Health benefits spur growth for blackcurrant growers

22 June 2022

Five years ago, the blackcurrant industry faced serious challenges when a major buyer ended its contracts with half the industry’s growers. The remaining dozen growers are now finding a solid market in health benefit products. HELENA O’NEILL speaks with Jim Grierson of The cGP Lab about the industry and the growing health benefits of blackcurrants.

New Zealand blackcurrants rank significantly higher in levels of antioxidant activity than other fruits. They appear to help the body’s own response to oxidative stress and conditions including cardiovascular diseases, asthma, diabetes and age-related degenerative diseases. 

According to Blackcurrants New Zealand (BCNZ), research reveals that benefits including endurance, recovery and mental performance are associated with anthocyanins, which are major antioxidant compounds.

The cGP Lab (formerly VitalityNZ) was founded by Jim Grierson and David Eder who met through a mutual love of blackcurrants. Jim is also an agronomist and has acted as an advisor to the blackcurrant industry for the past 40 years.

During their time in the blackcurrant business, Jim and David have seen the health benefits that friends and family experience when they regularly consume blackcurrant products. This led the pair to discover the potential health properties of the fruit, boosted by a chance encounter with Auckland University scientist Dr Jian Guan, whose analysis of New Zealand blackcurrants found they were packed with cyclic Glycine-Proline (cGP).

Dr Jian says cGP is a brain nutrient that normalises a hormone essential for overall body health, and may play a wider role in improving circulation and creating more new blood vessels than we previously understood.

“The health benefits that we have in New Zealand blackcurrants are high levels of anthocyanins, and we’ve also discovered the level of cGP in New Zealand blackcurrants,” Jim says. Those levels are not like that overseas, so it is quite unique to New Zealand.”

His company is involved in a new international clinical trial testing the cGP molecule found in New Zealand blackcurrants, which may offer hope for thousands of Kiwis living with diabetes and associated metabolic disorders. 

Dr Jian says cGPMax capsules will be tested in an open-label trial among a group of diabetic participants living with a range of metabolic syndromes.  

The patient trial is already underway at a university-affiliated hospital in China – using cGP derived from New Zealand blackcurrants at a Canterbury production facility. 

The aim of the trial is to establish the efficacy of the natural form of cGP on type 2 diabetes associated with dyslipidemia, hypertension, peripheral neuropathy, retinopathy and kidney dysfunction, Dr Jian says. 

“Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of disorders resulting from poor metabolism, including hyperglycaemia, high blood pressure, poor insulin function and excessive LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. There is a strong correlation between poor metabolism, heart disease, cancer and premature death.  

The trial is expected to be completed later this year and will investigate whether consumption of the natural form of cGP can improve blood pressure, cholesterol and complications from diabetes including poor eye function and nerve damage. 

Dr Jian, who has studied cGP for more than 30 years at Auckland University, says feedback from those taking non-synthetic cGP as a supplement for brain health suggests it may assist with other conditions. 

“While consumer use of concentrated cGP is still in its relative infancy, there are indications that it may offer hope to those living with a wide range of metabolic disorders.

Feedback from those taking the supplement include type 2 diabetics who suggest they have regained sensation in their feet after taking cGP, she says.

If the trial is successful, the company hopes to create more export opportunities for the New Zealand-made cGPMax supplement in Asian markets like China where the populations of those with metabolic disorders has risen steadily over the past ten years. 

After the discovery that South Island blackcurrants are uniquely rich in cGP, The cGP Lab is now investigating other natural sources of the nutrient.  

“We’re also looking at cGP and the viral protection aspects of blackcurrants and for what they term long Covid,” Dr Jian says.

Jim, who is a member of BCNZ’s management and executive committee, says around 85 percent of the country’s blackcurrant crop goes to health benefit-related industries, with the remainder into individually quick frozen (IQF) fruit or to juicers.

“Most crops are being grown for health benefits, which gets a better return for the growers at the farm gate, which is really healthy for the industry and really pleasing,” he says. We’ve got 12 growers producing 4500 tonnes on an annual basis. This last year was a bit less than that because it wasn’t a good growing season.

Fruit is now going into health benefit type products. Before that about half of our industry was involved with supplying Ribena in New Zealand. That was pulled in 2017 when they decided to buy their blackcurrants from Poland where they were a bit cheaper … the industry really imploded then.

A few growers who were due to retire accelerated plans to wind up their operations due to the loss of that major contract, Jim says.

“We’re now left with 12 growers and they grow good quality fruit. They could double their acreage without having any more growers, as they have the infrastructure and the machinery. Blackcurrants are all about machinery, the only thing that’s done by hand is the planting. Beyond that, everything is done by machinery.” 

Ben Rua, Ben Ard, Blackadder and Kepler are the main varieties grown commercially in New Zealand, but a new variety, Ben Lewis, is under development. Ashburton grower, James Tavendale, harvested the first commercial crop of Ben Lewis earlier this year. The variety is the result of more than a decade of plant breeding to increase the level of anthocyanins, along with reducing the length of chilling period required.

New Zealand is also part of a blackcurrant breeding programme with Scotland and Poland.

BCNZ and Plant & Food Research are partners in BlackHort, a jointly funded New Zealand blackcurrant breeding programme, which began in 1992. BlackHort focuses on commercial objectives, incorporating characteristics desired by growers and marketers, including colour, flavour, acidity, sugar content, enhancing health-related qualities (e.g., vitamin C and anthocyanin) and lower winter chill tolerance, along with several other attributes.

“I’m an agronomist but from a growing point of view, it’s certainly a good influence from our soils and maritime climate. Plant breeding does also help.”

“The industry is probably the best balanced now than it ever has been in terms of production versus requirement and that’s incrementally growing each year.”

The 12 growers that are left are really good, conscientious growers, he says. They are also set up in a way which allows for future growth on their existing properties.

“It’s in a healthy state. It’s taken us a long time to get here.”


First published in the June 2022 issue of NZGrower and The Orchardist.