The Botanical Explorer: We’re on the cusp of a new era with phytonutrients

By Stephen DANIELLS

- Last updated on GMT

Joseph Simcox (left), The Botanical Explorer
Joseph Simcox (left), The Botanical Explorer

Related tags: Natural products, Nutrition

A new science developing around phytonutrients is opening the doors of an entirely new domain, but understanding how to use the information and combining this with ethical cultivation will have to go hand in hand for successful commercialization, says the Botanical Explorer. 

Joseph Simcox has dedicated his life to traveling around the world in search of plants with commercial potential, and is regularly asked to share his knowledge with a broad range of companies, from Naturex and Givaudan to PepsiCo.

Consumer demand for natural products in on the rise, and there are many natural products out there that can be developed for food and nutraceutical applications, but the key is having some practical knowledge of what you’re looking for.

Putting the situation in perspective, Simcox, the Botanical Explorer, told us that there are 300,000 species of plant on our planet, with about 30,000 deemed to be useful for food purposes. Of these, about 7,000 species have been documented in the archives as having been used for food and about 3,000 are used on a happenstance basis in different cultures around the world. Despite such big numbers, between 85 and 95% of the calories consumed in the world come from 12 different plants.

Simcox’s colleague, Irina Stoenescu, an international food plant historian and researcher, adds: “We eat only 12 plants, and we think it’s sufficient to sustain us. We have a need for a greater diversity of foods.

“But the problem is to retrain a company about diversity; it means more time, more research, and more expense. This diversity is a very popular view in academic circles, but it’s difficult to justify from a commercial standpoint.”

Simcox is excited by the, “totally new science that is developing around phytonutrients,”​ and the “broad spectrum of how these affect human life”.

Ethics

But exploring and identifying natural products that can be used as nutraceuticals, or natural flavors, sweeteners, or colors, is only part of the issue. “I emphasize to companies that I would like to see natural cultivation,”​ says Simcox. “I don’t want to see molecules being taken into a lab and synthesized. I want to see plantations established.”

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“Going to these countries and looking for these plants is part of the adventure"

Companies have contacted the pair to seek natural ingredients with the goal to not produce ingredients naturally, but to produce artificial versions of the natural ingredients.

Simcox admits he’s told companies that he will not do this: “I told them I would not bring them indigenous knowledge and put a new natural sweetener on the table, for example, only for them to take that and synthesize it a laboratory. Both Irina and I realized the drawbacks of being such puritans in our post, but I really want to advance ecological agriculture.

“We’ve taken note of how our work can facilitate profits at corporate level and a better life for people who are the suppliers of those raw materials. And it’s something that has to be an ethical position.”

Patenting natural products is another topic that is troublesome ethically for Simcox, but he heralded the decision several years ago by Naturex to donate the patent on maca (Lepidium meyenii​) back to indigenous people (the French company had inherited the patent during one of its many acquisitions).

The next big thing

When asked what plants are on the horizon in terms of offering new ingredients with significant health benefits, Simcox replies, “I would like to see a few things hit the fan.”

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Irina Stoenescu - an international food plant historian and researcher

Among the plants with potential, Simcox notes that yacón leaves are known to have anti-diabetic properties.

“This is a plant that is going to explode in production in the US,” ​he says, and Stoenescu adds that she saw a couple of companies at the Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim with products using yacón leaves.

Cyclanthera pedata​ is another with blood sugar balancing properties. “This can be grown by farmers easily, and even in the US,”​ he says, and Italy is already researching this plant, adds Stoenescu.

“Another extremely interesting area of innovation is with vegetable mucilage,” ​says Simcox. These are polysaccharides that form ochre, for instance, and he has seen extraordinary interest in this secondary material that would normally go to waste. “We’ll see a lot more interest in waste management.”

Simcox adds that, because of our busy lifestyles, he thinks composite drinks – super shakes – are going to be a wave of the future packed with the fiber and phytonutrients.

‘Retrovation’

“Innovation projects to come up with an ingredient that is ‘exotic’ can take years and years, and cost millions of dollars,”​ says Stoenescu. “Of course there are great ingredients that could come from plant X the forests of Malaysia, but I think it’s prohibitive realistically. There is much more value in looking at the archives and looking at plants that have been abandoned.”

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Once such plant is aronia, the native American plant that is being produced more in Eastern Europe. “We think there will be wave of aronia products,”​ says Simcox. “It is understood and touted as a real super fruit.”

“PepsiCo love the idea of delving into our own backyard,”​ he adds. “Improving their health portfolio is a public statement from PepsiCo.”

“All big companies are trying to increase their healthy product portfolio,” ​adds Stoenescu, “and this applies to PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s. We are going to see a massive change and a return to natural products.”

But with all this talk of natural products and super foods, is there a chance that consumers are becoming desensitized by all the hype?

“There is sensationalism in promoting products,” ​says Stoenescu, “with many being promoted as a panacea, but
natural is definitely on the rise. I don’t believe the consumer is saturated.”

Gac

One of the projects taken on by the Botanical Explorer was to establish a plantation of gac fruit, an undertaking that required not only knowledge of the best cultivars, but also historical and anthropological knowledge because of its extensive cultivation range. 

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Gac fruit - Some are so red they look like an internal organ

Gac is an emerging ingredient in the supplements and functional food realm, with several companies launching gac-based ingredients in recent years. The extracts are a rich source of cartenoids—lycopene and beta-carotene in particular, and also offer important lessons when viewed from a cultural perspective.

Traditionally, gac was used in Asia to color rice, but prices for synthetic colors led to a switching out of gac for the less expensive synthetic reds. The result was an increase in vitamin A deficiency, says Simcox.

“By going back to the traditional food, which is rice using gac fruit as a colorant, and not using the artificial color, the vitamin A issue was solved,” ​says Simcox. “There is no need for Golden Rice or other GM solutions.”

Knowing what to look for

With all this knowledge and so many expeditions under his belt, it’s surprising that Simcox has no formal training with plants. “Plants were second nature to me,”​ he says. “The study of them has been an obsession.”

“I’m a generalist and there is no-one out who could have given me the training I have.”

The commercial career started approximately 14 years ago, and some of his first expeditions were in the nursery industry, being sent out to collect desert plants.

Stoenescu adds that she doesn’t provide companies with any material, only information, but her information is privileged because she also provides strategy. “There are a lot of different companies giving food documentation to the industry,”​ says Simcox, “but Irina is different, because she does off-line research. You could find her going through manuscripts from 1680 in archives in Barcelona.”

“There are a lot of natural products out there that can be found with some practical knowledge of what you’re looking for,”​ she says.

The key phrase is, ‘knowing what to look for’: “You can have a book about brain surgery but that doesn’t make you a brain surgeon,”​ adds Simcox.

The Simcox-Stoenescu teams is about bringing novelty to the market, they say, and their fields are complementary – Simcox and Stoenescu work together on many projects, while they also work separately on projects depending on the demands.

“Going to these countries and looking for these plants is part of the adventure,”​ says Simcox. “I’m not a field explorer,”​ notes Stoenescu. “I explore libraries and archives.”

Joseph Simcox 1

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