Kawakawa innovation: NZ researchers to trial beverage for immunity, metabolic health gains

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

New Zealand researchers are studying the use of the kawakawa plant for immune and metabolic health. ©Getty Images
New Zealand researchers are studying the use of the kawakawa plant for immune and metabolic health. ©Getty Images

Related tags New zealand Immunity metabolic health botanical functional beverage beverage

New Zealand researchers are planning to conduct clinical trials on a kawakawa beverage with immune and metabolic health benefits, before refining the formulation and sell it in the export markets.

Kawakawa (Piper excelsum​) is traditionally used by the indigenous Maori for medical purposes such as pain relief, alleviating eczema, and rheumatism. It is also used as a spice in the everyday cuisine.

Researchers at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland, have been studying the plant for years and their project was recently granted nearly NZ$1.3m (US$949k) by the High-Value Nutrition (HVN) Science Challenge.

The eventual goal is to launch a functional drink by homegrown beverage firm Chia Sisters, while Wakatu Incorporation will export the product to Japan and South East Asia. The kawakawa used in this project is the Aotearoa New Zealand native species.

At the moment, the researchers are now planning two trials to test the optimal dosage amounts and the best suited beverage formats.  

“Kawakawa contains pharmacokinetic metabolites with interesting structures and properties. We suspect it could increase the uptake of nutrients or make nutrients more bioavailable in the body.

“Some of its compounds can affect the way we metabolise glucose and fatty acids,”​ lead researcher of the project, Dr Chris Pook from the Liggins Institute told NutraIngredients-Asia.

The first trial, which will take place later this year, will be a one-day study that looks at the short-term effects of kawakawa on fatty acid and glucose metabolism.

Participants will need to try out kawakawa in varying dosage amounts and dosage formats.

From here, researchers will measure the participants’ energy expenditure, as well as the amount of heat and carbon dioxide the body produces, before deciding the formats and dosages for the second trial.

Running for six weeks, the second trial will track the effects of the kawakawa beverage over time.

As part of the project, the researchers are also finding out ways to maximise their extraction of kawakawa’s bioactives.

Labelled claims

The industry partner involved, Wakatu Incorporation, also intends to make functional claims on the final product.

For instance, when exporting to Japan, it plans to register the product as a Foods with Function Claims (FFC), Miriana Stephens, general manager at Wakatu Incorporation said.

This is also the first time the distributor is working on a functional beverage.

“We export New Zealand food and beverages including seafood, wines, and natural foods to over 40 countries, the functional beverage space is completely new for us and we will work closely with our customer on refining the product,” ​she said.

Ready-to-drink kawakawa beverages already exist in the New Zealand market.

Last year, Atutahi, a local carbonated drink brand containing kawakawa was launched.

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