A small, tart-tast­ing fruit long over­looked by foodies and health buffs is about to get its 15 min­utes of fame. The Kiwi black­cur­rant is be­ing hailed glob­ally as the fat-burn­ing, per­for­mance-boost­ing “su­per­food” of 2017. But is this trust­wor­thy sci­ence or

North & South - - In This Issue -

The Kiwi black­cur­rant is be­ing hailed glob­ally as the fat-burn­ing, per­for­mance-boost­ing su­per­food of 2017. Donna-marie Lever looks at the sci­ence beyond the hype.

Ge­off Hes­lop’s gnarly fin­ger­nails are faintly stained a deep pur­ple hue and his weath­ered hands are coated with dust and dirt. This is a messy busi­ness for a crop and seed farmer.

We’re wan­der­ing through ex­posed pad­docks in the pun­ish­ing Can­ter­bury heat; the air is thick and still, per­fect con­di­tions to har­vest berry trea­sure, hid­den among hun­dreds of rows of leafy black­cur­rant bushes. A year’s work in the fields hinges on to­day’s crop and Hes­lop is ex­cited, not just about what this day will yield, but for the berry’s fu­ture – which he reck­ons is about to burst wide open.

“I’m ex­cited, as much as a person my age can be ex­cited,” he says. “Over the past 15 years, I’ve had my doubts about why we’re do­ing this. But it’s start­ing to hap­pen now.”

Hes­lop, 58, took a punt back in 2001, plant­ing blackcurrants on his fam­ily’s farm near Lee­ston – land that’s been passed down through the gen­er­a­tions for al­most a hun­dred years. “I only have 108 hectares, with 40 hectares in blackcurrants, which is small by crop­ping stan­dards. But in the early 2000s, blackcurrants were do­ing well and there was a world short­age.”

The berries are highly risky to grow but can de­liver very healthy re­turns. The decade and a half that fol­lowed Hes­lop’s ini­tial plant­ing has weath­ered both suc­cess and near-fail­ure. “Strong winds just be­fore har­vest can see you lose a lot, and frost at flow­er­ing time is a big is­sue here. One year, I lost prob­a­bly 80 per cent of my crop.”

But Hes­lop – now chair­man of Blackcurrants New Zealand (BCNZ) – be­lieves his per­sis­tence is pay­ing off.

A re­cent story in the UK’S Tele­graph news­pa­per pro­claimed 2017 as an­other year in which plant-based di­ets will ex­plode into the main­stream; on their list of “su­per­food trends” was New Zealand blackcurrants.

“The last 12 months have seen a rise

in in­ter­est in the mus­cle re­cov­ery and fat-burn­ing ben­e­fits of beet­root, thanks to its ni­tric ox­ide con­tent,” the ar­ti­cle states. “Now, blackcurrants – rich in an­tiox­i­dants known as an­tho­cyanins – are set to take cen­tre stage for sim­i­lar rea­sons. Uni­ver­sity stud­ies have tested New Zealand black­cur­rant ex­tract, taken in supplement form for a con­cen­trated dose, and shown it can in­crease fat loss by up to a third dur­ing ex­er­cise. It may also di­late the body’s blood ves­sels, re­sult­ing in up to 20 per cent in­creased blood flow, and nu­tri­ent and oxy­gen de­liv­ery to cells.”

Al­gae fats, nut oils, chaga mush­rooms, water­melon seeds and maqui berries also make the list, but it’s the Kiwi black­cur­rant en­dorse­ment that has the in­dus­try here fizzing.

Hes­lop is a be­liever and, as the of­fi­cial taster, eats hand­fuls of fresh blackcurrants hourly dur­ing har­vest sea­son; he throws freeze- dried ones on his WeetBix the rest of the year. He says af­ter many doubts and some tough years, it’s heart­en­ing to see the UK me­dia fi­nally pick­ing up on our su­per­food’s su­pe­rior re­serves of an­tho­cyanins – the an­tiox­i­dant-rich com­pound that gives blackcurrants their deep pur­ple-black colour.

“Our blackcurrants have been proven to have higher an­tho­cyanin lev­els than oth­ers, and it seems to me it’s to do with our cli­mate – both here [in Can­ter­bury] and Nel­son,” says Hes­lop. But he’s a farmer, not a sci­ence man and is cau­tious when claim­ing just what this su­per­fruit can and can’t do.

“There are lots of peo­ple who swear by [blackcurrants]… on the mus­cle re­cov­ery side, or post- op­er­a­tion. In one case, a hip op­er­a­tion, the doc­tors said the pa­tient healed a lot quicker. There’s got to be some­thing to it, and that’s com­ing out in the tri­als now.”

