being done into whether the health attributes of the fruit are changed when berries are frozen. The industry is also working on devising new freezing techniques to lock the goodness in, says Gibb, which will increase the scope for export.

There are plenty of difficulties faced by growers at the moment. Ten years ago, Mackenzie says New Zealand exported 95 percent of its blueberry crop to Japan, but due to competition from the likes of Chile, which has the critical mass to fill shipping containers, rather than use air freight, its market is now largely limited to Australia and New Zealand. Raspberries have also felt the cool breeze of globalisation, with places like Serbia able to grow crops much cheaper. Gibb says New Zealand now imports 90 percent of its raspberry requirements. But the industry’s ambitious plans for growth and continuing research into the health benefits mean the potential is there for New Zealand to stamp its mark on new, potentially very lucrative global markets.

So don’t feel bad about having that extra piece of pav this Christmas. Just make sure there are a few berries on top.

The new wunderberries

With the hunt on to find the world’s next super fruit, there’s plenty of hype about new and exotic berry varieties.

“There seems to be a new wonder berry every week,” says Plant & Food Research’s Andrew Mackenzie. “Some of them are interesting and high in anthocyanins, but some of them are quite acid. They’re almost inedible so sugar needs to be added.”

The Brazilian acai berry is proving popular, as is the goji berry, which has been used in China and Tibet for thousands of years for longevity and has the potential to be grown in New Zealand. Many of these new berries are imported in powder form (for example, Matakana Superfoods offers ‘the big four’: Goji, Acai, Maqui and Yumberry).

And, in a similar fashion to blackcurrants, research is showing that extracts from some of them are good for muscle recovery and eye ailments. As such, they are being incorporated into cosmetics, tea, coffee, breakfast cereals, health supplements, sports drinks and even alcoholic beverages. But Mackenzie thinks the market for these types of berries—as well as the small number of growers producing fresh cranberries—is pretty limited in New Zealand.

By the numbers

Growers

240/285

Planted area (hectares)
2,652/2,754

Crop volume (tonnes)
23,108/13,630

Domestic sales (millions)
$58.9/$26.2

Export sales
$19.8/$13.8

Fresh berryfruit exports, dominated by blueberries (81%), increased 8% over 2009, which was the previous record export level.

Blueberries exported in 2010 were a record $16 million, which was a 20% increase over 2009, with $12 million exported to Australia. Strawberries were just behind blueberries in terms of domestic sales with $21 million.

Frozen berry fruit was worth $10 million in exports. And exports of fruit preparations were worth $36.3 million, 38% above 2009. This was dominated by blackcurrant preparations worth $15.4 million, most of which was sent to Asia. This is up from $9.1 million in 2005.

Jams, jellies and purees (not necessarily from berries) were also worth $48 million in exports in 2010. (Source: Plant and Food Fresh Facts)

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.