Episode 3: Sweet and Low
Garth Smith at harvest time in Guilin. Photo by Michael Burgess.
Guilin farmers pick luo han. Photo by Don Anderson.
Country Calendar cameraman Richard Williams in the Guilin countryside.
Broadcast February 27, 2010
Sweet and Low
You can view the episode here
In Guilin in southern China, New Zealand expertise is helping develop a fruit with world-wide market potential.
The luo han guo looks a bit like a kiwifruit, but it has completely different qualities.
New Zealand scientists have found a way to extract a natural fruit sweetener from it that has zero calories, making it an attractive addition to yoghurts, drinks and cereals.
To develop the new product, Hamilton-based BioVittoria Ltd has created an international company drawing on New Zealand, American and Chinese capital and expertise.
The joint venture has built a processing factory in Guilin, where thousands of farmers are now growing the fruit under contract.
The new product, called PureLo, is the result of a long-running friendship between two plant scientists - Dr Garth Smith from New Zealand and Dr Lan Fusheng from China.
The two worked together in New Zealand and Guilin on a number of horticulture projects before focusing their efforts on the luo han - a pulpy fruit known in southern China for its medicinal properties, and traditionally used to make a sweet tea.
Dr Smith developed a method of extracting a product from it that is 300 times sweeter than cane sugar.
But PureLo's biggest selling-point is that it has no calories.
That's because eating it has a different impact on the body from eating sugar. In luo han, the sweetness is tied up in a complex molecule - so it tastes sweet on the tongue, but the human digestive system can't absorb it.
BioVittoria Ltd has already sold the product to international food manufacturers and expects sales to increase now it has completed its new factory. This February it also obtained US Food and Drug Administration approval for the new product - a result that it expects will further boost sales.
Aside from processing the fruit, the joint venture company also grows hundreds of thousands of new luo han vines to supply farmers every year.
The crop has traditionally been grown by Guilin's hill tribes, but BioVittoria is encouraging farmers on the more productive flat-lands to plant larger plots to meet anticipated demand for their new product. Country Calendar filmed the most recent harvest, in the northern autumn.
To fund its expansion, the company tried to raise more capital late last year on the New Zealand Stock Exchange, but it failed to attract sufficient new investors and the float was abandoned. It now plans to seek private equity, mainly overseas.
Dr Smith, who has spent most of the last six years in Guilin, says there's huge potential for more co-operation between the two countries. He says New Zealand expertise is highly regarded in China - but the Chinese are catching up fast, and we need to make the most of our opportunities while they last.