If you were asked which foods Australia is most famous for, there are probably a few key staples that come to mind.
Pavlova, Vegemite and the trusty meat pie are all examples of iconic ‘Aussie’ foods, despite the fact they are actually just local forms of foods found all over the world.
On the other hand, there are many foods found only in Australia that many of us have never even heard of – but thanks to a new UQ-wide initiative, their benefits are starting to be revealed to the world.
The Uniquely Australian Foods initiative, led by Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, is a collaboration between six organisations that is working with Indigenous groups to bring Australian native foods like Kakadu plums, pindan walnuts, wattle seed and sugarbag honey to the culinary world stage.
While Australia’s Indigenous population has long known the health benefits of native bush tucker, these unique Australian ingredients have remained a largely untapped commodity by the mainstream food industry.
“Indigenous plants – nutrient-dense, climate-resilient and biologically unique – have the potential to impact food biodiversity on a global scale."
“Aboriginal peoples in Australia have subsisted on indigenous plants for over 65,000 years,” says Dr Sultanbawa, principal research fellow at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Science (QAAFI).
“Despite hundreds of edible plant species being used for their nutritional and medicinal value, the full potential of these foods remains hidden.
“Indigenous plants – nutrient-dense, climate-resilient and biologically unique – have the potential to impact food biodiversity on a global scale, as well as provide opportunities for economic growth of the Australian agri-food sector.”
Dr Sultanbawa says the project also has the potential to have significant flow-on effects for Indigenous communities.
While traditional Aboriginal diets were rich in fibre, slowly-digested carbohydrates, high-quality protein and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, Dr Sultanbawa says this has been replaced in modern times by refined cereals, added sugars, saturated fats and salt.
“The potential to harness the diversity of crops in Australia’s various regions and have economic, health and social benefits flowing back into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is therefore significant,” she says.
Seasoning meat with bush ingredients can help to preserve the cut, as well as add flavour.
The establishment of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Training Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods builds on Dr Sultanbawa’s existing research around the nutritional wonders of Australian bush foods.
This research uncovered the enormous potential of the Kakadu plum – a small green fruit that contains antimicrobial properties powerful enough to extend the storage life of many foods, including prawns.
Now, the centre’s team of food scientists are investigating the chemical composition, nutritional value, sensory quality and food safety of 13 highly promising native foods, including wattle seeds, bunya nuts, sandhill wattle, saltbush, gulban, jilungin and bush tomatoes, in the hope that they will follow previous success stories like lemon myrtle, finger limes and riberry.
Around 6000 recorded types of native foods exist in Australia, but only 13 are currently certified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
This means there is enormous growth potential for the industry, although Dr Sultanbawa says the key to its viability is mastering both the appeal and quality of products, while also ensuring the social and financial legacy hits the target.
“It is a combination and integration of disciplines that will be key to the centre’s success,” Dr Sultanbawa says.
“The concepts and methods needed to achieve the aims and outcomes require diverse expertise across food science, nutrition, engineering, social sciences and law disciplines.”
This expertise will be provided by seven UQ-based chief investigators drawn from multiple disciplines, including Professor Brad Sherman from the Law School, Professor Janeen Baxter from the Institute of Social Science Research and Professor Jason Stokes from the School of Chemical Engineering.
“The bush is delicate and has so much to offer and so much to give."
The centre is also collaborating with Indigenous leaders such as Bruno Dann and Madonna Thompson to ensure the full potential of the project is realised.
“There’s so much bush tucker out there I’d like to share with everyone,” Dann says.
“The bush is delicate and has so much to offer and so much to give. You can either hold it to yourself or give it and share it.
“There’s an awful lot to do (to complete the project) but it’s really worth it and you get something out of it.”
Thompson says Uniquely Australian Foods makes it possible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to maintain custodial responsibilities to country, while also reaping nutritional benefits.
Furthermore, the project allows for inter-generational transferral of knowledge and customs.
Long-life wholemeal bread using wattle seed and Kakadu plum.
