First berry event hails health role

Soft fruit grower Anthony Snell reports from the inaugural International Blackcurrant Conference, which took place in New Zealand in November.

The inaugural International Blackcurrant Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, included significant involvement by its main sponsor, health business Four Leaf Japan Company, demonstrating its view of the vital importance of the emerging nutraceutical and functional foods market in addition to the more traditional blackcurrant drinks sector.

New Zealand's climate is ideally suited to blackcurrant growing, centred around Christchurch and Nelson in South Island. The industry currently produces just over 9,000 tonnes, with the bulk taken on contract by GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) for Ribena.

The remaining fruit is taken up by co-operative Blackcurrant NZ, Just the Berries, Enzafoods and the Sujon Berry Fruit Company - concentrating on IQF (individually quick frozen) production and, more recently, the blackcurrant nutraceutical ingredients for the Japanese market.

The conference heard from a series of eminent world food scientists extolling the virtues of this "super fruit's" health properties as the panacea for many illnesses.

Interestingly, research is moving on from the well-documented antioxidative and vitamin C properties to newer areas involving visual improvement and "gut wellness". Both areas are potentially of great economic importance.

It would be reasonable to assume that pharmaceutical giant GSK might be excited by these findings. However, procurement director Michael Dunsire said GSK was "remaining firmly focused on the health drinks market".

He added: "Japanese nutraceutical products are often sold by mail order, (which is) a specialised area completely different to our core business."

Further encouraging news is that a team from the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie, near Dundee, has received significant funding to research whether bioactive compounds found in blackcurrants can slow dementia.

Conference chairman Jim Grievson said it was time to "turn science into money" and follow the example of the well-marketed cranberry and blueberry brands.

The Currant Company president Greg Quinn, whose firm operates the Currant C brand, emphasised the unique character and flavour of blackcurrants but was concerned at the lack of marketing strategy. He said that the sector must get away from being a commodity market and develop as a niche.

Jarrow Rogovin, president of California-based Jarrow Formulas, said blackcurrants were in a similar position to the pomegranate market seven years ago.

There is no doubt that blackcurrants are extremely good for people's health, and many of the fruit's qualities have been well documented for years.

Growers are aware that it will take a very concerted world marketing effort, together with a few lucky breaks, to get the market penetration this berry deserves.

The New Zealand conference was a great success, and could just provide the catalyst required.

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