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A Natural Success Story

Natural New Zealand flavours are tempting Asian and American tastebuds and becoming big business for an innovative west Auckland company both internationally and in New Zealand.

Its success could provide a template for a lucrative niche for New Zealand companies, who are well positioned to make the most of the growing trend to natural, organic and functional foods and beverages.

Phoenix Organics is riding on the crest of the wave of increased interest in organic and natural foods; its certified organic plum and ginger sauce is adding spice to the company’s international expansion into the US, following on the success of its herbal fruit juices in the Hong Kong market.

Its success story owes as much to innovation as it does to being in the right place at the right time. A research project just completed by a young Technology for Industry Fellow is also likely to see Phoenix improve its formulations and expand its technology as well as opening up new job opportunities for the company, which has been manufacturing natural and organic food and beverages for the past 15 years.

Managing director, Chris Morrison, is passionate about natural products, but says it’s a two-edged sword. “We have to be ultra-careful every step of the way to make sure we are using ingredients that meet certification standards, but the process to keep things as natural as possible causes unique problems.”

The company’s Wild Berry Herbal fruit drink was a typical example; natural chemical reactions in the fruit juices were causing loss of colour and sedimentation, leading to a potential loss of sales.

“It was more a matter of consumers not realising that natural products do act this way,” says Chris Morrison. However, we felt it was up to us to investigate how to make it more attractive, while keeping within the parameters of natural and organic.”

John Evans, a food technology student from Massey University’s Albany campus worked with the company on a 12-month project funded by Technology New Zealand through its Technology for Industry Fellowships. His task – to find out what was causing the problem and look at reformulations to resolve it.

“Essentially, we took the product apart, looked at it right from the beginning and found a number of things that Phoenix could do to optimise colour and stability,” says John. “We haven’t completely eliminated it, but there are some very positive outcomes.”

John’s expertise so impressed the company that they have expanded to take him on as a permanent Food Technologist. “We realised there were gaps in our company as we have been growing very fast,” says Chris Morrison. “Up until now we have employed external consultants but the Technology for Industry Fellowship project gave both of us an opportunity to assess each other – and the chemistry was right.”

Tony Hadfield, of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, which administers the Technology for Industry Fellowships, says he is very pleased with the outcome. “We want to see more bright young students getting commercial experience and then hopefully using that expertise to help businesses grow,” he says. “This helps businesses build strong links with universities and research organisations which again contributes to their on-going innovation.”

Mr Hadfield says it is not unusual for Technology for Industry Fellows go on to take up jobs within their project companies.

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