Unilever aims to identify ancient plants with added nutritional value

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Research into stone age diets inspired Unilever to investigate the potential of ancient plants in modern food products
Research into stone age diets inspired Unilever to investigate the potential of ancient plants in modern food products

Related tags: Nutrition

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.

The consortium, led by Dr Mark Berry of Unilever R&D, UK, aims to identify nutrient-rich varieties of everyday plant-based foods such as apples, onions and tea, which the group hope could provide new healthier ingredients for the future.

Speaking with NutraIngredients Berry said that the new three year project would focus on five main plants that the consortium believe have ancient potential: mango, apples, onions, bananas and tea.

The Unilever researcher explained that the new project stems from earlier research on the potential benefits of the stone-age diet, “and how aspects of the diet could help healthy eating in the modern world.”

“We have been studying what the paleolithic diet was like for a few years now in the Unilever labs, and just recently we realised that in ancient times – not only did man eat a lot of plants, but additionally the plants themselves would have been very different in both appearance and nutritional value,”​ said Berry.

“Specifically we think they might have been higher in fibre content, broader in the types of fibre they contained, and also much wider in the diversity and content of phytonutrients.”

“It’s the plants in particular that are the focus for this research project,”​ he said. “The plan is to look at many different varieties of each and do a systematic review of the phytonutrient content of each.”

Commercial crops

The consortium which is half funded by UK innovation agency the Technology Strategy Board is also made up of researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Cranfield University, UK, and aims to run for three years.

Berry explained that recent drives to breed commercial crops have led to “a concerted effort, through selection and breeding programmes, towards plants with characteristics such as increased yield, better appearance, and resistance to disease.”

“What those programmes – we think – have unwittingly done is to lose some of the phytonutrient content in some of our favourite fruits and vegetables,”​ he commented.

“We are hypothesising that amongst the older varieties, we might find some that are very rich in phytonutrients.”

Products of tomorrow

Looking further ahead, Berry believes that if the project is successful in identifying nutrient rich plants, then the long term aim would be to incorporate them into Unilever’s food products.

“Towards the end of the three years the Unilever laboratory will begin to make product prototypes such as smoothies, beverages and nutrition bars, for example so that we can begin to evaluate the consumer attributes such as the taste and flavour,”​ he said.

It is hoped that the research 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.

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