New Zealand research institute breeds blackcurrants for health

Blackcurrants have already earned a reputation as potentially being amongst the healthiest fruits thanks to its high antioxidants content

…but in New Zealand, where a massive five per cent for the world’s crop is grown, researchers have been investigating ways to make them even more beneficial to our wellbeing.

The New Zealand Institute of Plant & Food Research Ltd has been running a programme for breeding blackcurrant varieties suited to the country’s climate for several years, but now the Crown research institute is focusing more sharply on health.

For example its latest cultivar, Blackadder, was bred for its colour and vitamin C content and now, researchers are also looking at ways to conserve anthocyanins – powerful antioxidants which give blackcurrants that gorgeous deep purple-red colour, during processing.

Karl Crawford, Business Leader for food and health at Plant & Food Research explained that the researchers measured the anthocyanins using high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and looked at the variation in the four main types of anthocyanins, as well as total anthocyanin content. Studies so far have shown that total anthocyanin content in the blackcurrant gene pool can vary by as much as eight times from the lowest to the highest.

“We are looking at the different profiles and amounts of anthocyanins and relating this to antioxidant ability and ultimately to health. The idea is to produce a new cultivar where we can substantiate health claims.”
Moreover the studies shed some light on potential health benefits of processed products, and how the juice from different cultivars can be blended to obtain the desired benefit.

Blackcurrants and brain health

A keen area of interest for all of this is in exploring blackcurrants’ anti-ageing potential, including cognitive function.

Research, published in 2006 tested the effect of blackcurrant extracts against oxidative stress from hydrogen peroxide on human brain cancer cell cultures and found that the cells were completely protected.

Although the mechanism of Alzheimer’s is not clear, more support is gathering for the build-up of plaque from amyloid deposits. The deposits are associated with an increase in brain cell damage and death from oxidative stress. If replicated in vivo, this finding lends hope to the possibility that blackcurrants could prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

This research has now been preceded by further encouraging studies in this area.

Eye, joint and skin health

Other health aspects Plant & Food Research is bearing in mind for future cultivars are eye, joint and skin health.

Crawford described the research as “an ongoing iterative process”.

“What we learn about the health properties of blackcurrants is fed back into the breeding programme,” he said.

It seems that blackcurrants respond particularly well to New Zealand’s particular climate.

“There has been some work looking at the anthocyanin content of NZ sourced product versus other sources that has shown higher levels for the NZ fruit,” said Crawford. “It may be that the intense natural light in New Zealand in the absence of scattering by air pollution may play a role, together with variety sections suited for local climatic and soil conditions.”

The researchers are also looking at other factors, including consistently high fruit yields, pest and disease resistance (especially gall mite) under New Zealand conditions when grown on a large-scale commercial basis, a seasonal spread from early December through to late January, and low chill requirement.

Enhanced juice characteristics, such as better colour and flavour, are important too, and may help expand blackcurrants’ use in food products – mainstream as well as functional.

The programme is based at Plant & Food Research in Canterbury and is supported by funding from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and Blackcurrants New Zealand Ltd.

Barker’s of Geraldine are proud to be working closely with The New Zealand Institute of Plant & Food Research Ltd to support their work around blackcurrants as a commitment to our continued efforts to provide the most healthful fruit juices, syrups and preserves.

  • Ghosh, D., McGhie, T. K., Zhang, J., Adaim, A., & Skinner, M. (2006). Effects of anthocyanins and other phenolics of boysenberry and blackcurrant as inhibitors of oxidative stress and damage to cellular DNA in SH‐SY5Y and HL‐60 cells. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 86(5), 678-686.