An antioxidant-rich plum accidentally bred by Queensland government scientists a decade ago is being hailed as a potential weapon in the fight against obesity.
The manager of the country’s only Queen Garnet orchard said the plum was a freak which emerged when plant breeders tried to develop a better-tasting plum resistant to the bacterial spot disease.
“They just got a freakish aligning of the genes,” Rowan Berecry from Good Rich Fruit Co said.
“They found this plum with really dark internal qualities so they had a closer look at what it contained and found really high anthocyanin levels.
“They haven’t been able to repeat it. They’ve tried to repeat it, they’ve crossed it with several other plum varieties and things to see if they can do it again and it has not happened.”
If the Queen Garnet plum achieves “superfood” status it could earn the Queensland Government millions of dollars in tree royalties and lead to the development of a range of processed products aimed at the booming international functional food or “nutraceutical” market.
The antioxidant level you get from eating one piece of fruit is enough for one day’s intake.Manager of the Queen Garnet orchard Rowan Berecry
Scientists have been surprised by the plum’s health benefits.
“When we first started working with some of these types of compounds no one believed something as simple as a plum could actually be a medicine,” Professor Lindsay Brown, from the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, said.
He said it was not surprising there was global interest in the fruit after he was astonished by the results of a trial he oversaw last year.
“We gave plum juice to obese rats with the same health problems humans have from being overweight,” Professor Brown said.
“They had high blood pressure, a fatty liver, poor heart function and arthritis.
“When we put the plum juice in their food it all came back to normal without changing their diet.”
They lost weight, while their blood pressure, fat levels, as well as liver and heart function all returned to normal levels.
Professor Brown says the next step is human trials.
Pigment in plums has potential to reduce ‘lifestyle diseases’
Queensland Department of Primary Industry scientist Kent Fanning worked on the plum for more than a decade.
“The blue of blueberries, the red of strawberries, the red of raspberries – that’s anthocyanin,” Mr Fanning said.
“There’s increasing evidence they help reduce inflammation and the structure and function of the gastrointestinal system.
“The potential benefits relate to protection against some forms of cardiovascular disease, improved liver function and improved pancreas function [and] what we call lifestyle diseases [that] are prevalent in the Western society.”
The Queensland Government sold the global rights to the Queen Garnet to Nutrafruit, a syndicate of six Queensland friends with a connection to agribusiness.
Agronomist Hugh Macintosh said “superfood” status meant growers would not be at the mercy of the market.
“Australia needs to move away from having foods as commodities,” he said.
“Farmers don’t win when food is a commodity. So that’s what we’re trying to do – take this away from being a commodity.”
‘Superfood’ status could save farmers from commodity prices
Nutrafruit wants a piece of the booming “nutraceutical” or functional foods market.
“It’s tens of billions of dollars globally. It’s growing at something like 20 per cent compounded per annum,” Mr Macintosh said.
“The ready-to-drink beverage market in the health segment is about $US90 billion a year. It’s huge, massive.”
Inglewood woolgrower Bim Goodrich is an investor.
“I still love wool. I am not sick of wool, I am just out love with the wool market,” he said.
The world’s only commercial Queen Garnet orchard is on Mr Goodrich’s property Waroo, where the second harvest ever conducted is now underway.
This year the 75,000 trees are expected to yield 800 tonnes of fruit.
When the orchard reaches full production in 2020 it will produce 3,000 tonnes of fruit.
“We can turn this into a branded product and not be a commodity,” Mr Goodrich said.
“It’s got two things going for it; one is it’s a health product so it can go into the health market, but on top of that it tastes fantastic.”
Sweetness, affordability make plums unique
That was what the scientists stumbled onto with their happy accident.
Usually fruits high in anthocyanin are sour, or if they taste good like blueberries, they are expensive.
“The antioxidant level you get from eating one piece of fruit is enough for one day’s intake,” Mr Berecry said.
The potential market for processed juices and powders is huge and Nutrafruit is running a range of trials with food companies in Brisbane.
Mr Macintosh said it might seem like the sky is the limit but the company faces a range of challenges, starting with finding the money to fund human trials.
“It’s proving, as it often does, to be much harder than we expected as it’s a new product,” he said.
“We have to develop the market before we start planting.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing. You’ve got to have product before you can develop the market.
“Everyone knows about anthocyanins and antioxidants but they don’t know about them in the Queen Garnet plum.
“There’s been some research in America about the potential health benefits of stone fruit, particularly plums, but it’s been reasonably generic and not widely publicised.
“I guess we’re trying to change that.”
Foreign plum crops would ensure year-round supply
Until higher value processed markets become a reality, fresh Queen Garnet plums, or QG as they are being sold, are available in one of Australia’s major supermarket chains.
With just one orchard in production in Australia, the harvest is short so the fruit will only be available for six to eight weeks.
Nutrafruit has sent budwood to several countries overseas.
Mr Macintosh said when foreign orchards come into production there would be a year-round supply of plums.
Mr Goodrich said his large investment was driven by a wish to escape the frustrations of low wool prices and being a price taker.
He says he thinks differently about farming now and that he is not a stone fruit grower, but rather, an antioxidant farmer.