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Special edition: Polyphenols

Identifying exotics: The untapped potential of berries and plants in Africa and South America

By Nathan Gray+

28-Jan-2014

Identifying exotics: The untapped potential of berries and plants in Africa and South America

The potential for identifying new and interesting foods and supplements from berries and other food plants found in regions of South America and Africa remains bountiful, according to one botanical expert.

The food and nutrition industry should expect to see many more 'exotic' fruits and berries reaching the market in coming years, as their as yet untapped potential is unlocked by researchers and suppliers, according to Professor Monique Simmonds of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, UK.

Speaking to NutraIngredients, Simmonds noted that while the uses of fruits and berries found in parts or Europe and Asia have a long history of being recorded, and that this data on 'traditional uses' can be used to identify candidates for new and interesting phenolic compounds - many parts of Africa and South America do not have this 'written history' of use, and therefore represent a complex but richly untapped source of potentially beneficial fruits, berries and plants.

"If you look at the foods, such as the berries, that you find in parts of Africa and South America, then there is a lot of potential. In places like Brazil and Chile, the numbers of cool fruit drinks that you can get are very regional and even going between places on one roadside you see a real diversity," said Simmonds.

"Now in parts of Brazil there has been some investment in getting some of those commercialised. And if they take those further then I do think we will see a greater diversity of fruits and berries appearing in supermarkets and also in drinks and snack bars."

Identifying exotics

Simmonds said that written historical uses of plants - such as those seen in Asisa - are a valuable way to identify candidates for high-value polyphenolic compounds that may be associated with health benefits.

However, many areas such as those in Africa and parts of South America simply do no have such written histories - meaning a great deal more local knowledge of what plants are used, or have been used in the past is needed.

Another important method is to look at how a plant survives in its particular habitat, she said.

"What is the chemistry in that plant, that might enable it to tolerate some form of stress."

"You'll often find that by having that knowledge, that you can transfer it to say 'maybe that plant will have a role on a particular biological system'," she suggested.

"That's the type of thing we are doing more of at Kew," the botanical expert confirmed.

Lost potential

Another area of potential, according to Simmonds, is in rediscovering older varieties of plants and fruits, which may have different polyphenol properties.

"For example in the UK, we have lost an awful lot of our peas," she said, noting that 50 years ago there were a huge number of pea types - each with a different taste and importantly a different chemical makeup.

"We've bred in consistency in terms of shape and colour to many of our products, and that doesn't always link with quality in terms of the compounds present in a plant," she said. "I think this is where science does play a role, it can help to understand what it is in the plant or berry that is linked to the health benefit."

This sort of analysis to aid in the identification and development of potentially interesting phenolics becomes even more important if you want to move away from a simple whole food that you buy in the supermarket to a supplement or product that you want to make some sort of claims about, said the Kew expert.

"I do think in this day and age, we need to know more about what's in it. Not just for quality control but also because traditional uses cannot show how these compounds might impact us in the modern age."

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