BCNZ’S website points to fur­ther fruit-pow­ered po­ten­tial. “Pos­si­ble health ben­e­fits re­lated to an­tho­cyanins are now be­ing in­ves­ti­gated, in­clud­ing: cancer pre­ven­tion, con­trol of di­a­betes, an­timi­cro­bial ef­fects, re­tard­ing of the ef­fects of age­ing and dis­ease, pre­ven­tion of mem­ory loss and pre­ven­tion of loss of mo­tor skills.” But these bold state­ments are sci­en­tif­i­cally un­proven… so far.

BACK AT HES­LOP’S farm, the clunky grape har­vester picks up speed, vi­o­lently shak­ing the bushes on ev­ery row to free the blackcurrants from their branches. The haul is then gen­tly tipped into a truck that chugs away down a dirt track. Ea­ger stu­dents want­ing to earn hol­i­day cash are wait­ing to hand-pick the sticks and fo­liage from the har­vest. Time is of the essence. A truck is on its way and within hours, the berries will be on the road to a fac­tory in Stoke, near Nel­son, where they’ll go ei­ther straight to the cool­store or be pro­cessed on the spot into con­cen­trate for the juice mar­ket.

Not all berries are the same. Half of all blackcurrants grown here are tart on the taste­buds and go straight to Fru­cor, the mak­ers of Ribena. An­other big chunk goes to Barker’s, the Geraldinebased jam and drink maker. Around 20 per cent are freeze- dried in ex­tract or pow­der form; 15 per cent are frozen for ex­port and the rest go to biotech com­pany New Zealand Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. The supplement mar­ket for ath­letes, the health in­dus­try and nu­traceu­ti­cals is still small, but it’s pre­dicted emerg­ing sci­ence will make this an area of growth.

Un­for­tu­nately for the black­cur­rant, it hasn’t al­ways re­ceived such good press. In 2004, two Auck­land school­girls made head­lines world­wide when they ran a sci­ence ex­per­i­ment and found ready-to­drink Ribena con­tained al­most no vi­ta­min C, de­spite its claims. The mak­ers of Ribena at the time, Glax­osmithk­line, faced 15 breaches of the Fair Trad­ing Act af­ter the girls took their find­ings to the Com­merce Com­mis­sion.

In 2007, the com­pany was fined $217,500 af­ter ad­mit­ting it mis­led cus­tomers. In court, Glax­osmithk­line also ad­mit­ted it may have mis­led cus­tomers in TV ads by say­ing the blackcurrants in Ribena syrup had four times the vi­ta­min C of or­anges. It was a sucker punch that hit the black­cur­rant in­dus­try hard.

“It was [seen as a] David and Go­liath bat­tle, and things have moved on since then,” says Hes­lop. “But yes, the girls had

a valid point.” He’s quick to point out the lit­tle berry it­self was not at fault. “It came down to the way [the black­cur­rant] was han­dled and it will not hap­pen again. It is pro­cessed dif­fer­ently now.”

A few Kiwi grow­ers wound up their busi­nesses af­ter the Ribena ex­posé, or their berry farms “re­tired” as their own­ers did. And New Zealand re­mains a small player in the global black­cur­rant busi­ness, ac­count­ing for about five per cent of world pro­duc­tion. It’s still the largest sup­plier of blackcurrants in the South­ern Hemi­sphere, how­ever.

Hes­lop be­lieves blackcurrants ar­rived in New Zealand dur­ing World War I, and he says their health ben­e­fits have been talked about for years. Tra­di­tional heal­ers used them for con­di­tions such as arthri­tis, liver dis­ease, kid­ney stones, gout, in­flam­ma­tion of the mouth, stom­ach and bowel dis­or­ders, lung ail­ments, fa­tigue and as a di­uretic.

There’s now a small pool of 27 grow­ers here, farm­ing 1400ha of the fruit ev­ery year. Seventy per cent of the crop is grown in Can­ter­bury, the rest in the Nel­son re­gion. “We pro­duce 8000 tonnes of the fruit ev­ery year; Poland does more than 150,000 tonnes. They’re very well or­gan­ised, and have cheaper ac­cess to land and labour.”

