Unilever aims to identify ancient plants with added nutritional value

A new scientific consortium led by Unilever aims to identify nutritionally valuable varieties of fruits and vegetables from the past, in order to produce natural health ingredients for the future, says the industry giant.

Unilever says it has assembled a new scientific consortium to go back in time to inspire the next generation of naturally healthy food and drinks. Their task will be to identify nutrient-rich varieties of everyday plant-based foods like apples, bananas and onions which could potentially be used as ingredients for healthier products of tomorrow.

In partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Cranfield University, the project has been established to identify “pre-domesticated” varieties of plants that have been changed relatively little by breeding and might contain significantly higher levels of nutrients than the varieties currently used in food production.

The consortium has been established following preliminary Unilever research which found that an older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, contained up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The team hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre per fresh weight.

It is hoped that the research, which is co-funded by the government-backed Technology Strategy Board, will one day result in a new range of naturally healthy products which contain ingredients from carefully selected nutrient-rich varieties of plants that are little used in the food industry today.

As part of the three-year study, the researchers will also attempt to identify older and more nutritious varieties of mangoes and tea.

Dr Mark Berry, based at Unilever’s R&D laboratories at Colworth Science Park, Bedford, is leading the consortium. He said: “The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.

“This research looks to turn this approach on its head. Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.

“It’s fascinating to contemplate that these pre-domesticated varieties have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. We’ll be going back in time to identify the plants from yesteryear that our ancient ancestors would have eaten – with a view to potentially reintroducing them into our diet.”

During the research programme, the consortium will use cutting edge techniques in bio-analytical science and plant genomics to identify pre-domesticated varieties of well-known crops and to determine their nutrient profile.

Myriad different nutrients will be analysed including less well-known nutrients for which Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) do not yet exist but are nevertheless important to health either individually or in combination with other nutrients.

Prof Monique Simmonds, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew said: “This project provides us with an exciting opportunity to investigate, with scientists at Cranfield University and Unilever, the chemistry of underutilised plants and older varieties of some of our favourite fruits.

“It enables us to increase our knowledge about the diversity of phytochemicals in these plants and whether their diversity has decreased during domestication. In an age when we are losing so much of our biodiversity due to changes in land use we can also evaluate the loss in phytochemical diversity that could have a negative impact on our health.”

Prof. Leon A. Terry, Cranfield University, said: “The new project brings together the expertise of three internationally recognised UK-based organisations with the collective view that a paradigm shift is required whereby ingredients are selected on their health promoting properties.

“Although fruit and vegetable-based products like smoothies are widely available, few contain the benefits of naturally high health-promoting phytochemical content from older cultivars. This is because the varietal selection of fruit and vegetables supplied by the fresh produce industry today has been increasingly centred on their products’ price, size, visual appearance, storage potential and yield.”

The team will evaluate the very most nutritious plants for use in designing foods that are health-giving not because they have been fortified but because the raw materials have been selected to be naturally rich in the nutrients that we have evolved to eat for over two million years.

Source: Unilever