Food as the cure

Why New Zealand will be spending over $100 million on trying to find clever, branded foods that will make us healthy – and rich

What if we could find a super-food that mitigated some of the bad stuff that happens when you get fat – high cholesterol, problems with blood sugars, or the inflammation linked strongly with diabetes in the scientific literature?

What if New Zealand could sell a branded weaning product that helped prevent babies developing allergies?

What if we could find a food that helped people worldwide with indigestion, bloating – or even (dare one mention it) flatulence?

This week, some of New Zealand’s top scientists will appear before  the Ministry of Business and Investment, presenting the fine details of an ambitious proposal, which involves spending $80m of taxpayer funding (plus an estimated $20m of private sector money) on coming up with cunning, health-related food products that we can sell overseas.

If all goes according to plan, the culmination of the 10-year project would see the end of New Zealand’s almost total reliance on commodity food exports. Instead, people around the world will be buying and eating branded, scientifically-proven, New Zealand food which will make them feel better.

Well, that’s the idea anyway.

The project is called the High Value Nutrition (HVN) Science Challenge, which sounds a bit like something the Woman’s Weekly might launch in the run up to the holiday season – but isn’t.

Instead it’s more like the food equivalent of a scheme to find – and market – the cure for the common cold.

The HVN concept was launched in April by Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce, the biggest of almost a dozen Government-sponsored science challenges.

Since then, the five lead agencies behind HVN (three universities: Auckland, Massey and Otago; and two Crown Research Institutes: AgResearch and Plant and Food) have been working to come up with three proposed areas to focus on:

Metabollic health – the bad stuff that happens when you gain weight
Gut function – how foods make you feel as they go through the digestive process, including allergic reactions
Weaning – building on New Zealand’s expertise in the infant formula market to develop weaning foods that help prevent babies developing allergies

Professor David Cameron-Smith, deputy director of Auckland’s Liggins Institute and head of the HVN challenge, says much of the major health research going on around the world focuses on the big medical issues of the day – cancer, heart problems, Ebola etc – not on the unpleasant, often debilitating, but not always life-threatening problems associated with aging, eating and allergies.

But the potential worldwide consumer market for healthy food products that actually work is huge, he says.

“These are important things that take the edge off life, though they don’t kill you. If you can create a product that gives someone back the bounce they’ve lost, that’s a significant market opportunity.

“Or take a parent with a child that has developed an allergic response. There’s nothing more powerful in terms of getting that parent to make radical and instantaneous changes to their diet.”

Cameron-Smith says the emergence of affluent food consumers in Asia has given New Zealand an opportunity to explore the different attitudes to food, and the different health issues and priorities in that region.

But largely, we don’t know what these are.

“We are caught on the hop. There are pockets of knowledge in our most successful companies, like Fonterra and Zespri. But only a handful of New Zealand companies can afford consumer insight, so if we want to understand the health issues faced by people in the countries we are selling food to and what their motivations are in buying the food they buy, then we need to make a more purposeful investment in research.

“And we need to get started sooner rather than later.”

He says gut function is an area of particular concern in Asia, where the topic of one’s digestion is far more openly discussed than in more prudish western countries.

“It’s a forefront topic in terms of food purchasing choices in Asia. Flatulence is a constant topic of conversation, but it’s not an area of great research.”

The High Value Nutrition Science Challenge – the largest single investment ever made in biological sciences by the Ministry of Business and Investment (MBIE) –will start by looking at consumer needs, rather than beginning with research around individual food products, Cameron-Smith says – a deliberate shift from the way research has tended to be done in the past.

And the rationale for the consumer focus is that the ultimate goal for the project is to come up with foods that will boost our high value food exports.

“The current dominant industry paradigm in New Zealand is investigating firstly the possible health benefits of foods, ingredients and bioactives (often via untargeted screening), and then exploring markets in which to sell them.

“[But this model often involves] little knowledge of the consumer’s needs, a lack of regulatory approval and an inability to sustain consumer confidence in health benefits.

“This is unlikely to be an effective mechanism of realising the growth in export revenues required to meet the Government’s expectations.”

Instead, the HVN approach is to look at export consumers, particularly in Asia, and the biological mechanisms of the health issues affecting them, and how food might impact those.

Only then will the project make a link to foods that could be used to solve these problems, and then companies will work on branded products for the export market.

This week is crunch time for HVN, when the work of the HVN board and industry advisory panel (a who’s who of food scientists and heads of Kiwi food companies) present their proposal to MBIE, which will then put it in front of an international review panel.

This panel will look at the documents over Christmas and then grill the HVN experts on-camera on February 2. The panel will report back to MBIE’s science board in March, which will put a recommendation to Steven Joyce.

If the minister approves the proposal, the test tubes and the clip boards should come out in April next year, Cameron-Smith says.

While the total project is expected to be worth $100m, with the Government portion being $80m, the first tranche (through to 2019) will involve $14.5m of priority research investment for the three areas, plus another $7m of contestable funding that could be used by companies or groups of companies for their own projects.

The second tranche, between 2019 and 2024 will see $26.5m invested in research and product development, and $14m in the contestable funding pool.

The remaining funding will be consumer and regulatory projects, plus administration and contingency funding.

HVN is hoping that the Government investment will be boosted by money from industry. While MBIE initially said private sector funding could amount to up to $100m, HVN now estimates it is likely to be closer to $20m.

“We’ve run a survey with 40 New Zealand food companies and in the new year we will be sitting around the table with them to get more input. Of the 40 companies surveyed, only two said they were not willing to invest and to get behind the initiative.”