Skip to main content

Blueberry Research, Benefits Bring PHHI Director to New Zealand

Part of being an international plant detective involves traversing the globe to locate and study plants and their potential health-promoting properties. Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) and veteran plant detective, has ongoing research projects in Egypt, Central Asia, Oceania, Mexico, Central America, sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

But one place stands out year after year, according to Lila: “New Zealand is my favorite country.”

An internationally renown blueberry scientist, PHHI director Dr. Mary Ann Lila researches the health-promoting bioactive compounds found in blueberries.

Lila has been visiting the island nation in the southwestern Pacific since 1987, but it was 1999 when she won a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to conduct research and outreach in New Zealand.

“The whole family went with me and fell in love with the place,” said Lila. “I seldom relish the chance to go back to the same place twice, with the exception of New Zealand.”

She travels to New Zealand at least once a year for ongoing research efforts. Most recently, Lila visited Auckland, the country’s largest and most diverse city, and Waiheke Island (an island about 11 miles east of Auckland), from March 24 to April 2, 2013.

Blueberry season was wrapping up in New Zealand, so the time was ripe for Lila to pay a visit and help publicize the health benefits of blueberries. She was hosted by Blueberries New Zealand (BBNZ), the commodity association representing the country’s blueberry industry.

Dubbed “the rock star of blueberry research,” part of her efforts included a blueberry media blitz, including appearances with multiple national news media outlets to share a wealth of health information.

Her trip also included visits to blueberry fields and vineyard research sites as part of an ongoing partnership with Plant and Food Research, a New Zealand research institute.

Lila is passionate about her research on blueberries and other plants and their importance to human health. That’s why she circumnavigates the globe every year – from Alaska to New Zealand – extolling the virtues of a diet rich in produce.

“I, like other faculty from PHHI, act as an evangelist for our ability to maintain good health by proactively capitalizing on the power of fruits and vegetables and their bioactive components,” explained Lila. “Talking about how best to preserve the benefits of produce long-term and keeping them front and center in our daily intake is of critical importance.”

Plants and health aren’t just a career for Lila, she practices what she preaches. “I believe in it.”

Made in New Zealand – A Growing Blueberry Industry

PHHI director Dr. Mary Ann Lila (in forefront) learns about New Zealand blueberry production with Phillip Frost (at rear), owner of Mamaku Blue, a N.Z. blueberry farm.

As in North Carolina, agriculture is big business for New Zealand. The 21st century brought with it a growing appetite for blueberries to New Zealand. The country’s domestic blueberry sales were valued at $1.2 million in 2005 and grew nearly six-fold to $7.1 million in 2011.

New Zealand began cultivating blueberries in the early 1980s, with around 200 small growers spread across different parts of the country. Today, New Zealand grows about 3.8 million pounds of blueberries a year. According to BBNZ, there is around 1,000 acres of blueberries planted or being planted at present.

Research like Lila’s and other plant scientists affirming blueberries’ health benefits have helped increase sales, but despite increased market demand, a prime climate for cultivating blueberries, and a reputation for growing superior quality varieties, New Zealand’s blueberry industry is feeling the effects of increasing globalization and competitive international prices from top berry exporters like Chile.

Still, New Zealand blueberry growers are holding their ground in the domestic fresh market, where buyers are willing and able to pay a premium for fresh, high-end product. And berry exports to Asia and Australia remain strong, creating international business opportunities. New Zealand exported about 1.9 million pounds of blueberries, or roughly half of its crop, in 2011-2012.

“New Zealand is one of the best countries for production of novel and common fruits and vegetables, including blueberries. And their berries are natural and ripe during the dead of our winter, which makes them perfectly poised to entice our markets,” said Lila.

Little Globes of Health

Blueberries are a superfood, and it’s all the more impressive that a one-bite berry packs such a powerful punch of nutrition. Big health benefits in a small berry, that’s the message that Lila took to New Zealand and regularly advocates around the globe.

Unlike some other health-promoting fruits and vegetables, blueberries possess a plethora of phytochemicals (the compounds that convey health benefits to humans when consumed) that work together to fight cancer, cardiovascular disease, age-related diseases and metabolic syndrome, including central obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

“Blueberries are in a class all by themselves, they’re at the top of the heap,” said Lila. “Blueberries have 27 different pigments and tannins (health-beneficial bioactive compounds) compared to just a few of each in other fruits, so they’re major players in the prevention of disease.”

A cup a day is a good routine for health, according to Lila, and it provides remarkable amounts of vitamins A and C, fiber, manganese and phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Writer: Justin Moore