Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia, research and technical consultant Dr Glenn Vile said: "We've been very active globally, but Japan is our single biggest overseas market for blackcurrant products.
"We know the Japanese have a great understanding of cassis as a tasty, nutritious berry, but what they're not fully aware of is the extent of its health benefits.
"There are a number of companies in Japan that use blackcurrant in their products, and we would like to partner with them to offer a higher value health ingredient for functional food and beverage purposes.
"To achieve this, we are working alongside several Japanese firms to help them develop functional products to meet consumer demand for high-quality health foods."
Berry good branding
In its latest effort to increase consumer education in Japan, the NZBC has signed a new brand ambassador, New Zealand All Blacks star Jack Goodhue.
This collaboration comes at an opportune time, ahead of the Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan this year.
According to Goodhue, nutritionists introduced him to the benefits of blackcurrants for athletic recovery and overall fitness several years ago, leading the fruit to become part of his regular diet.
Vile said: "The great thing about Jack is that he comes from a farming background — he grew up in New Zealand on a dairy farm — so he has a good understanding of the passion Kiwi farmers and growers have for good quality crops.
"Of particular relevance to the Rugby World Cup is recent research showing that New Zealand blackcurrants improve sports performance.
"Also, New Zealand tends to do very well in rugby, so there's a good opportunity for us to reach Japanese consumers through the Rugby World Cup."
Why it gotta be black?
A grower-owned cooperative with over 40 growers in Canterbury and Nelson, the NZBC specialises in the research and development of cassis, a Kiwi blackcurrant touted as the world's most researched berry.
Cassis is also said to have the highest anthocyanin content among commonly consumed fruits and vegetables, up to four times that of apples, blueberries, strawberries and bilberries.
Furthermore, its unique combination of red and blue anthocyanins — which is not found in other fruits — can activate the human body's naturally occurring antioxidant and other defence systems, allowing it to better handle everyday stressors, increased activity, and age-related health issues.
Apart from anthocyanins, blackcurrants are known to contain higher levels of vitamin C than any other commercially available fruit or vegetable, as well as vitamins B and E, high levels of copper, potassium, soluble fibre, omega-3 and 6, and low sodium content.
Vile said: "We partner with companies in New Zealand and elsewhere in the APAC region to jointly conduct R&D, so as to produce ingredients such as concentrates for functional beverages and powders for nutraceuticals and supplements.
"For instance, we've partnered with a Japanese nutraceutical company to develop anthocyanin extract powder."
In addition, the cooperative also produces frozen blackcurrants, blackcurrant puree, and single-strength blackcurrant juice, all of which it claims are free from GMOs, allergens, added sugar, and preservatives.
The NZBC prides itself on full traceability, employing a system whereby each batch of blackcurrants it receives from its growers comes with a certification card that states the grower’s identity, as well as the batch's variety, weight, and harvest date.
The growers also have a recording system on their farms that allows them to use bin numbers to trace their harvests back to the orchard blocks from which the blackcurrants came.
At the same time, the fruit is fully traceable via the final products, based on farmer records and the information stated on product certification cards, which include the grower’s identity and the blackcurrant variety.
Further investigation, farther expansion
Vile said: "Blackcurrants are the most researched berry in the world, so there's a lot of scientific literature already available that can help us understand their nutritional value. That's the message we want to get across to the Japanese market."
Indeed, numerous clinical trials have reported on blackcurrants' heart, brain, gut, eye, immune and kidney health benefits, along with their positive impact on athletic performance.
The NZBC plans to contribute to further research by collaborating with universities and research institutes in APAC, with New Zealand's Plant and Food Research Institute its primary partner.
"Over the next six months — in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup — we'll be releasing more information on our research with Plant and Food Research, which will consist of manuscripts and white papers in areas such as human nutrition and cognitive function."
The NZBC also intends to further establish its presence in the Japanese market by building on its existing corporate partnerships in the country, as well as by targeting new partners in the food and nutraceuticals sectors.
Currently, its partners in Japan include Morishita Jintan, Suntory, Asahi Beverages, Kagome, Otsuka Foods, Itoen, and Meiji Seika.
However, the cooperative also has its eye on South East Asia and East Asia.
"We have a modest presence in Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea, where we work with companies on functional product development," said Vile.
"Once we've properly established our model in Japan — which will involve contributions to product development and educating the consumer — we want to apply the same strategy to these other Asian countries.
"Singapore, for instance, is on our radar, since the country's interest in health ingredients is no less strong than in other South East Asian countries."