What New Zealand has go­ing for it is qual­ity over quan­tity, says Hes­lop, a re­sult of the unique va­ri­eties able to thrive here. And this is where it gets in­ter­est­ing. EN­TER THE SCI­EN­TISTS. En­cour­aged by the in­dus­try and backed with hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars of fi­nan­cial sup­port from Blackcurrants New Zealand, the so-called “su­per-berry” is now set to be­come su­per-of­fi­cial – sort of. Sci­en­tists at Plant & Food Re­search, a gov­ern­ment-owned Crown Re­search In­sti­tute, are poised to lodge a “self-sub­stan­ti­ated” health claim: a 200-plus page dossier of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that’s been years in the mak­ing, in­clud­ing at least 10 hu­man clin­i­cal stud­ies. The pa­per, likely to be fi­nalised within the next six months, will claim, “New Zealand black­cur­rant an­tho­cyanins re­duce ex­er­cise ox­ida­tive stress.” (A self-sub­stan­ti­ated health claim is a doc­u­ment about a spe­cific food­health re­la­tion­ship backed by sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, but can­not re­late to dis­ease or se­ri­ous ill­ness.)

In one of the stud­ies, which ran over a five-week pe­riod in 2015, blackcurrants were found to re­duce ox­ida­tive stress by 40 per cent. In an­other, which in­volved ath­letes in the UK, a daily dose of black­cur­rant ex­tract taken for a week im­proved the time it took to cy­cle 16km by 2.4 per cent, and the dis­tance the rid­ers could sprint at full power was im­proved by 11 per cent.

Bio­chemist and Plant & Food sci­ence group leader Roger Hurst says the find­ings so far are quite re­mark­able. “Does the sci­ence throw the berry into the su­per­food cat­e­gory? Yeah, I think it does. I’m im­pressed, and I’m a sci­en­tist so I’m prob­a­bly one of the harder peo­ple to im­press,” he laughs.

A port­fo­lio of ev­i­dence has been steadily gath­ered by Plant & Food, un­der the radar, for years. With gov­ern­ment fund­ing of around $10 mil­lion, its pre­de­ces­sor, Hortre­search, car­ried out two large, long-term stud­ies prob­ing the po­ten­tial health ben­e­fits of sev­eral berries, in­clud­ing blue­ber­ries and boy­sen­ber­ries. It was dur­ing early test­ing, in 2003, that blackcurrants shot well ahead of other

clar­ity on just who is polic­ing the process.

MPI as­sures us it does check ev­ery dossier against what is re­quired by law. An MPI spokesper­son says the min­istry is also the en­force­ment agency and in­ves­ti­gates any­one mak­ing health claims that don’t have the back-up ev­i­dence. It’s kept busy, by queries from the pub­lic and com­peti­tors dob­bing each other in.

“For the first time, there is now a clear le­gal frame­work, so if there is a non- com­pli­ant health claim, the min­istry will as­sess and de­ter­mine the most ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion to take,” says the spokesper­son.

MPI en­cour­ages com­pli­ance rather than re­sort­ing to le­gal ac­tion or pros­e­cu­tion. “Where there is ev­i­dence that peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the rules, we fo­cus on re­mind­ing them of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and of­fer to help ex­plain the rules and reg­u­la­tions. For peo­ple less will­ing to com­ply, or who de­lib­er­ately look for an op­por­tu­nity to of­fend, we firstly re­mind them of the penal­ties and con­se­quences of their of­fend­ing be­fore tak­ing fur­ther ac­tion.”

The out­come could be costly, with busi­nesses fac­ing fines of up to $100,000, and in­di­vid­u­als up to $20,000.

Plant & Food’s Roger Hurst thinks the process is not only ro­bust but ac­tu­ally gives con­sumers more con­fi­dence than any al­ter­na­tive. “There’s an­other type of health claim, a nu­tri­ent con­tent claim, in which the level has to be proven and la­belled. The nu­tri­ent can then be linked to a health at­tribute, for ex­am­ple, ‘A cer­tain level of vi­ta­min C will be good for im­mu­nity.’ These are all pre-ap­proved by FSANZ.”

Blackcurrants don’t fit that cri­te­ria be­cause no pre-ap­proved claim ex­ists for an­tho­cyanins. Hurst thinks that’s a good thing, too. “Self- sub­stan­ti­ated claims are of a higher level and need a lot more ev­i­dence to se­cure, so the­o­ret­i­cally they carry more weight for the cred­i­bil­ity of the prod­uct and to pro­tect the con­sumer.”

HE’S ALSO SUR­PRISED it’s taken so long for blackcurrants to be picked up in­ter­na­tion­ally and says his sci­ence is very dif­fer­ent to the su­per­food fads that are noth­ing more than pass­ing trends.

“I’ve seen the frenzy and hype be­fore, but I’ve rarely seen qual­ity sci­ence that comes be­hind it. That’s why we’re ex­cited – we have the sci­ence. It’s not all pub­lished yet and that’s why we’re work­ing with the in­dus­try around the health claims. Blackcurrants clearly have some unique char­ac­ter­is­tics other fruits don’t have and we’re un­pick­ing those through the sci­ence.”

