Lemon myrtle or Backhousia citriodora is a flowering plant in the family Myrtaceae and is endemic to the subtropical rainforests of central and southeastern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales.
It contains five times more citral than citrus fruits, packs 50% more punch than lemongrass, and has been proven to be antibacterial, anti-fungal and antimicrobial while containing nature’s highest concentration of calcium outside of stones.
The world catches on
According to Ian Twyford, a lemon myrtle grower who has taken the crop from its native Australia to new plantations in Malaysia, it tastes extremely lemony, though its aroma is “cleaner and sweeter” than other comparable sources of citral.
“Lemon myrtle has been used as a flavouring and medicine by Australian Aborigines for 40,000 years, but as a commercial ingredient it lay dormant until the Sydney Olympics,” Twyford told NutraIngredients.
In 2000, the Olympics organisers deployed a committee to look at Australian native foods in a bid to find lasting, local legacies to follow the games. Soon after, Qantas airline began to use it as a lemon flavouring for its business- and first-class menus, which led to greater interest in the leaves by the food industry.
“It soon became very apparent that there were a lot more benefits to it than just a flavour. Researchers began to ask why Aborigines would use it in a paste to heal cuts. They found out, alongside private investigations by myrtle farmers, that it was packed with nutraceutical benefits inside it. They soon learnt it was far more powerful as an antibacterial than Australia's other, more famous native, tea tree oil.”
First movers included a group of farmers in New South Wales, who grew it commercially for the first time for its essential oils for the body care industry. Twyford, an Englishman who had previously worked in tea plantations across Asia, soon saw its potential as a tea.
“I began to realise its strong application as a herbal tea on the world market, and as an ex-tea planter, I was the first to grow it as a tea in the Tweed Valley in New South Wales. At that stage, in the development of the industry, all the other farmers were growing it for its essential oil. I was the first to see its benefits as a functional food.”
In recent years, the nutraceutical industry has been searching for "new" native foods from around the world, leading to an exponential growth in the use of natural ingredients like myrtle. As a natively harvested leaf, it can boast both sustainably and organic credentials — elements that appeal to health food buyers.
“Our biggest problem was that nobody had heard of myrtle, but now you can buy lemon myrtle chocolate in London; myrtle tea in Frankfurt; beautiful lemon myrtle soap products in Paris; and lemon myrtle spaghetti in Los Angeles. The world has heard of it now and it likes it,” asserts Twyford.
“As more research is conducted into this new crop, we are finding out more and more about its health benefits. For example, it’s now known to be one of the world’s leading organic reserves of calcium. It is one of the only plants known to man that contains high lutein, which is excellent for eye health. Findings like these are driving the industry, which we must remember is still very new.”
Because it’s such a new and rare commodity on the world market, the price of of lemon myrtle is high, commanding farmgate prices of up to US$25 per kilo of leaves. To put this in context, it is expected that 100kg of the crop will produce just 2kg of essential oil. The fact that Twyford’s farms are certified organic doesn’t change the cost of the product; it just broadens the market.
“The world is demanding more and more lemon myrtle being sustainably and organically grown as it lends itself to the health industry,” continues Twyford.
“With leaf, we are getting 40kg of dry product [out of 100kg of crop], so the most valuable part of the crop is the leaf side, which is going into everything now. The nutraceutical boys are looking at turning it into dust form as an ingredient in health pills. If a company in Germany, for example, wants to introduce added calcium into a vitamin tablet, they would put in a small amount of lemon myrtle powder to give the calcium.”
Largely, though, it is still used by Australians and a growing international market as a flavour ingredient to the tune of 70% of its production. The remainder goes towards body care products and the growing nutraceutical industry.
Twyford’s company, Qzen plantations, is the world’s first commercial organic-certified lemon myrtle producer outside Australia. He says all the tests Qzen has conducted on the plant has shown that Malaysian lemon myrtle is every bit as good as in its native Australia—with one big advantage.
“Basically, our product is as good as Australia’s, if not better. Where we are beating the Aussies hands down is that we have no winter period in Malaysia, so our yield is about one-third better than the Australians get, where they have seasons.
“We have a yield advantage, and we have broken into the world market to show it that lemon myrtle is not just available in Australia—our biggest marketing hurdle of awareness is now over due to the growing demand for the product as a functional food and now a nutraceutical.”