From the Corners of the World: New Zealand: The Land of Milk & Honey

By Paul Altaffer & Grant Washington-Smith | December 1, 2011

Because of its location and strong innovation focus, the country is home to many nutraceutical opportunities.

There are not many “Corners of the World” dedicated to supporting and servicing the U.S. natural products industry like New Zealand. So intent is the New Zealand industry on building commercial relationships with the North American market that delegates and representatives of New Zealand companies always seem to turn up with their government officials during tradeshows. As further evidence of the country’s dedication to the market, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise is the only government partner of U.S.-based Nutrition Capital Network, which supports companies raising capital within the U.S. natural products industry.

It takes more, however, than government policy or good intentions to build a market. New Zealand wants to build a strong nutraceutical supply relationship with the North American market because it realizes that innovation and technology are keys to its future economic success and prosperity. But simply understanding what is needed for success and actually doing it are two very separate concepts.

In the mid 1990s, the realization dawned on this small South Pacific country that it could indeed build a future knowledge-based economy on smart technologies, such as IT or medical innovation. To maximize its advantage, New Zealand would first need to look to something the country was already expert at—food production and manufacturing. After all, starting with a food-based commodity and subsequently applying high-end, value added science is not the first time this had happened; the global pharmaceutical company GSK started in rural New Zealand as a humble dairy company, drying milk powder in 1904.

During the past decade, the New Zealand Government has partnered with research organizations and universities throughout the country and around the world. The result has been the development of new fruits and vegetables, as well as advanced nutritional science resulting in numerous success stories behind many of New Zealand’s commonly consumed foods and beverages.

Product Development the ‘Milky Way’

Dairy is a good example of a sector in which New Zealand has been applying innovation. Since the New Zealand dairy industry is a pastoral (grass-fed) and seasonal industry, the entire New Zealand dairy herd of around 4.2 million cows all come into calf at the same time, which means that a large volume of colostrum (first-milk—which is low in fat, high in protein and packed with natural antibodies) can be collected and processed cost effectively within a short period of time.

Similarly, lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase, which appear to be higher in pastorally grazed animals, are bioactive proteins extracted from whole milk using ion-exchange technology. This innovation now forms the basis of new technologies for bioactive dairy peptides extraction and isolation, such as those developed by Quantec Ltd. Immune Defence Proteins (IDP) is the company’s blend of highly selective antimicrobial peptides from milk that it discovered is highly selective against specific human pathogens, but not against natural, beneficial microflora. “It’s the perfect anti-microbial agent,” said Dr. Rod Claycomb, CEO of Quantec Ltd. “Just as nature intended it.”

Another New Zealand company showing success with a novel dairy ingredient in a pilot trial for sleep management is Somnaceutics (now owned by New Image Group). It has identified a novel sleep-inducing peptide from milk, which is only found in 10-15% of the dairy herd. In a self-reported trial of 144 subjects, 88% showed significant improvements in sleep quality, daytime alertness and energy.

More Money for the Honey

The New Zealand Honey industry has also been the beneficiary of more than a decade of research into the unique health-promoting properties. Much of the pioneering research into the health benefits of its most famous honeys—Manuka honey—came from Professor Molan at Waikato University. A great deal of early research centered on the in vitro analysis of Manuka honey’s antimicrobial effects on H. pylori. In recent years, however, this research has also extended to other pathogens such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Business that ‘Bears Fruit’

Kiwifruit has a long association with New Zealand. While it is not native to the country, the variety generally grown and eaten as a table fruit around the world (Hayward var.) was developed in New Zealand in 1924. The first commercial exports of kiwifruit from New Zealand occurred in the late 1940s to the U.K., and then to the U.S. in 1957.

Today, New Zealand grown kiwifruit is still exported as whole fruit around the world under the Zespri brand. However, since 2010, the New Zealand-based ingredient manufacturer Anagenix Ltd has been marketing the benefits of kiwifruit as an extract to the U.S. for improvements in digestive health and laxation, without the side effects commonly associated with high fiber diets. There are several universities and nutrition-based research groups in New Zealand involved in examining the gut health benefits of kiwifruit. Much of the research has been focused on how kiwifruit promotes the digestion of key nutrients in the diet, such as protein, vitamin C and iron.

The latest research on kiwifruit indicates that a unique polysaccharide within it may be a very useful source of pectin/glucomannan for the dietary management of weight loss. Work carried out in Scandinavia in 2004 has also demonstrated very interesting cardiovascular benefits for kiwifruit on blood and anti-platelet aggregation (a similar effect but unique action to that of aspirin).

Location, Location, Location

A potential advantage for New Zealand grown fruits and vegetables is its location in the world. It is well known by climate scientists that New Zealand represents a unique case study into the effects of increased UV radiation when compared to countries of similar latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, such as Germany. In fact, measurements of UV radiation in New Zealand and Germany have shown the UV irradiances in New Zealand to be much greater.

There are many examples of fruits grown in New Zealand with an exceptional phytonutrient profile. One is the Sweet Cherry (Bing var.), which was studied recently by New Zealand sweet cherry growers seeking to better understand the nutritional value of their crop in an effort to diversify their product offering. This process resulted in the analytical assessment of total phenolics and anthocyanin levels in the cherry. These results were then compared to the results from the same cultivars grown in cherry growing regions of California and Oregon (data tested by UC, Davis).

The New Zealand grown cultivars resulted in fruit with significantly higher total phenolic and anthocyanin levels. In fact, the total phenolics of the New Zealand fruit was shown to be 60% higher than the same cultivar grown in the U.S. And the antioxidant value (measure based on ORAC value) of the Central Otago Fruit was 300% higher when compared to the values found in the fruit from the same U.S.-grown cultivar. More recently it has been shown that the same variety of New Zealand grown Bing sweet cherry had very high natural levels of melatonin, which is something not typically found in sweet cherry, and is more associated with tart cherry.

Scratching the Surface of Opportunities

New Zealand continues to pursue innovation in nutraceutical products and ingredients, so expect to see red-fleshed, anthocyanin based apples and kiwifruit in the future. Other developments will likely focus on bioactive compounds coming from some of the country’s native plants and vegetables. New strains of probiotics, such as the range of novel oral cavity probiotics from BLIS Technologies Ltd are also expected in the future. Stay tuned, as New Zealand will continue to be a leader in novel, science-driven product development. 

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