28 Apr 2020

Kiwi science stories from the shopping trolley

From Nine To Noon, 11:36 am on 28 April 2020

The wonderful produce for sale in New Zealand supermarkets during lockdown is a tribute to our food and produce sector, says food scientist Richard Mithen.

These people will play a big role in our country's economic recovery, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

Shopping cart full with dairy grocery products isolated over white background

Photo: 123RF

Mithen is the chief of the High-Value Nutrition project in which scientists are developing foods like green-shell mussels, kūmara and kiwifruit to be even more beneficial.

Most foods we eat in New Zealand originate from other countries but green shell mussels are endemic to New Zealand, Mithen says.

A rich source of protein and omega 3 fatty acids, coastal Māori have been eating them for hundreds of years.

Since the 1970s they've been cultivated and now people are exploring sustainable methods of breeding them for improved nutrition.

Food scientist Richard Mithen

Food scientist Richard Mithen Photo: Supplied

The kūmara – rich in vitamins and minerals – arrived in New Zealand about 1,000 years with the first Māori settlers, Mithen says.

'They brought to New Zealand what was basically a tropical crop and they developed very innovative techniques to grow it and to store it."

One Kiwi scientist working on the nutrition project – Dr Clare Wall – is researching how the carbohydrates of kūmara make it a helpful first solid food for infants, he says.

"What we are investigating is whether kumara can encourage the growth of certain bugs that will kickstart the immune system."

Kiwi fruit – which is very high in Vitamin C and good for gut health – is a much more recent arrival to New Zealand.

New Zealand missionaries first brought its seeds back from a visit to Ichang, China in the very early 1900s. These were then grown by Wanganui nurseryman Alexander Allison and the worldwide kiwifruit industry developed.

If you're interested in learning more, Richard Mithen is giving a free webinar called Science stories from a New Zealand shopping trolley at 12pm on Thursday 7 May. You can register here.