Interview: Prof Suhaila Mohamed, Universiti Putra Malaysia
Malaysia’s herbal leadership the result of government support
Suhaila Mohamed, research professor and principal research fellow at Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Bioscience, has had more than 30 years’ experience in functional research, and for much of that time she says she has worked under the support of the government.
“We do believe the Malaysian government has pumped in a lot of money into herbal research,” she asserts. “It has supported food research for the last 20 years as it has identified that our botanical sources can be a source of economic development for the future.”
Capitalising on growing business
Indeed, the country’s tenth five-year plan, which will end in 2015, made specific reference to the herbal industry as a target for greater investment from consortiums and co-operatives, with regulations streamlined as an incentive.
Moreover, statistics have shown that the global trade in natural plant products is expected to triple between 2010 and 2020, with the Malaysian industry forecast to grow at a rate of 15% per annum, with its market value rising from RM7bn (US$2.1bn) in 2010 to some RM29bn (US$8.8bn) in 2012.
According to the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, there is great potential for high income from the industry, with herbal-based food accounting for between 30% and 40% of all food products sold locally, with this figure expected to grow by to 50% in the near future.
“That's why they have formed the new Herbal Development Office, which has identified and dedicated money towards certain herb research.
“The first step will be for food ingredients, then in the medium-term, maybe it will be neutraceuticals and in the long-term, it will be biopharmacy products.
“They have pumped quite a lot of money into it, and they are allowing researchers to use this money to conduct pre-clinical and clinical trials and other studies.
“So a lot of the research is only just emerging on vegetable extracts that have amazing properties,” says Mohamed, adding that her team screens hundreds of such plants to identify those that are easy to produce and competitive in cost.
Cost is critical to draw in consumers
This price factor is critical to stoke the market’s demand for new botanicals, and according to Mohamed, there is growing proof that a mixture of active components is better than just the one.
She explains: “If you have a mixture of components from natural resources as opposed to, say, salicylic acid, sometimes it works better as it has an overall effect on the organism.
“So that's the reason why botanical extracts work better than pure pharmaceutical products, and I think nowadays people are going back to nature and working on research into biodiversity in the global resources. I think people want more natural products.”
Government professes support
The government clearly agrees, and by writing cheques for further research into the field, it is acknowledging the economic benefits to the country.
As Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, the minister in charge of Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit, said in a speech to woo investors: “The herbal industry is a strategic investment opportunity, both from an economic as well as a social stand-point.
“The shift in healthcare towards natural products with therapeutic value provides vast opportunities for Malaysia to become a significant global player, given our rich biodiversity.”
Among Suhaila Mohamed’s recent breakthroughs include a patented additive that can reduce edible oil absorption, lower cholesterol and introduce antioxidating properties; ingredients that can improve the memory, and plant extracts that can improve the learning process and brain processing speed.
Those attending Vitafoods Asia in Hong Kong next month will get the chance to attend a seminar by Mohamed to outline the fruits of her decades of research.