Australia: A land of food innovators

01 Oct 2019

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Transforming nutrition through technology, research and global connections

Renowned for clean, green and safe food production, Australia provides a strong foundation for developing ground-breaking products and technologies. Strong expertise has been developed through the country’s world-leading research institutions, advantageous positioning in high-growth export markets, and established commercial success with global business partners.

As a thriving global hub for agriculture and food, Australia invests in food innovation to build a sustainable and healthy future for all, with approximately two-thirds of total production exported to other markets.

An appetite for innovation – foods with powerful health benefits

Australia’s export-oriented agriculture industry provides access to a diverse range of globally competitive, high-quality raw materials and commodity ingredients.

Australia is ranked sixth out of 113 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Global Food Security Index, due to excellence in food knowledge. Australia is ranked fourth for the quality and safety of its food.

As a leader in food innovation, organisations in Australia have leveraged new technologies for domestic and industrial transformation of food products with powerful health benefits, adding value to the country’s diverse agricultural base.

An Australian company that has applied technology to Australia’s natural resources is Natural Evolution Foods. It is the first company in the world to commercially produce green banana flour. The flour uses green bananas, which contain the highest level of natural resistant starch of any banana variety in the world. This means the flour is gluten-free, sugar-free and has a number of significant health benefits, including helping improve gut health, preventing diabetes and lowering cholesterol. The company also reduces waste and increases supply chain sustainability by using bananas that previously went unwanted because of size or appearance.

With deep roots in Australia’s agriculture industry, Natural Evolution Foods designed the food processing technology to lock nutrition into fruits and vegetables at up to 20 to 50 times higher than conventional food processing techniques. The technology can also turn any fruit or vegetable into a powder in under 10 minutes through an in-line raw processing stream. This creates products with a minimum two- to three-year natural shelf life, compared to the usual couple of weeks for fresh fruit.

‘We designed this technology because we needed something that is sustainable in terms of the environment, but also economical – to produce powders such as our green banana powder for the future,’ says Krista Watkins, Managing Director of Natural Evolution Foods.

Natural Evolution Foods will be implementing a cooperative grower model to source their bananas from local suppliers in rural and regional areas. Creating centres for production close to the source offers farmers a unique opportunity to gain income from their excess produce. The company also secured a Commercialisation Australia grant to build a proof-of-concept facility and a world-first for nutraceutical banana flour, ensuring a sustainable business model for the company and local growers.

Read a case study about Natural Evolution Foods.

Collaboration leads to success

Australia’s food industry excellence is backed by quality research institutions and universities looking to develop new products that meet modern health and dietary requirements.

Australia’s food industry provides opportunities for collaboration, with a focus on developing novel, differentiated products. This includes support for market testing to ensure products are aligned with current demands.

For example, dietary fibre is an important component of a healthy diet, yet many Australians struggle to meet their daily intake. Australia’s national science research agency, CSIRO, recognised this challenge and teamed up with French company Limagrain Cereales Ingredients and the Grains Research and Development Corporation to develop wheat varieties with higher levels of resistant starch to improve issues like digestive health and combat Type 2 diabetes.

When Limagrain was first deciding where to invest our research, we recognised the amount of biotech innovation taking place in Australia. The country’s foodtech industry has a strong international reputation, and we can attest from our experience there is no compromise in terms of quality and innovation.

Elisabeth Chanliaud, Head of Research, Limagrain Europe

This collaboration resulted in a company called Arista Cereal Technologies, which uses a conventional breeding approach to increase the amylose content of wheat grain from 20 or 30 per cent to an unprecedented 85 per cent.

‘We recognised the importance of partnering with an institution that understands the industry, and how it works. CSIRO is deeply embedded within Australia’s agriculture and food industries and provides us with a clear and long-term platform that delivers excellence in research,’ says Elisabeth Chanliaud, Head of Research, Limegrain Europe.

Arista is partnering with a breeding company to develop high-amylose wheat varieties suitable for different regions. Together, they are working on producing enough seeds for initial commercialisation and grain for product testing in Australia. Through CSIRO’s research, this initiative has increased the level of resistant starch to more than 20 per cent of total starch in the grain, compared to less than one per cent in regular wheat.

Bay State Milling Company, a US-based organisation, was first to take this technology to the market in 2017. Its HealthSense™ high-fibre wheat flour is expected to be incorporated into a number of food products in the US in the coming years.

Green banana flour and high-amylose wheat are two contrasting examples of Australian food innovation providing powerful health benefits to global consumers.

