Why chemistry is good for your health

25 September 2012


Super tuber: Dr Robert Welch of New Zealand Yacon Ltd, Associate Professor Merilyn Manley-Harris and TechNZ researcher Maria Revell with yacon in its raw state.

Research by a University of Waikato postgraduate student is behind a new health drink being launched in the health-conscious Asian markets by a Hamilton-based company.

Developed by New Zealand Yacon Ltd (formerly NZ Biotechnologies), the prebiotic drink is a mix of blackcurrant juice and syrup made from yacon, a tuber originating from South America that has proven digestive health properties.

A year of research

Waikato student Maria Revell spent a year working with New Zealand Yacon analysing the particular sugar that gives the tuber its prebiotic properties as part of her Masters degree in chemistry.

Her work was funded by a $20,000 TechNZ government scholarship designed to boost R&D capability in businesses.

“The sugar found in yacon is called a fructooligosaccharide or FOS sugar,” explains Revell. “It’s a natural prebiotic, and even diabetics can have it as only a tiny proportion is actually digested by the body -- the rest stays in the gut and is metabolised by the ‘good’ bacteria there.”

FOS sugars aren’t particularly sweet to taste, and Revell’s main task was to see what happened when yacon syrup was combined with blackcurrant juice under different storage conditions.

Hard work becomes worth it

“It was a lot of work,” she says. “My findings are commercially sensitive, but we can say that blackcurrant juice and yacon syrup together provide a health benefit that they don’t separately.”

Her research earned her first-class honours for her Masters, and has led to a whole new product for New Zealand Yacon.

The company’s director Robert Welch says they’re now working on packaging and marketing serving-sized portions of the new health drink, and will initially target the Korean and Japanese markets where yacon is very popular.

“Yacon is one product where if you have a gut problem you feel a benefit,” he says. “Maria’s work has been hugely helpful in identifying the best mixes and how to store them so they retain maximum biological activity.

Dr Welch says New Zealand Yacon has worked closely with University of Waikato scientists and students for some years now.

“The TechNZ scholarships are invaluable for start-ups like us. We’ve repositioned the whole company thanks to R&D work by Waikato research students like Maria. When we started, we were just supplying yacon juice; now we’re moving into supplying complete products.”

Prebiotic or probiotic?

A prebiotic nourishes the “good” bacteria – or probiotics -- in your gut that can help protect against infections caused by “bad” bacteria such as salmonella and e.coli.

Therapy’s loss, chemistry’s gain

Maria Revell can thank a bout of glandular fever for setting her on the chemistry path.

“I began training in radiation therapy, but had to take a break for two years when I got sick. I went back to the training, but then I had my first child and decided this wasn’t the kind of work you could do with children.”

She returned home to her family in the Waikato, and signed up for a biology paper at the University. “Then I went to a lecture by Associate Professor Merilyn Manley-Harris and I knew that organic chemistry was for me. The way she teaches, you want to learn. I’d get 98% in my tests – and I’d never been able to do that before.”

With a Masters now under her belt, Revell is embarking on a PhD, partly under Dr Manley-Harris’s supervision, focusing on manuka honey.

“I’ll be looking at what lies behind the different levels of DHA – the precursor responsible for bioactivity --  in the honey, so I’ll be analysing mānuka trees and nectar to identify any factors that can explain the variation.”

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