Blackcurrants turn from commodity to value-added.

Excerpt from article published in NZ Grower by Anne Hardie, April 2018.

Just 20 or so commercial blackcurrant growers remain in the industry which is based mainly in Canterbury, with a few in Nelson, and after years of struggling for good returns, they’ve become innovative out of necessity.

Hamish Rush is fourth generation on the family orchard beside the tiny settlement of Tasman near Nelson where they grow mainly apples, pears and have remained dedicated to a 10ha of blackcurrants that were first planted on the wetter areas back in 1979. They’ve just removed the last of the juice concentrate variety, Magnus, in favour of more nutriceutical varieties better suited for the company they are now part of called Vitality® New Zealand. After researching scientific research papers and working with independent researchers that proved New Zealand blackcurrants had the highest anthocyanin levels – a powerful antioxidant – of any berry fruit around the world, they created their own line of blackcurrant extract and blackcurrant seed oil products targeting individual health areas such as brain health, women’s health, complexion, eyesight and muscle performance.

“I’ve always maintained a passion for blackcurrants because I believe it’s a really good product and I think the opportunities from a nutriceutical perspective are huge and the work we’re doing as a research and marketing company is going to bring a lot of that to the market and I’m really excited about it. There’s huge opportunities in nutriceuticals for blackcurrants and that’s the future for the industry.

“New Zealand blackcurrants are the best in the world and we have world-class food safety standards and environmental standards which gives people the confidence we’re meeting all the rules and regulations that makes us world class.”

Despite having the best blackcurrants in the world, the industry has struggled to harness that potential until necessity drove innovation. Until recently, the industry was largely dependent on the juice market and many growers contracted their fruit to Ribena. Those contracts were not renewed this year due to an oversupply of fruit and even before that happened, the returns from a commodity product meant some growers opted to pull out their blackcurrants in preference for higher returning crops.

For the Rush family, the answer was nutriceuticals and the resulting company has five shareholders from a mix of backgrounds, including managing director Jim Grierson who was the founding partner for the business. The company takes the concentrated extract of blackcurrants and processes them into capsules specifically for each health benefit.

So far it’s selling product online and looking at how it positions itself for more sales. All the while, it is continuing to invest in research and is about to set up a 300-person trial to gain a better understanding of the ability of blackcurrant extract to control or prevent dementia.

“If we can unlock what we think we can unlock with our brain health product to affect dementia, the world is our oyster,” he says. “It’s really exciting stuff and we’re really positive about the signs so far.”

It’s one more benefit from a fruit that already has research showing positive effects on muscle recovery and enhancing sport performance, eye health, improved blood circulation and reduced inflammation, mental performance and supporting Parkinson’s recovery within the patient- the list is extensive. Muscle recovery and sports performance have been much of the focus for blackcurrant extract so far and numerous top sports teams and individuals swear by it, but as Hamish says, most of them aren’t shouting about it because any advantage in sport is a closely-guarded secret. He uses it himself for cycling as it increases blood flow to feed the muscles going up hills and then the increased blood flow post exercise allows the lactic acid to be cycled through the body to recover more quickly. And he says he notices the difference when he doesn’t take the extract before cycling.

If blackcurrant nutriceuticals take off – and there’s a number of companies in their infancy working with blackcurrants – the industry will need to grow, he says. But before that can happen, they need to continue with the science that proves their products and that takes time. There’s already a lot of good, credible science out there from numerous independent researchers, but building on that science is a key focus for the business and the industry. Research is great, but it needs to be commercialised and he says the industry has learnt that putting a health claim on a product is a challenge. Getting one claim that benefits the entire industry is difficult when blackcurrants are being used for multiple health benefits and at the end of the day, individual companies will have to work on their own specific claims.

Once they have the science to back their products, consumer education will need to follow to create demand

A “stack of science” is happening with blackcurrants around the world.

and if that is successful, supply will follow, he says. He’s cautiously optimistic that both the company and the industry will create that demand.

The Rush blackcurrant crop is not big enough to supply the needs of Vitality® New Zealand, so their fruit after its short harvest between early and mid January is sold to the New Zealand Blackcurrant Co-operative and the company then buys what it needs from the co-operative. Another upside of growing nutriceutical varieties and quitting the juice variety, Magnus, is that they no longer harvest over Christmas and so get a holiday instead which puts a smile on his face.

This season was a bit different and heat brought all berry crops forward, plus it followed a mild winter with few frosts which blackcurrants like, so that affected yield a bit. Hopefully it was un-seasonal, but it could also be a sign of climate change, he observes.

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