Food technologist and entrepreneur Brendan Vercoe is making his mark pulling unique, healthy compounds out of New Zealand food, and bringing more value to some of the country’s niche crops.
Those efforts are already being recognised, with Vercoe being the only primary sector-related nominee for this year’s professional commercialisation prize at the KiwiNet Research awards.
The son of dairy farming and kiwifruit growing parents from Te Puke, Vercoe has had a lifelong interest in what grows well in New Zealand and what can improve its value.
“The clean green marketing message is really not enough anymore and it is a case of having to identify what is really different about our produce, what can it deliver that other sources of that produce can’t,” he said.
That desire was buoyed by time spent working at Fonterra as a global innovation manager, learning more about what can be unpacked from raw products that contain particularly high quality compounds.
His latest foray down this route has been with blackcurrants, the staple of Kiwi kids’ after-school beverage in the form of Ribena.
But his company’s 2before performance drink supplement goes well beyond any claim on the goodness of blackcurrants in general, to identify their value specifically for enhancing athlete performance and recovery.
“New Zealand-sourced blackcurrants are particularly high in anthocyanins, they have a unique ratio of pro and anti-oxidants which, taken before exercise, switch on the body’s own defence systems to provide multiple benefits.”
Anthocyanins are the compounds that give dark-coloured vegetables and fruit their pigmentation and are linked to boosting antioxidant levels, the substances that reduce damage caused by cell oxidation. Pro oxidants are chemicals that induce cellular stress.
Vercoe said NZ blackcurrants achieve their well-centred ratio through a happy combination of latitude, light, UV levels and soil types that create particularly vigorous, nutritive fruit types, not limited to blackcurrants.
The company now has endorsement from some leading Kiwi athletes, including long-distance runner Sam Tanner and shot putter Tom Walsh.
Vercoe said NZ’s small supply of Canterbury-grown blackcurrants is starting to reach its limits and he hopes to see more growers step up to supply the raw product.
“Ultimately we would like to see blackcurrants replace some of the area currently used for dairying in Canterbury now. It is the ideal place to grow them, and they have been identified as a viable alternative crop to have in the region.”
The company is targeting dieticians and athletes in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, keeping the focus on “performance and recovery”.
Vercoe said they have resisted the temptation to leverage off other benefits that blackcurrants have been linked to, including improved brain function, better eyesight, and boosted immunity.
“We would love to see other brands in the market supporting NZ growers and promoting their product’s strengths. We are currently doing most of the education.”
Vercoe’s other success in the field has been bending NZ-grown hops to the task of being an appetite suppressant.
“The success there was really thanks to good science done by Plant & Food Research.
“Taste receptors have been found to be in our intestine, and by isolating the bitter compounds in hops and delivering them to those receptors through a slow-release capsule, it prompts the intestine to switch off the satiety receptors.”
The active his company isolated is marketed as Amarasate. It is the key compound in the appetite suppressant product Calocurb, made in NZ.
With his key focus now on growing the 2before brand, Vercoe is excited by the wider prospects that ingredient extraction could hold for NZ’s primary sector as the physical limits of additional production are reached.
“It is also a good means of dealing with our waste streams.
“We are sending our most impeccable fruit and produce overseas, and do reasonably well with managing the other fruit, but we could do better, and this is one means of achieving that.”