Thursday, August 11, 2022

Blackcurrant molecule packs brain-boosting punch

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New Zealand blackcurrants are proving to hold a secret ingredient that helps maintain healthy brains and deliver significantly increased values to the country’s small group of growers.

The blackcurrant-growing community in NZ is relatively small and contained within Canterbury.

New Zealand blackcurrants are proving to hold a secret ingredient that helps maintain healthy brains and deliver significantly increased values to the country’s small group of growers. Richard Rennie spoke to Canterbury agronomist Jim Grierson about the brain boost delivered by blackberries.

Almost 30 years ago, Auckland University health researcher Dr Jian Guan identified the molecule cyclic Glycine-Proline (cGP) as a key brain nutrient that normalises a hormone known as IGF-1, essential for body health.

She found its presence contributed to improved health outcomes for people suffering from a number of age-related neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia. Keeping IGF-1 levels maintained through old age can help retain cognitive function.

Unknown to her, but about the same time blackcurrant growers were researching the key health compounds in their crop.

“We already knew they had a good ratio of anthocyanins to deliver a high level of healthy antioxidants. However, we also suspected there was something else in there , and identified high levels of cGP,” Grierson said.

Extraction of cGP from the Canterbury-grown crop has now resulted in a value-added boost to the sector, with commercialisation of the molecule resulting in it being put into a capsule and targeted at the Chinese market.

Over 10 tonnes of raw ingredients containing the molecule will be exported there over the next three years, resulting in a value-added boost 18 times higher than what the berries fetch fresh.

Patents are now applied on the molecule, which is claimed to have blackcurrants as the only natural source known and as yet unable to be synthesised artificially.

Grierson said the significantly higher values generated through extracting cGP from blackcurrants has an amplified effect in a market that only totals 3500-4000t a year.

Guan said while NZ blackcurrants are uniquely rich in cGP, they are also exploring other natural sources of the nutrient.

Grierson said 45 different options have been tested and even associated berries like blueberries and cranberries don’t have it.

He said the reasons why NZ blackcurrants are unique for cGP content is not particularly well understood, but scientists suspect it may relate to a combination of NZ’s soils, maritime climate, and lower atmospheric ozone levels.

Guan’s work has examined not only the role cGP can play in staving off dementia-related diseases, but also its part in treating conditions such as reduced blood circulation, common in stroke victims.

She said essentially healthy brains can continually produce new blood vessels to replace lost capillaries, an ability that diminishes with age. 

“When we age the capillary nets which deliver nutrients and oxygen to brain cells are fewer and the brain cells which are undernourished do not function as well and build up toxins, which means the brain cells die off slowly, causing brain degeneration,” Guan said.

Cyclic Glycine-Proline’s role is to encourage cells in the brain to create new blood vessels and taking cGP assists the body to make more blood vessels and improve brain circulation.

The commercial company, cGP-Max holds patents on cGP molecule and now has a distributor in China. It has also recently commenced exporting orders to the United States, Spain, United Kingdom and Australia, having developed sales in NZ as a test market.

Headshot of Dr Jian Guan.

Dr Jian Guan’s work on brain health revealed the value of a little-known molecule cGP, which is found in NZ blackcurrants.

Health supplements are touted as one of the key growth markets in China in coming years, as the country suffers the same demographic trend as western nations, that of an ageing population.

The supplements market has doubled in China since 2013 and it is now the largest dietary supplements market in the world.

Grierson said the blackcurrant-growing community in NZ is relatively small and contained within Canterbury. It was rewarding to be able to keep the entire supply chain involving the new cGP market within NZ, from growers to processors to lab assessment, to final capsule production.

Blackcurrants are largely marketed through a low-profile blackcurrant co-operative.

Ribena’s withdrawal from contracts with NZ growers as it opted for Polish berries had had an impact some years ago, but an increasing understanding of the berries health giving benefits was helping diversify income out of commodity juice-type output. 

Other health products include the berries used in muscle recovery products for the health and fitness market.

“As a crop they are relatively low-input in terms of fertiliser needs and much of their management once hand-planted is mechanised right up to harvesting, which uses modified grape harvesters,” Grierson said.

Because of the significant capital outlay required for the mechanised equipment the crop demanded an area over 50ha to be economic. Even then Grierson cautioned it was essential to have a definitive supply contract before launching into it.

As a plant blackcurrants have a long life and can grow and produce for over 20 years.

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