Plant & Food’s black­cur­rant sci­ence is backed up by UK re­search. Mark Willems, a pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Chich­ester, first got in­volved with New Zealand blackcurrants when a col­league met a Kiwi wo­man who was mak­ing a black­cur­rant supplement pow­der.

“She was keen to get uni­ver­sity ev­i­dence for her com­pany’s prod­uct, so was shop­ping around univer­si­ties,” he says. “But the cost of the re­search made it a non-starter. We’re in a sit­u­a­tion where we can take some risk, and we don’t need to go for fully eco­nomic projects.”

Willems launched a series of stud­ies and re­search us­ing a black­cur­rant supplement. His work with cy­clists and run­ners showed tak­ing it can in­crease fat ox­i­da­tion, re­duce lac­tic acid lev­els and en­hance blood flow dur­ing and af­ter ex­er­cise, sug­gest­ing ben­e­fits for ath­letes in a range of sports. How­ever, his re­search also shows blackcurrants don’t work on ev­ery­one. “Our re­sponse rate is now about 80 per cent, so they don’t al­ways work, which is nor­mal.”

Willems says trial con­di­tions don’t al­ways mimic real life, ei­ther. “The sci­en­tific find­ings are ob­tained un­der con- trolled con­di­tions, dif­fer­ent to nor­mal peo­ple’s lives. We try to keep as close to nor­mal as pos­si­ble; for ex­am­ple, it’s com­mon in sports nu­tri­tion to test peo­ple af­ter an overnight fast, but ath­letes are not go­ing to ex­er­cise af­ter an overnight fast, so we al­low them break­fast a few hours be­fore train­ing.”

Al­though Willems is im­pressed, he stops short of call­ing blackcurrants a su­per­food. “We don’t use the term, but it is per­form­ing well. When you com­pare some of its ef­fects with other berries, it’s very good for you, prob­a­bly be­cause most peo­ple are an­tho­cyanin- de­fi­cient. We have yet to mea­sure gen­eral health over a long pe­riod of time – six months or more – so we can see what the health pa­ram­e­ters are, like blood pres­sure and blood work. We want to see if they show any ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects.”

He’s also keen to see clin­i­cal tri­als on health ben­e­fits beyond those be­ing car­ried out on in re­la­tion to ex­er­cise, mus­cle stress and in­flam­ma­tion. “My wife is us­ing black­cur­rant [ pow­der] to re­duce menopausal symp­toms – and it works for her.” That’s anec­do­tal only, but he’d like to see fur­ther re­search.

“It fits into the grow­ing aware­ness around eat­ing healthy, func­tional foods. It’s not only blackcurrants; there’s wide in­ter­est in all berries’ health ben­e­fits. I think we could see a bat­tle of the berries… The New Zealand black­cur­rant could do well.”

Willems and his team plan 10 fur­ther clin­i­cal tri­als on New Zealand blackcurrants over the next four to five years. Re­search by Plant & Food is also on­go­ing and lo­cal sci­en­tists hope once the health claims be­come of­fi­cial, this sci­en­tific stamp of ap­proval will also gen­er­ate more money for grow­ers and ex­porters. Hurst says the work will prob­a­bly be used to cre­ate black­cur­rant­derived prod­ucts based around the proven ex­er­cise-re­cov­ery health claim.

Willems agrees but thinks Kiwi grow­ers will need to move quickly, as other coun­tries will close in on the sci­ence.

“It doesn’t mat­ter where the black­cur­rant comes from as long as you ex­tract the right amount of what’s in it. For a health prod­uct made from English blackcurrants, for in­stance, you’d [have to process] more of them to get the same ben­e­fits. The ad­van­tage with New Zealand blackcurrants is that they’re nat­u­rally rich in an­tho­cyanins.” +

Ge­off Hes­lop, Can­ter­bury grower and chair­man of Blackcurrants New Zealand: “Our blackcurrants have been proven to have higher an­tho­cyanin lev­els than oth­ers, and it seems to me it’s to do with our cli­mate – both here [in Can­ter­bury] and Nel­son.”

Seventy per cent of the black­cur­rant crop is grown in Can­ter­bury, the rest in Nel­son. New Zealand pro­duces 8000 tones of the fruit each year, half of which goes straight to Fru­cor, the mak­ers of Ribena.

Bio­chemist and Plant & Food group leader Roger Hurst says the sci­ence backs blackcurrants’ su­per­food sta­tus.

Mark Willems, a pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Chich­ester: “I think we could see a bat­tle of the berries.”

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