Not cherry picking: NZ hopes cherry functional health benefits can help boost exports

By Nurul Ain Razali

- Last updated on GMT

New Zealand is investigating nutritional benefits of the cherry in conjunction with the Riddet Institute. ©Getty Images
New Zealand is investigating nutritional benefits of the cherry in conjunction with the Riddet Institute. ©Getty Images

Related tags New zealand cherries HVN Riddet Institute

New Zealand is pumping in cash to boost its cherry-growing industry by funding research to assess the nutritional value of the stone fruit that has been purported to reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure and improve sleep among many.

For a start, the country’s High-Value Nutrition (HVN) Ko Ngā Kai Whai Painga National Science Challenge has awarded a development grant worth NZD$55,000 (USD$34,000) to Cherri Health and Manufacturing (CH&M). The development grant targets emerging industries to help boost their growth.

The firm will collaborate with the Riddet Institute of Massey University to identify commercial opportunities for six species of New Zealand cherries as functional health products.

“New Zealand cherries are exported to China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Consumers purchase these cherries as gifts, especially during Chinese New Year. We have an advantage as the cherry season coincides with the festival.

“Last summer, from December to February, we saw a large, double-digit growth year-on-year for the cherry export. The export value is estimated to be worth NZD$78m (USD$49m). Therefore, we see a massive potential for growth.

“With the research on bioactive ingredients, we can compete with other markets like North America by having stronger nutritional claims. We are targeting a 20% growth next year,” ​said Joanne Todd, Director for the HVN National Science Challenge.

HVN is one of the 11 National Science Challenges in the country and has NZD$45m (USD$33m) worth of funding to be disbursed from 2019 to 2024. Hosted by the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the challenge is a mission-led programme of innovative research into the health attributes of New Zealand-produced foods for major export markets.

“Even if the cherries were damaged by storms, we can still use them to make other products with health benefits. This is where we are also looking at the supply chain through product development and reduce food waste. For instance, the cherries can be made into juices, chutney, flavouring and ice- creams,”​ Todd added.

Research details

Dr Ali Ahmadinejad  cropped
Dr Ali Rashidinejad of Riddet Institute. ©Riddet Institute

Led by Principal Investigator and food scientist Dr Ali Rashidinejad, the research is built on earlier literature that suggests fruit grown in the country tend to have enhanced bioactive benefits due to high exposure to UV light, for instance, boysenberries and blackcurrants​.

The project aims to explore the bioactive and nutrient properties of six popular cherry varieties – Bing, Kordia, Rainier, Lapin, Sweetheart, and Staccato. The project also investigates whether the test results meet the threshold to allow making any health claims on the possible bioactive properties of our cherries.

Some factors to be analysed are proteins, carbohydrates, sugars (fructose, glucose and galactose), fats and fibres. Fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D and K, and water-soluble vitamins like C and B groups are also being examined.

In terms of antioxidant properties, the most salient factor to be investigated would be the total phenolic content in the samples collected. However, the concentration of some specific compounds such as melatonin, phenolic acids and anthocyanins will also be determined using techniques, such as high-performance liquid chromatography.

The team also took fresh samples from the orchard that will be compared with those taken at the packing house to identify any nutrient or bioactive loss during transportation and packaging.

After the research concludes around Q4 2022 or early 2023, it could pave the way for bigger corresponding projects, such as manufacturing functional foods and formulations with health claims. Further research with the potential of measuring the bioactivity in vivo through clinical trials may also follow.

“We think NZ cherries have superior health benefits compared to the cherries grown overseas, but due to the lack of knowledge, we haven’t capitalised on that yet.

“Based on the figures from our industry partner (CH&M), around 30% of the annual output or around 8,000 tonnes of the fruit are wasted annually, and this can increase during the years with bad weather. Thus, one of the next steps is searching for ways to valorise this massive waste”​ said Dr Rashidinejad.

CH&M CEO Phil Alison forecasted that Cherri and other Otago cherry growers’ new plantings will see a huge surge over the next five years, leading to a significant increase in the volume of waste. Turning this waste into a health-enhancing product will help the environment, create new jobs, and offer extra health benefits to consumers, he said.

“We are excited by the results that this project is set to deliver, and the prospects that will come out of validating cherry bio-actives including identification of high-value food opportunities from second-grade cherries and cherry waste,”​ said Alison.

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