Food-for-health Challenge scientists aim to boost NZ exports

Top scientists heading a major new research initiative to develop new food products with validated health benefits say they are delighted to be chosen to lead one of the Government’s ten National Science Challenges.

In an announcement by Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce today, the University of Auckland, Massey University and University of Otago, along with Crown Research Institutes AgResearch and Plant & Food Research, will team up for the Government’s High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge.

The task for the scientists from the five institutions is to produce, with other collaborators, cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research to help New Zealand companies take advantage of global demand for foods with health benefits. This ten year challenge is approved with $30.6 million subject to finalisation of contract conditions. A review at the end of five years means another $53.2 million becomes available for a second five-year period. Total funding for the High-Value Nutrition Challenge is up to $180.8 million over ten years.

The goals of the High-Value Nutrition Challenge are –

  • To establish a centre of research that is an authoritative voice on food-for-health claims, both nationally and internationally; Carry out clinically-based, biomedical research to provide new opportunities for the development of new foods that meet current and future consumer-driven health needs;
  • Assist New Zealand companies in developing foods and beverages that improve health Provide the scientific evidence to validate health claims for high-value food products so that New Zealand companies can establish new international markets (while also providing guidelines for the New Zealand public);
  • Undertake research informed by Mātauranga Māori and identify opportunities for Maori food producers; Help preserve the safety of the food supply chain and enable the production of consumer-valued foods-for-health.

“The Government has clearly signalled the science challenges must involve cutting-edge clinical, food and consumer science research that takes us in a new direction and we will be focused on exactly that,” says Professor David Cameron-Smith, Chair in Nutrition at the University of Auckland and head of the Science Leadership Team for the Challenge.

“Food is central to our economy and we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to both enhance health and contribute significantly to this country’s export success.”

Government Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman says it is exciting to see the first of the ten National Science Challenges launched.

“The High-Value Nutrition Challenge will stretch the New Zealand research community but the potential for validated nutritional claims of foods to improve public health and to add value to New Zealand’s exports is enormous.”

Bob Major will chair the Board for High-Value Nutrition and will bring his considerable experience in food manufacturing and exporting to ensure the research is market-oriented and makes sense to food exporting businesses.

“Being able to scientifically demonstrate tangible health benefits for consumers and have that approved by government food regulators is one of the few ways to add value to New Zealand’s primary products and will provide a competitive advantage to our food marketers so they can leverage into greater market share and margins,” Mr Major says.

AgResearch Research Director Professor Warren McNabb says he is looking forward to the opportunity of taking up the Government’s High-Value Nutrition Challenge.

“It’s great to be part of a partnership focused on bringing together our best scientists in a collaborative approach to create economic benefit for New Zealand through science-led innovation.”

Background on the High-Value Nutrition Challenge

Five research institutions have been given the task of meeting the Government’s High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge. The Challenges were launched last year and aim to substantially change the way research is done in New Zealand through national collaboration and across disciplines.

The aim is to increase the value of New Zealand raw materials and food exports through validating health claims for food and beverage products, leading to increased premiums for New Zealand products in global markets. Examples include a food product or ingredient that is scientifically proven to reduce the risk of heart disease or reduce a loss in cognition associated with early-onset Alzheimer’s. This would be similar to current products such as ANLENE milk products that are helpful in reducing bone mineral loss (and thus osteoporosis) and Flora Pro-activ spreads which contain plant sterols, an active ingredient clinically proven to significantly lower cholesterol absorption.

A key theme of the High-Value Nutrition Challenge is to help develop new foods and beverages that improve health at different stages of people’s lives, from maternal through baby, infant, childhood and ageing.

Developing and applying biomarkers is part of the work that will be undertaken. Biomarkers are detectable characteristics that may indicate the presence of a physiological condition in humans, for example disease.

Understanding the existing food processing and food safety environment will be a key aspect of the research.

The Challenge is aimed at developing foods that are valued by consumers in terms of flavour, cost, sensory experience, and sustainability as well as having a health benefit.

The Challenge also involves undertaking research informed by Matauranga Maori in relation to traditional foods and medicines and to identify opportunities for Maori food producers to participate in the Challenge.