Cranfield University in Bedfordshire and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew will form part of a consortium with Unilever's own researchers to investigate the progenitors of everyday foods such as apples and onions.
The UK-based multinational said it hopes that the research, which is co-funded by the Government's Technology Strategy Board, will result in new naturally healthy products derived from nutrient-rich varieties of plants that are little used in the food industry today.
Unilever head of research and leader of the consortium Dr Mark Berry said: "Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight but on their nutrient content."
The head of Cranfield's Plant Science Laboratory Professor Leon Terry added: "The varietal selection of fruit and vegetables supplied by the fresh produce industry has been increasingly centred on products' price, size, appearance, storage potential and yield. Few contain the benefits of naturally health-promoting phytochemical content from older cultivars."
Early indicator - Fruit
A preliminary finding by Unilever's own researchers has shown that traditional Egremont Russet apples contain up to 10 times more of the phytonutrient phloridzin than some modern varieties.
A Unilever representative said: "We purchase significant quantities of fresh produce for our products and so have an interest in investigating their nutritional qualities."
The company has a global research and development budget of around EUR1bn a year.