Australia is famous for lamingtons and the beloved meat pie, but researchers want to transform our traditional cuisine to include native bush foods like Illawarra plums, pindan walnuts and wattleseed.
- Experts say the health and nutrition benefits of native foods is understudied
- Scientists are researching the composition of bush tucker
- Only 18 native foods are currently in commercial production
While Indigenous communities have long known the benefits of bush tucker such as bunya nuts, lemon aspen, riberries, desert limes and Cape York lilly pilly, the foods remain largely untapped for Australian’s food industry.
The University of Queensland (UQ) and the Australia Research Council’s Training Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods wants to change that and is working in partnership with Traditional Owners to turn the foods into branded products.
Centre director Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa said the health and nutrition benefits of native foods was understudied.
A range of native foods being studied at the UQ’s Australia Research Council’s Training Centre at Coopers Plains. (ABC News: Rachel Riga)
“Australian native foods have potent bioactive and nutritional properties,” she said.
“If you take the Kakadu plum — it is very high in vitamin C and antioxidants and, if you look at the green plums, the foliate levels are very high.
“Wattleseed has high zinc and iron content and dietary fibres and proteins so if you can incorporate that into your diet then you get a range of those nutrients.”
The centre is a collaboration of local and international experts and scientists, as well as a cohort of PhD students, who will support Indigenous groups get native products to a commercial market.
ARC Training Centre director Yasmina Sultanbawa (centre) says consumers want foods that are healthy. (ABC News: Rachel Riga)
Food scientists will provide research on composition, toxicity and safety, UQ’s law school will assist with intellectual property, marketing and branding, and social scientists will monitor the impact on local communities.
Associate Professor Sultanbawa said the aim was to push the native foods industry forward to meet widespread demand.
“The consumer wants foods that are healthy, they want less processed foods that are wholesome,” she said.
“The need is there, the demand is there, so we just need to get these products out and we are in a good position to take those markets.”
The centre will also look at foods that could be grown anywhere in the world but have unique attributes because they’re grown in Australia.
Nyanda Cultural Tours senior guide Madonna Thomson points out the benefits of pink native lime berry. (ABC News: Rachel Riga)
UQ Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences director Professor Mike Gidley said the provenance of food was also an asset.
“In the wine sector it’s very well established, they call it Terroir, which is to say the wine tastes where it comes from,” he said.
“That can be a good selling point we believe both nationally and internationally … if we could put a ring around it and say this could only have come from Australia — that provides us an extra premium on that product.”
Bush yam carrot pistachio pate on grilled Haloumi squares with Davidson plum dust. (Supplied: Karen Sheldon Catering)
Economic benefit for community
Madonna Thomson is a member of the Jagera People and is a grand-niece of the late Senator Neville Bonner.
Wattleseed is a native bush food that may have significant nutritional value. (ABC News: Rachel Riga )
Ms Thomson is a senior guide for Nyanda Aboriginal Cultural Tours at Nudgee on Brisbane’s northside and said the tours help foster an understanding of Aboriginal culture and history.
“It’s a way to take people back through time to get an idea of how important the site and the area is,” she said.
“It was used by lots of different tribes in South East Queensland and we provide a preview of the type of native plants that we use for medicinal and ceremonial purposes and that we eat.”
The traditional owners of the land are the Yagara people and visitors can learn about sacred sites like the waterholes and Bora Ring, and taste a range of native foods including wombat berry and Davidson plum.
Ms Thomson said working with the university and exchanging knowledge is mutually beneficial.
Associate Professor Sultanbawa said the health and nutrition benefits of native foods is understudied. (ABC News: Rachel Riga)
“We recognise that the science is something that enhances traditional knowledge,” she said.
“It gets us to drill down and understand the chemical composition and benefits of the plants.
“Ultimately the outcome is so that community — where it’s individual family groups, whole of community or regional communities — can actually have some benefit financially and economically from this growing industry in Australia.
“I’m hoping we can get Australians to embrace, so they value us and our contribution so we can have a more cohesive, reconciled Australia.”
Slow process to get foods to market
Australian Native Food and Botanicals deputy chair Russell Glover said the industry is aware of about 6,400 native food and botanicals but only 18 are currently in commercial production.
He said it was a slow process to get native foods to market, despite strong demand.
“The number one [challenge] is getting traditional foods in Australia that have been used for thousands and thousands of years through the food safety process,” he said.
“And then actually getting these plants into a commercial production system that can supply mainstream Australian agricultural produce.”
Mr Glover grows riberries, lemon aspen, lemon myrtle and aniseed myrtle in northern New South Wales.
He said the native foods industry needs to be better supported by other industries and all levels of government.
“We have the health and nutritional benefits and then we have the unique flavours of Australian native, which I know of chefs from France, Germany, England, the United States all rave over,” Mr Glover said.
“Why aren’t we using these more in our actual cuisine? Getting enough to use seems to be the real problem.”
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