High yield, low cost: NZ researchers eyeing food manufacturer partnerships to commercialise kanuka by-products

By Si Ying Thian

- Last updated on GMT

University of Auckland researchers wanted utilise the widely available kanuka trees to create an additional revenue stream for the Maoris © Getty Images
University of Auckland researchers wanted utilise the widely available kanuka trees to create an additional revenue stream for the Maoris © Getty Images

Related tags kanuka Maori Food ingredients New zealand Upcycling Beverages

New Zealand researchers are optimistic that the flavouring, preserving, and texturing benefits provided by the native kanuka plant will lead to its effective commercialisation as a food ingredient.

Researchers from the University of Auckland say the juice and liquid smoke of the plant, which is traditionally used by Maori households to smoke food, can also be used by food manufacturers*.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia​, research lead Dr. Kiri Dell said that the research undertaken since 2021 was targeted at solving a “community problem” due to the wide availability and low value of kanuka.

Kanuka tree © Getty Images

“We wanted to find valuable uses of an abundant resource found on Maori land, and to utilise it to create commercial value for the Maori in terms of creating jobs and an additional revenue stream.

“There were a number of different product ideas until we landed on liquid smoke, due to its high yield with very little resource used, making it very commercially feasible.”

Juice from the kanuka leaves can be used in fermented beverages such as Kombucha, and was found to have high bioactive properties, exhibiting anti-inflammatory ability. The liquid smoke can be used on meat, cheeses, and mussels, among other foods, to enhance the flavour, texture and extend the shelf life.

It is looking to commercialise by March 2024 through partnerships with food and beverage manufacturers.

“The first preferred business model is still business to business, where it is supplied as a raw ingredient in large supply orders. We feel that’s the best that help underpin this as a good business opportunity. The many applications span meat, dairy, and beverage industries like alcohol.

“We may then do some business to consumer stuff. Obviously B2C takes a lot more work and management, due to their smaller quantities and bigger variety of distribution channels. We need to focus on what our communities are capable of, and we don’t have huge amount of labour here. So, we’ll just start with large supply contracts.”

While it is still premature at this stage to talk about overseas export plans, it sees potential uses in Asia and North America due to an existing culture of smoking food.

The products will be commercialised by non-profit organisation Nuka Charitable Trust, in which both University of Auckland and the local Maori community have a stake in the business.

It recently announced funding of NZ$1.9 million (US$1.2 million) over a three-year period from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund. The funding will be channelled towards setting up the pilot plant at Ruatoria town.

The research team said that it is at the tail end of the project as it is honing the manufacturing operations and training local communities in its mobile pilot plant set up at University of Auckland to be able to optimise production at scale.

Watch the video for an interview with the researchers on the process of turning kanuka into gourmet products:

Source: University of Auckland

*Published papers by the research team around use cases of kanuka by-products:

Xin, X., et al​. “The effect of liquid smoke obtained from fast pyrolysis of a hardwood on physical properties and shelf life of cheddar cheese.” European Food Research and Technology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-021-03915-7

Xin, X., et al​. “Production of liquid smoke using fluidised-bed fast pyrolysis and its application to green lipped mussel meat.” Food Control. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2021.107874

Xin, X. et al. ​“Transforming biomass pyrolysis technologies to produce liquid smoke. food flavouring.” Journal of Cleaner Production​. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.125368

Essien, S.O. et al.​ “The antibacterial and antiproliferative ability of kānuka, Kunzea ericoides, leaf extracts obtained by subcritical water extraction.” Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology.​ doi: 10.1002/jctb.6647

Essien, S.O. et al.​ “Recovery of bioactives from k¯anuka leaves using subcritical waterextraction: Techno-economic analysis, environmental impactassessment and technology readiness level.” Journal of Supercritical Liquids. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.supflu.2020.105119

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