21 April 2020

Australia is home to a diverse array of ‘bush foods’ which have nourished Indigenous people for millennia but, with a few exceptions like the macadamia nut, these native Indigenous foods have not made it into our supermarket trollies.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods, based at The University of Queensland (UQ), aims to transform Australia’s bush foods industry, by bringing a new variety of Australian-grown foods to our tables. The Training Centre is leading the way to change how Australians—and people around the world—think about Australia’s cuisine and food products.

Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, Director of the Training Centre, says its multidisciplinary research team is working with Indigenous communities across Australia, together with food industry entrepreneurs, to create a new agri-food sector.

“We are working together with communities and industry to develop branded products using native Indigenous foods,” Associate Professor Sultanbawa says. 

“We are also looking into the sensory characteristics of foods grown in Australia that may not be native foods, but have a distinctively Australian flavour and provenance.”

The ARC’s Industrial Transformation Training Centres are designed to foster close partnerships between university-based researchers and other research end-users. As part of the ARC’s Linkage Program, Training Centres also provide innovative Higher Degree by Research (HDR) and postdoctoral training in an industry-focussed setting.

Funded with $3.5 million from the ARC over five years, the Uniquely Australian Foods team have formed partnerships with industries growing and selling native Indigenous foods. The focus of the translational research program is on seven promising native plant groups, including native seaweeds, native honeys, and little known native fruits such as the green plum, or ‘wild mango’ (Buchanania obovata),  which belongs to the pistachio family.

“The green plum could end up as popular as table grapes one day,” Associate Professor Sultanbawa says.

Growing naturally in East Arnhem land, the green plum ripens after the first rains of the wet season, and has been eaten by Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years. The research team has already tested the fruit with city people on testing panels, with positive results.

“It’s probably one of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted,” says Associate Professor Sultanbawa’s PhD student Selina Fyfe. “It’s very sweet—a bit like stewed fruit”.

Selina Fyfe has been studying the nutritional profile of the plum and has found it is high in protein, dietary fibre, potassium and is a good source of magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. It also has one of the highest known levels of folate—an important B-group vitamin that helps cells and tissues to grow—of any fruit on the commercial market. Being in a natural form, the folate in the plum can be absorbed more easily by the body than it can from a capsule.

The Training Centre team at the Training Centre includes legal experts and social scientists, as well as the chemical engineers who will undertake the sensory, nutritional and toxicological studies that underlie the successful development of native food products. 

The research team also facilitates the Indigenous participation that underpins their sustainable business model, and ensures Indigenous ownership and control in product development. An Indigenous governance group has been brought together to oversee the process of converting traditional knowledge into branded products.

Five Australian organisations have partnered with the Training Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods, committing significant additional support towards the goal of developing a distinctively Australian cuisine. They are: Australian Native Food and Botanicals; The Trustee for Kindred Spirits Foundation; Karen Sheldon Catering; Beeinventive Pty Ltd; and Venus Shell Systems Pty Ltd.

With an eye on high value food ingredients and premium food products with significant export opportunities, these partners are also investing in capacity building—training the next generation of food researchers—and in establishing good governance to ensure a sustainable industry for Australian native foods.

Images: 

Top: Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa with green plum in East Arnhem Land © UQ

Bottom: Drone image of green plum tree near Gulkana nursery in East Arnhem Land © UQ