HortResearch says its fruit gene and compound database, claimed to be the largest in the world, will allow it to develop fruits with healthier profiles and the relevant science to demonstrate the benefits on human health.
"It is an anomaly that there is a downward trend in terms of consumption of fresh fruit yet people are increasingly interested in health and food manufacturers are looking for new opportunities," said Lynley Browne, marketing and communications manager at the firm.
There are signs however that fruit, already widely established as healthy, is set to become one of the major ingredients in health and functional foods.
"There is a whole new basis for buying fruit and fruit-based products. People are now buying broccoli for its health properties. In China, sales of berries surged during the SARS crisis," noted Browne.
However she added that often the health benefits of fruit are not well understood. Genetics will improve this knowledge and allow companies to promote the health benefits of fruit supported by proper science.
"There's an assumption that fruit is good for you but not a lot of evidence to show why, nor validation of these benefits. We're trying to fill the gaps, using one of the largest databases in the world," Browne told NutraIngredients.com.
The size of the HortResearch germplasm database also favours new product development, providing the firm's 300 scientists with the material to develop new cultivars for fruit species with enhanced health ingredients. It also allows them to screen the hundreds of fruits in the collection to identify those with a high content of a particular nutrient, for example vitamin C or polypenols.
"We could develop apples with higher polyphenol content, or high-anthocyanin berries," suggested Browne.
HortResearch is currently working with dairy giant Fonterra, its first international food partner, on a dairy-based fruit beverage. It is seeking new industry partners in Europe, particularly those interested in investing in R$D and innovation, as part of a strategic decision to concentrate on the health and food sector.
The organisation has already been involved in a number of consumer-oriented innovations. The ripeSense technology, developed with label producer Jenkins Group, allows consumers to check the ripeness of packaged fruit using a sensor label that picks up aromas from the fruit. It was voted by Time magazine as one of the world's most amazing inventions in 2004.
It has also developed the cultivar for Zespri's Gold Kiwifruit, a yellow-fleshed fruit with a sweeter taste and less hairy skin, that is now sold in Italy and Germany, as well as a kiwifruit with edible skin, and a 'kiwiberry', designed to appeal to current demands for convenience.
These novel, consumer-friendly fruits are being licenced to companies looking to protect the investment in innovation. Such a move would also give firms the necessary protection to invest in the science for a fruit-based health claim.
The first health claim on a fruit was approved in France last year - the cranberry's benefit on urinary health - but few fruit producers can afford to go this route.
"We are not about selling ingredients at the end of a pipeline but we are looking to exploit niche opportunities in the health food market," noted Browne.