The centre has already seen the fruits of its labour with the development of an all-natural superfood bread that’s currently on the menu at Qantas Club in Darwin.
Featuring native wattle seed and Kadadu plum, one bread roll contains 2.5 times the iron, six times the potassium and nearly five times the zinc of the average white bread equivalent.
The bread was developed in partnership with Indigenous employment provider Karen Sheldon Group and involved Indigenous collaboration in the kitchen, the laboratory and in communities.
Dr Sultanbawa, who was raised in Sri Lanka, says her dream is for the bread to be baked by an Aboriginal owned-and-operated organisation, frozen and sent to remote communities.
“Where there is some complexity is in identifying social factors behind Indigenous participation and developing intellectual property and benefit-sharing agreements,” Dr Sultanbawa says.
“To cross that bridge early, the centre will conduct rigorous groundwork to ensure the long-term support of all partners for growth towards a sustainable business model.”
Professor Sherman and his team are exploring how legal avenues can make the community’s income source as resilient as the food being traded.
“One of the main areas we’re focused on is ensuring the collection and use of the native materials is done in an ethical and sustainable fashion,” he says.
“At the same time, we’ll also be looking at developing a branding and marketing strategy, so trademarks and collective marks are protected.
“This ensures what is uniquely Australian remains under the control of uniquely Australian organisations.”
Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa.
Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa.
While Dr Sultanbawa says there are some barriers to success, including some significant technical hurdles, she sees these as opportunities for the centre.
“It is the same barriers that have prevented others from entering the market, and which Uniquely Australian Foods has the expertise to counter,” she says.
The centre is also firmly focused on the future, training 10 higher degree by research students and three post-doctoral researchers to ensure there is a cohort of skilled researchers to carry the concept forward.
Director of UQ’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences Professor Michael Gidley says he is optimistic about the project’s ability to make a lasting impact on global food security and nutrition.
“We already know these native foods are highly concentrated in those molecules that help them survive in extreme conditions, facing heat, drought and biological pests,” Professor Gidley says.
“Our particular focus will be on the nutritional value of intact plant foods. We understand good nutrition comes from whole plant foods and we’ll be looking to see if we can find key points of difference to non-native foods.
“For good nutrition, humans want a slow and steady drip of nutrients all the time. If we have foods that give us a controlled delivery over a period of time, that’s the best way.
“We’re looking at ways we can say it is impossible to replicate what (Uniquely Australian Foods) can do.
“Australian foods have enjoyed a good reputation in export markets for a good number of years and we want to advance that into the future.”
The story so far:
2007–9: UQ's Dr Yasmina Sultanbawa undertakes preliminary studies for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Queensland on native foods.
2010: The Australian Native Food Industry (now Australian Native Food and Botanicals and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (now AgriFutures) fund UQ research to add value and improve the quality of Australian native plant foods while, at the same time, Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre and Australian Prawn Farmers Association seek to extend the shelf-life of cooked chilled prawns. This research is done in collaboration with Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
2013: The UQ technology transfers to the Australian Aquaculture industry through an Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre grant, in collaboration with Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (Queensland) scientists.
2014–16: On-farm prawn trials and use of Kakadu plum formulation by the Australian Prawn Farmers Association.
2015: With support from the Australian Government’s Department of Industry Innovation and Science’s Innovation Connections Business Entrepreneurs’ Programme, Northern Territory catering company Karen Sheldon Catering begins working with Dr Sultanbawa to trial using Kakadu plum and other native plant products to extend the storage life of pre-prepared frozen meals.
2016: Karen Sheldon Catering begins commercial production of pre-prepared frozen meals by using Kakadu plum and other native plant foods.
2017: Dr Sultanbawa’s research, industry and community collaborators are awarded the 2017 Business and Higher Education Roundtable (BHERT) Award for Outstanding Collaboration in Community Engagement.
2018: The Australian Research Council (ARC) funds a new training centre based at The University of Queensland to work with communities and industry to investigate the uniquely Australian properties of a range of indigenous foods and provenance characteristics of food grown in Australia.
Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa
Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences
Last updated 12 September 2019.
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