By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant and Food Research


The majority of foods currently produced in Aotearoa for domestic and export consumption derive from plants and animals introduced from overseas. Think apples, berries and many vegetables, dairy cows and sheep. Of course, this isn’t true for seafood. Araara/trevally, terakihi, kahawai and other fish, caught with nets and lines, as well as shellfish like pāua, pipi and toheroa, were an important part of the traditional Māori diet and considered taonga (treasured items).

Recently, there has been a trend to developing foods that use native plant biostreams. The commercial value of mānuka honey, known for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, for example, has been climbing in response to consumer demand for natural, healthy products.

Native species kawakawa and horopito, ingredients for rongoā (traditional Māori medicine), have catalysed a range of food and medicinal products, from flavourings, teas, balms and even chocolate. The plant horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) has spicy-tasting leaves and anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties, and Māori use it to treat skin and digestive issues. Māori also use the native plant kawakawa, known for its anti-inflammatory benefits, to treat a range of ailments as well as for flavouring foods.

The use and commercial development of native plants in foods is developing under the context of the Wai 262 claim to the Treaty of Waitangi. This claim involves entitlement of Māori to tino rangatiratanga (full authority) as kaitiaki (cultural guardians) over their taonga, including native flora and fauna. The claim is still sitting with the government for decision-making, with the initial stages of the work programme underway.

Over time the outcomes of Wai 262 should enable business models that encompass partnership with, and benefit to, Māori, opening up opportunities for new product innovations and industries based on native ingredients. This could include taonga plants traditionally eaten by Māori. Karaka berries (also known as kōnini, tākawa, hōnā and māti) are a great example of a taonga plant that could foster a new industry. The berries, which contain carbohydrates and protein, were highly prized and, while they contain toxins, Māori mastered their removal through soaking in running water for safe eating.


Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant and Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute.  He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.


The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Hot Source, NZ Food Technology or the parent company, Hayley Media.