Meeting global demand for better-for-you foods

Australia is also investing in other categories of food products and experiences that align with increasing consumer demand for “better-for-you” foods. As consumers become more health conscious, the food industry is developing new methods to innovate, refine and reinvent their products.

PepsiCo has been working with Australian research organisations for 10 years, drawing on Australian excellence in research and commercialisation. Stefan Baier, formerly lead of PepsiCo’s food oral processing program, partnered with the University of Queensland to develop healthier products without compromising on taste or “mouth-feel”.

‘We have worked with the University of Queensland to achieve nutritional goals by reducing sugar, oil and sodium in products. Our main challenge is achieving this without changing the product characteristics,’ says Baier, now Food Science Lead with Motif Ingredients and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland.

Boston-based Motif Ingredients, a spin-off company from Ginkgo Bioworks, recognised the uniqueness Australian research infrastructure. This is why it is looking to further relationships with Australian-based universities and research institutes to use fundamental science and proprietary insights to identify and manufacture the next generation of ingredients to enable healthy and sustainable foods.

In particular, it selected the University of Queensland for the expertise of its research professors, who offered unique approaches to innovative food solutions. The research generated by the partnership has been shared as insights with product developers now working to integrate these solutions.

Australia’s food-focused research ecosystem generates and derisks investment and partnership opportunities. The country’s strong regulatory bodies and frameworks, coupled with world-leading food safety and quality standards, deliver premium value to investors.

What is unique is the research infrastructure available in Australia. The Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence and linkage programs as unique innovation ecosystems between industry, academia, such as The University of Queensland and research institutes like the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation). Having access to university partnerships and the Australian Research Council has been extremely valuable to our company.

Stefan Baier, Food Science Lead, Motif Ingredients

Competitive global connections

Australia’s proximity to, and familiarity with, Asian markets creates a competitive advantage for companies and investors looking to meet the food demands of a growing and changing population. Australia’s understanding of Asia is strongly influenced by a multicultural community and 60 years of two-way trade relationships.

Cross-regional collaboration between universities and global companies are generating benefits for all partners, including increased opportunities to access resources in alternative markets.

In 2017, China’s biggest food company, the state-owned COFCO Corporation, entered into an agreement with Monash University’s multimillion-dollar Food Innovation Centre and dairy industry partners. Since its establishment, the Monash Food Innovation Centre has assisted over 2,500 food and agribusiness organisations in Australia and Asia, from developing their innovation capabilities to accelerating development.

Monash University is collaborating with COFCO Nutrition and Health Research Institute (NHRI), the research and development arm of COFCO and the first institute in China focused on nutrition and health research. The two organisations are leading the research into membrane technology and manufacture, of which the dairy industry is one of the biggest users. Membranes are being used in the production of probiotics, protein enriched products, and infant formula.

Australia’s food industry excellence is backed by research into new products that meet modern health and dietary requirements. 18-19-186. Published July 2019 ‘Australia is one of the world’s most famous dairy countries and the need for imported dairy products in China is rising very quickly, so the cooperation in dairy innovation and industry research projects between COFCO NHRI and Monash University will be very helpful,’ says Dr Xiaoming Hao, Director of COFCO NHRI.

‘Monash University has a very good relationship with many Australian local food companies, especially in the R&D area, which is why we chose to enter into a partnership,’ he adds.

More broadly, the Monash Food Innovation Centre’s partnership with COFCO NHRI has also supported over 300 Australian businesses to expand their products in the Chinese market. Tapping into COFCO capabilities and experts in Beijing, businesses have been equipped with the insight to better understand the Chinese market and consumer.

‘China is a diverse market, so our partnership plays a key role in helping businesses to introduce a product with due diligence into the market from a regulatory perspective, while ensuring the product claim resonates with the consumer,’ says Angeline Achariya, Chief Operating & Commercial Officer at Monash Food Innovation.

‘Access to consumer research is crucial to developing the insights to redesign businesses’ product claims, and ensuring they are targeted correctly, reaching the right channels, and in China’s case, even the right cities and provinces,’ she adds.

Australia’s cutting-edge facilities and access to world-class researchers and industry practitioners make it a world leader in foodtech innovation. Australia has proven to be a formidable testing ground for foodtech development, helping deliver solutions that respond to consumer and commercial demands across the world.

International food companies looking to build a competitive edge will find Australia an attractive destination to research, develop and test new products and technologies.

Watch a video on why Australia is a compelling destination for agtech and foodtech innovation.